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Retail


These storefront maps show which parts of US cities are most lively

These maps show nearly every retail storefront in central DC compared to those in New York, Detroit, and other cities. Since retail streets are usually the most lively streets in a city, the maps offer a nice proxy illustration of urban vitality.


Storefronts in DC, New York, and Detroit. Image by City Observatory.

These maps are from City Observatory's Storefront Index report, and are part of a series of 51 such maps of the largest US metro areas.

In general, the more red dots you see in a small area, the more lively that part of town will be. More stores, after all, mean more destinations for people to visit.

Here's the DC map in greater detail:


Image by City Observatory.

You can easily see retail streets like U Street and H Street, and bigger clusters like Georgetown and Dupont Circle. On the other hand, primarily residential neighborhoods are mostly blank.

Unfortunately the data clearly isn't perfect: The retail complex in Columbia Heights seems to be missing, as are the giant gift shops in the Smithsonian museums, and some neighborhood corner stores.

Still, the maps are an instructive illustration of urban vitality in general. You can see patterns here, and those patterns are real.

Zooming out to the regional scale, downtown areas outside the District like Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Alexandria become prominent.


Bethesda and Silver Spring are the clusters at the top. Alexandria is at the bottom. Image by City Observatory.

Compared to other US cities, DC looks decently lively. The country's dense, transit-oriented cities like San Franicsco and Boston fare well (New York is a crazy outlier), while economically disadvantaged cities like Detroit and sparser more suburban-style ones like Raleigh show fewer stores, indicating less urban liveliness.

Of course, retail storefronts are a simplistic way to look at this. New York's streets have a lot of stores because New York is tremendously dense, so there are lots of customers to support them. On the other hand Tysons Corner has a lot of stores because it's a big suburban mall that people drive to from miles around.

Even suburban malls offer a sort of liveliness, however. So while these maps may say little about walkability, they are a good proxy for liveliness.

Retail


Walkability's next hurdle in Van Ness: A Chick-fil-A drive-thru

Chick-fil-A has plans to put a drive-thru store on Connecticut Avenue in Van Ness. But neighbors are saying the site's business plan doesn't mesh with the neighborhood's aspirations to be more walkable.


Rendering of the Chick-fil-A proposal. Except where noted, all images from DDOT public space permit application.

Chick-fil-A plans to take over the property at 4422 Connecticut Avenue NW, just north of the UDC campus and Van Ness Metro station.

Today, the space is occupied by a Burger King, which also operates a lightly-used drive-thru. The site is sandwiched between a dry cleaners and a heavily-trafficked car wash that already caters to Maryland commuters, causing traffic backups on Connecticut Avenue spilling over to nearby Albemarle Street.

Plans for the Chick-fil-A site include a new sidewalk cafe enclosed by a low retaining wall where today there is unappealing empty pavement, new landscaping and signage, and a renovation of the existing driveway.


Rendering showing the proposed sidewalk seating.


Today's existing conditions.

Neighbors are up in arms over the Chick-fil-A proposal. They see a popular driver-oriented fast food restaurant as decided step backward for the neighborhood. Van Ness has made significant progress toward being a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.

In the past few years, neighbors have established Van Ness Main Streets to fight for better walkability, a suburban-style parking-in-front shopping center has redeveloped across the street from the Burger King, and UDC built a new student union that bring will bring to life dead pedestrian plaza once the landscaping is ready.

Increased traffic volume is the problem, for people and cars alike

At the heart of the concern are Chick-fil-A estimates that the drive-thru will see three times as much traffic as Burger King does today. That's more than 90 vehicles per hour during its projected busiest period, Saturdays at midday.

Most of those 90-plus vehicles will be crossing the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk twice (entering and exiting the drive-thru). If Chick-fil-A can keep the line moving, that means a vehicle will be traversing the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk roughly three times per minute, roughly tripling the odds of pedestrian/motorist conflict.

If Chick-fil-A doesn't keep the line moving, it could see traffic backups similar to, or compounding, the ones that are already happening today at the car wash.


On sunny weekends, the line for Flagship Car Wash wraps around the block. (Left: The line at Connecticut Avenue; Right: The line continuing on Albemarle.) Photo from Forest Hills Connection.

