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Pimp my Safeway: Redevelopment potential for the Capitol Hill Safeway

This past spring, Georgetown's "Social Safeway" closed so that it can be torn down and rebuilt. The new Safeway will be a two-story building with street-facing stores along the sidewalk, the grocery store on the second floor, and parking behind. Farther up Wisconsin, a Giant supermarket is also pursuing a new urban design that will "replace bland, single-story buildings and large surface parking lots along Wisconsin Ave and Idaho Ave with an appropriately scaled mixed-use project that will engage the street with many individual stores and residences." These are good plans and we need to urbanize more suburban-style grocery stores in the District. The next such site should be the "UnSafeway" at 415 14th St, SE.

The National Capital Brewery Building in 1917.

This Capitol Hill Safeway's site has a colorful history. In the late 19th century it was the site of a brewery that in 1891 became Albert Carry's National Capital Brewery.

The main brewing building was 135 ft. tall, not including the flag towers, 94 feet wide and 137 ft. deep. A substantial stables and a huge icehouse operation flanked the building. On opening the brewery had nine large wagons pulled by 30 "Percheron" horses. The ice house was powered by two, 80 horsepower, steam engines and could produce 50 tons of ice running at maximum. The brewery's output capacity was a staggering 100,000 barrels annually. Since a barrel contained about 30 gallons, the brewery produced and sold more than 24 million pints of beer in its heyday."
It operated for more than 20 years (serving as the site of a notorious murder mystery in 1912). After Prohibition, like many other breweries, it was converted to an ice cream factorythe Carry Ice Cream Company. It was a complete success. Meadow Gold bought the company in 1918, becoming one of the first companies to sell the Dixie Cup.

At some point (various sources disagree) it became a Sanitary Grocery, and later became a Safeway. The Brewery was knocked down, and a one level grocery store opened its place. The grocery's entrance is set far back behind a parking lot, and a long blank wall faces D Street.

Image from Google Street View. Click for interactive version.

But the Safeway Company has an opportunity to capitalize on this underdeveloped site. They could move the grocery store entrance to the sidewalk along 14th Street, and turn the store 90 degrees so the narrower edge faces 14th. The store would back onto Guellet Court, across the street from a parking lot.

This would free up space along D and 13th 14th for retail, including the retail already inside the store. Currently, in addition to a grocery store, the Safeway houses a pharmacy, a Starbucks, a liquor store and a bank. All of these could moved outside the store and onto D Street, wrapping around the corner onto 13th 14th along with other neighborhood appropriate retail. Starbucks, or other such retail, could spill out onto the wide sidewalks.

Left: Potomac Avenue Metro neighborhood. Safeway in the upper left.
Right: Possible Safeway plan. Images from Google Maps. Click on an image to enlarge.

Below the grocery store could be a parking garage, accessible from Guellet Court, and large enough to meet the needs of residents and shoppers, with Zipcar and bike parking of course. The site is close to the Potomac Avenue Metro and major bus lines, and located in a walkable and bikeable neighborhood. Therefore, many shoppers won't need to drive to the store.

Two to four floors of housing could sit atop the store. The historic row houses along E Street in the southeast corner of the block, could form the end of a new, longer row stretching to just east of Guellet Court, leaving space for a loading dock.

Safeway would stand to make a fortune. In addition to monetizing the largest commercial parking lot on the Hill, Safeway would add to its customer base. Perhaps the new development would even include a Capital City Brewery Company and a small ice cream shop—for old time's sake.

David Cranor is an operations engineer. A former Peace Corps Volunteer and former Texan (where he wrote for the Daily Texan), he's lived in the DC area since 1997. David is a cycling advocate who serves on the Bicycle Advisory Council for DC.  


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Good idea. But we know the neighbors would be up in arms over any densification of the area, despite the fact that it's two blocks from metro. It is also expensive to put parking underground, so there would have to be a certain amount of housing units/retail to make up for the cost involved in excavating for underground parking.

The first priority for Safeway should be redeveloping the Petworth store. It is a disgrace. It's in awful shape and is actually on a main corridor (GA Ave) that can support some density above it without much opposition. I think they're slapping some lipstick on the pig that is the Columbia Rd. store in Adams Morgan... doubt it will make the store any more desirable because it is too small. They missed an opportunity by refusing to pay to move into the adjacent storefronts of what is now going to be a CVS.

by SG on Jun 30, 2009 12:49 pm • linkreport

I agree with SG. The store near Petworth metro has long been first in my mind as the "real" Unsafeway.

by Daniel M. Laenker on Jun 30, 2009 12:54 pm • linkreport

The Capitol Hill Safeway site has the potential to be a lot more like the Jenkins Row/ Harris Teeter development a block down the street, but that would be a long term prospect at best. Safeway invested a lot of money in rehabilitating the Capitol Hill store a few years ago, so any redevelopment money is going to be going to other locations for Petworth...or that disgrace of a store in the Watergate...

by merarch on Jun 30, 2009 1:31 pm • linkreport

Good stuff. Is D street a better candidate for a shopping street than 14th?

by цarьchitect on Jun 30, 2009 1:38 pm • linkreport

are there any good examples of major urban supermarkets in the DC area that exhibit good urban design and/or dont have surface parking? i am not from the DC area. i recall visiting an urban supermarket at watergate i think it was a safeway.

by jon on Jun 30, 2009 2:51 pm • linkreport

Zoning for the property is C-2-A. For an example of what you might get as matter-of-right development outside the historic district, see the Lincoln Park Terrace at 401 13th St NE:

This was also a C-2-A property surrounded by blocks of historic era rowhouses with R-4 zoning. In my opinion, this building is a bit imposing, kind of like a cruise ship that docked in the middle of the neighborhood. At the time, residential development was the way to go to maximize return, so the developers left out ground floor retail which could have replaced the liquor/convenience stores that were previously there.

I'm not advocating one way or the other, but thought a recent example might be useful.

by CR on Jun 30, 2009 3:19 pm • linkreport

Amazing what Folks can design on other people's property especially when they don't own it!
Leave this Safeway alone, I enjoy shopping there as it is and like it better than nearby HT. I seriously doubt the neighborhood could support any smaller retail at that location, nearby 15th & D is dead Commercial space. Also Jenkins Row has plenty of open street level retail space that's unused and readily available for rent, plus there's plenty of unsold condos on top of it all. Georgetown is a safer bet for Safeway to redevelop. let it happen over there and elsewhere within DC before changing Safeway @ 14th & D St SE.

by JoeJoe on Jun 30, 2009 3:22 pm • linkreport

jon -- at least a couple of safeways are without parking (although watergate I believe has underground parking for the building).

The remodeled safeway in Georgetown (social safeway) will have surface parking in the back as well as underground (or at least covered) parking and will have "good urban design" in that it will have a street-front stores.

by ah on Jun 30, 2009 3:26 pm • linkreport

@tsarchitect, 14th might be better, but I chose D because it was longer. People smarter than me could figure out which is best.

I'm at least one neighbor who wouldn't be up in arms about it (and at least a few others would prefer it too), but you only need a few to be angry I suppose.

by David C on Jun 30, 2009 3:27 pm • linkreport

Count this neighborhood resident 100% in favor!!! I live 3 blocks away and hate (really, really hate) that one story building, that stupid surface parking lot and the ugly blank side walls of the Safeway that face the 1300 blocks of D & E Streets. A one story Safeway with a vast surface parking lot is a terrible use of of urban land one block from a subway station.

I disagree with the previous commenter about keeping the status quo and that small retail would not succeed at that location. On the first point, I am not sure what he/she particularly loves about that Safeway. It's an OK grocery store; nothing more, nothing less. I don't see why we couldn't have an OK grocery store with some other retail and some housing and without a surface parking lot. On the second point, with people living right upstairs, you would have the density needed to support small retail establishments. Plus, if you read the post carefully, it proposes that the existing retail (Starbucks, liquor store, pharmancy)currently housed inside the Safeway move to sidewalk facing locations on D Street. Presumably, those businesses are ALREADY suceeding in that location. How would the addition of new customers upstairs cause them to fail?

Too many people in my neighborhood fear any and all change, no matter what the proposal. I am pretty certain that most of those who would be opposed to this idea do not often walk to or past the Safeway. The desolate 1300 block of E and D Streets, where the blank side walls of the Safeway create a forlorn, even menacing, atmosphere, especially after dark, are among the grimmest pedestrian environment in my neighborhood. Unfortunately, too many of my neighbors drive everywhere despite living in a walkable neighborhood served by two subway stations and numerous bus lines.