In response to the expected traffic increases, Chick-fil-A presented a detailed traffic study and plan to ANC3F at its February 23 meeting. To keep traffic from backing up onto Connecticut Avenue at the busiest times, it would send out employees armed with tablet computers to take orders, collect payments and deliver food to waiting motorists.

In a perfect world, the plan might work. But new Chick-fil-A stores have caused significant traffic chaos in other communities. Bellevue, Washington, had to change traffic patterns and hire police to handle all the business that a new Chick-fil-A attracted.

And while Chick-fil-A presented this plan for dealing with auto traffic, so far, it hasn't addressed concerns about conflicts with pedestrian traffic.

Chick-fil-A's drive-thru plan depends on moving cars into and out of the drive-thru quickly. The chain's drive-thru in suburbs and exurbs rarely have to deal with pedestrians, if at all. But here, drivers will have to wait to turn into the drive-thru and wait again upon exiting for an opening not only in car traffic but in pedestrian traffic.

DDOT will weigh in on the issue

As is standard process for many projects across the District, to move forward with its plans, Chick-fil-A has applied to the DDOT public space committee for two use-of-public-space permits. One permit covers the elements making up the sidewalk cafe seating. The other permit covers the plans to close, renovate, and reopen the driveway. The committee is currently scheduled to hear the application on March 24.


Inset of driveway plan from public space permit application.

Residents have started a petition against Chick-fil-A's plans, and ANC3F has voted unanimously to oppose Chick-fil-A's application for the driveway. 3F's resolution calls on DDOT's Public Space Committee to reject Chick-fil-A's application, as "A busy drive-thru in the neighborhood now would represent a major step backward."

DDOT's design standards on minimum distances between driveways represent what may be the strongest argument for the ANC and other voices in the community to advocate against the drive-thru.

The DDOT public space committee could deny the driveway permit thanks to it not meeting the minimum distance requirement. But they could also choose to approve the permit. Ultimately in situations like this one, the committee is the final decision-making body, and has discretion to weigh whatever arguments for and against the permit however it likes.

A version of this post first ran on Forest Hills Connection.

Development


Housing atop Georgetown's Safeway would have strengthened the neighborhood

Retail is struggling in upper Georgetown, and a big reason is because not all that many people live there. Safeway could have added housing when it redesigned its Wisconsin Avenue store, but says it didn't because doing so would have delayed building. That was a lost opportunity.


The Wisconsin Avenue Safeway. Image from Google Maps.

Affectionately called the "Social Safeway" for its fame as a place for singles to meet, the Georgetown Safeway got a full makeover in 2010. The old version was a traditional grocery store with a big parking lot in the front, but the new one fronts the sidewalk and fills in the street. The company also added a strip of retail spaces below and adjacent to the grocery store.

The Safeway itself was obviously done well, as most people who used the old Social Safeway probably continue to use the new one. There are more grocery options across the city than there were 10 years ago, but for western Ward 2 and lower Ward 3, the Georgetown Safeway is still a solid option.

But the retail market around the Safeway has struggled. Noodles and Co. at Wisconsin and S closed after only a couple years, and the Roosters barbershop, tucked away in a poor location off Wisconsin, barely lasted a year. The northernmost street level space under the Safeway briefly had a Verizon store before it sat vacant for years. Other spaces in the older buildings between the Safeway and R Street have also been vacant for years.


Photo by the author.

If more people lived in upper Georgetown, more people would shop there

More residents in the immediate proximity would be a boon to businesses along this stretch of Wisconsin, including those in the Safeway properties (that's the grocery store building itself, plus all the buildings down to the Jos. A Bank just north of S).

Residential could have been part of the grocery store's development, but some zoning relief would have been necessary. The southern building (i.e. the old Noodles and the Jos. A Bank) is zoned C-2-A. That allows commercial and residential up to 50 feet tall, far more than the single story Safeway went with. The lot occupancy allowance, however, would have presented a problem: When you build commercial in C-2-A, you can use 100% of the lot (which the buildings now use), but you can only use 60% when you build residential.

The other buildings are zoned C-1. This doesn't allow residential at all except for group homes. It also only allows three story buildings.