As for the Harris Tetter building, it has one empty storefront and three or four occupied ones and enventually the one on the corner of PA and Potomac will be accupied as well. I suppose a lot of my NIMBY neighbors long for the good old days when the site of the Harris Teeter was an ugly surface parking lot surrounded by a chain link fence. It was really great for suburban commuters and drug dealers but not so great for car-free households who want amenities nearby and really not great for creation of a vibrant urban neighborhood.

by rg on Jun 30, 2009 4:30 pm • linkreport

are there any good examples of major urban supermarkets in the DC area that exhibit good urban design and/or dont have surface parking? i am not from the DC area. i recall visiting an urban supermarket at watergate i think it was a safeway.

No surface parking at the "senior safeway" in the Watergate, but the Watergate as a whole is a monstrosity. I think the "secret safeway" northeast of dupont doesn't have any parking at all, but it's not much of a grocery store. The CityVista Safeway is part of a well-designed urbanist complex (admittedly I'm biased since I live there). The Whole Foods on P Street disappoints insofar as there's no housing above the store, but it's part of a very nice urban neighborhood. And the Giant in Columbia Heights is solid, IMHO.

by Matthew Yglesias on Jun 30, 2009 5:12 pm • linkreport

The City Vista is definitely the best-designed grocery store in DC, since it's hidden away. The kind of big box you need for a grocery store can't be urbanized in any other way besides hiding it, or at least removing it from street level.

by цarьchitect on Jun 30, 2009 5:20 pm • linkreport

The Capitol Hill Harris Teeter is nice too.

by David C on Jun 30, 2009 5:41 pm • linkreport

Calling it "UnSafeway" is an unwarranted slam against the neighborhood I live in. It's not perfect but it's not unsafe.

That said, the 1300 block of D is a little desolate, with Safeway's long blank wall and the "school" next door (not Watkins. I mean the school on the left of "Guellet Court" in your diagram.) The bigger obstacle to redevelopment is that maybe Safeway doesn't belong on that block at all. It's just not a commercial area, despite the zoning. The 1300 block of Pennsylvania has a huge gap where demolition by neglect has stymied the revitalization of what could be a commercial corridor from Barney Circle to the Capitol. Maybe that's where a new-style Safeway should be, and turn the current site over to residential (with a corner store or two.)

Incidentally, my AC guy told me that when he was an apprentice he was working on installing the HVAC at that Safeway when he heard about the Kennedy assassination. So if he's right, we can date the building to about 1963. And as others have pointed out, Safeway just put a bunch of cash into a renovation of the store. It's actually quite nice, even if the building does feel out of place in the neighborhood.

by David on Jun 30, 2009 7:22 pm • linkreport

The UnSafeway name goes back to the mid-90's when the neighborhood was unsafe and when all the nicknames started taking off. It is an unfair name. I've also heard it called the "Anti-social safeway".

The renovation is a sunk cost, but I hear what you're saying. I'd love to know when, definitively the brewery was knocked down - it was pretty cool looking based on the drawings - and when the current building was built.

by David C on Jun 30, 2009 7:37 pm • linkreport

I'm also not sure if a grocery store belongs there anymore. Given that there's a brand new Harris Teeter a block to the south, I don't know that the Safeway will be around in the long term. I live in the area and never go there anymore. The few times I have, it's been far less busy since the Teeter opened up.

That said, the site itself seems to have a grocery store because it was an available big box site after the brewery was torn down. There's not a whole lot of reason to have retail there otherwise - most of the neighborhood retail fronts along Pennsylvania. You've now got two grocery stores in very close proximity to one another. If you could just play god, I'd rather be able to develop a new Safeway on the NE side of the Hill.

by Alex B. on Jun 30, 2009 8:23 pm • linkreport

Let's have our Safeways look like this one in San Francisco:

Now that's swank shopping!

by Wayan on Jun 30, 2009 8:47 pm • linkreport

Interesting: just the other day I was strolling along the 20-foot-wide sidewalk on D thinking it was a shame it wasn't 30 feet wide, since then whoever owns the land could infill some (probably commercial) development along there. I've always felt glad that that half-block of '60s strip mall is two blocks away from me: close enough to be convenient, far enough that I don't have to actually look at it.

Your proposal is a little confusing: you keep mentioning 13th Street; do you mean 14th Street? Or Guetlet Court, the alley behind the current Safeway? The western half of the block is occupied by the International Graduate University, plus the Peter Bug building and park. The western border of that stuff is 13th Street, which has some weird through-traffic restriction if I remember correctly.

You say that the pharmacy, the Starbucks, the liquor store, and the bank "could moved outside the store and onto D Street". Yes, if Safeway wanted to lose money. There's a reason those things are inside the main store.

"Safeway would stand to make a fortune." I doubt it. Supermarket margins are pretty thin already and they'll be making no money while the demolition and construction are going on (you need to make a huge hole in the ground to build the parking garage). To make matters worse, the new-ish Harris Teeter is a couple blocks away, and a lot of the customers lost to it wouldn't come back after the Grand Re-Opening. If Safeway thought there was money to be made off the land, they'd sell it (or transfer their lease if they don't own it), and let someone else take the risks of developing it.

by George on Jun 30, 2009 9:35 pm • linkreport

Yes, I meant 14th, not 13th.

by David C on Jun 30, 2009 10:11 pm • linkreport

I am another local neighbor that would love to see something like this, but doubt it will happen since safeway did major upgrades to this location in the last five years. (and to be fair, it was a really, really big improvement). I'm all for better utilization of the space though and would love to have a separate starbucks that had some lounging space or a local diner of some sort. One of my pet peeves about my current location (further east than safeway) is that I can't walk to a coffee shop or get a bagel and read). I feel like I have to bike all the way to eastern market to find a community type space for that. Anyhow- my read is that it's unlikely to happen, especially in this economy, BUT there has been a lot of redevelopment in this neighborhood (along 16th, 18th,ect) that could probably support it financially.

by Hilleaster on Jul 1, 2009 9:16 am • linkreport

We need more bier gartens in DC like we once had. NCB had it's own bier garten. Im all in favor of redesigning this underutilized parcel of land for more density. RG is absolutely correct in his comments above. The NIMBY crowd that is all about cars and parking will try to stop any kind of added density despite what it brings- eyes on the street, more tax money, more prosperity, less crime, more retail options- especially since the NIMBYs have allowed the old mom & pop stores that once populated the area to be converted into homes- forcing everyone to drive out to NoVa for their basics. We really need to bring retail back into the city- and I for one would love to see some kind of architectural homage paid to the lovely NC Brewery building if anything is done to this monster of $hitty and apathetic design. The new neighbors and proseperity of the city will no doubt support a new development here. What some of the commentors above do not understand is that at one time, this neighborhood had at least 3 other major supermarkets within a 10 block radius that have since been taken down- An A&P, and two other Safeways.
We could most definitely use a better Safeway and more housing options and a cool bier garten to remind everyone of the real history of DC.

BTW- some of us call this the "Death way" as back in the 90's there was a triple homicide / robbery here. The neighborhood has improved drastically since then, no matter what all of the transients say about it.

by w on Jul 1, 2009 11:50 am • linkreport

w -there's a biergarten coming soon on 11th St NW and Lamont(?). Belgian style. There used to be a grocery store there.

by Bianchi on Jul 1, 2009 12:00 pm • linkreport

Belgian beer, whatever it's popularity and trendienss, is nowhere near as well made as good old German bier, IMO .

However, it is certainly a good thing to have another beer garden in this city- which has , for far too long, turned it's back on it's true cultural roots. Over 10% of the population of DC in 1900 was German speaking as a first language . This did not include the native born German population like my family- who spoke it in the home but were assimilated.

And one more beer garden is not enough...we need more of them !!! Belgian & German !!!!!Bring 'em on !!!!

by w on Jul 1, 2009 12:09 pm • linkreport

As far as grocery stores we'd like to have in Capitol Hill: I'd heard time and again that Wegmans was going to be coming to the former DC General area. Is this going to be happening or not?

by Daniel M. Laenker on Jul 1, 2009 1:29 pm • linkreport

No, but one is opening in Landover next year.

by David C on Jul 1, 2009 1:37 pm • linkreport

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