Could Safeway have overcome these relatively minor difficulties? Probably. I asked Craig Muckle, a Safeway representative, whether the company considered building residential. He replied that generally Safeway doesn't reveal their internal considerations but that in this particular case a desire to rebuild the grocery store in "as short a time as possible" was a driving concern. He didn't mention it, but the saga of the Cathedral Commons redevelopment by Giant up Wisconsin Avenue probably weighed in on the decision.


Cathedral Commons. Image from Google Maps.

It's not the case the Safeway simply doesn't do residential development. The company proposed developing its Palisades location into a mixed-use project. Faced with community opposition, though, it dropped it and promptly put the property up for sale (although it doesn't appear to have found a buyer).

Safeway also redesigned its Petworth store, adding residential space to that property. It was even done by the same architect as the Social Safeway.


The Petworth Safeway has lots of housing on top. Image from Google Maps.

Whatever reason they had for not adding a residential component in Georgetown, Safeway missed an opportunity to bring a lot more economic stability to this forlorn section of Wisconsin Avenue.

Retail


Rosslyn's new mini Target fills an urban retail niche

A miniature Target is now open in Rosslyn, occupying the ground floor of an office tower. At less than a sixth the size of a typical suburban Target, it shows how retailers are adapting to America's increasingly urban reality.


Inside Rosslyn's Target. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

The store had a soft opening last week, and an official opening Sunday. At 23,000 square feet, it's about the size of a large Trader Joe's, or a small Safeway. It's minuscule compared to normal Target stores, which often top 150,000 square feet.

And yet, it's got a little of everything, just like a normal Target.


Inside Rosslyn's Target. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

A few years ago, when I lived in a Ballston high rise, I'd have killed to have a Target on the Orange Line. The only department stores I had easy access to were the Macy's in Ballston and downtown DC. And, for a recent college grad spending way too much on housing, Macy's wasn't in my budget for housewares.

Now urban department stores are sprouting everywhere.


Rosslyn's Target, from Wilson Boulevard. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

This is, by my count, at least the Washington region's fourth fifth urban-format Target. The first opened in the 1990s in Gaithersburg. Then came Columbia Heights in 2008 and Merrifield in 2012, then our first mini Target earlier this year in College Park.

Walmart joined the game beginning in late 2013, with urban stores downtown and on Georgia Avenue.

Smaller stores may be the new normal

It's not just Target and Walmart looking to get in on this game. Other chains are launching a new breed of mid-size stores, like this mini Target, in a race to fill the urban retail niche.

In 2013, Walgreens opened a new "flagship" store in Chinatown. At 23,000 square feet, it's almost exactly the same size as the new Rosslyn Target, and twice a normal Walgreens.


The flagship Walgreens. Photo from Google.

And although their merchandise selections are a little different (the Target has more clothes and housewares, while the Walgreens has more beauty & health products), the Rosslyn Target and the Chinatown Walgreens are clearly evolving towards becoming a similar category of store: The not-quite-department-store, or the 21st Century general store.

Whatever you call it, it's a growing retail niche.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Development


This building is way too short

Along Florida Avenue between U Street and California, at the southern edge of Adams Morgan, there's a block-long strip of retail containing Pleasant Pops, Mint, and until recently, Hans Pedr' Kaffe. It's also missing something big: housing on top.


1781 Florida Avenue, NW. Photos by the author.

In a city full of mixed-use buildings, this one sticks out like a sore thumb. It's just too short. It looks like a suburban strip mall in its low, horizontal nature. And it's right in Adams Morgan, where there's plenty of demand (these days, anyway) for housing. It looks very out of place in DC.


Image from Google Maps.

This site used to house the Kilimanjaro nightclub and a parking garage. According to Cheryl Cort, who lives a few blocks away, violence in the late 1980s hastened its decline. the apartment building across the street was vacant for many years.

The zoning on this site is C-2-A, low-density commercial development, and is also part of the Reed-Cooke Overlay. That limits non-residential Floor-Area Ratio to 1.5, residential to 2.5, and height to 40 feet, if I'm reading the zoning correctly. But it's likely not even hitting those limits, since the sloping site means it's only one story high on some sides.


1781 Florida Avenue, NW. Photos by the author.

This is not in a historic district (it's just outside two districts). If it were, and someone proposed redeveloping this today with five stories of housing, it would probably evoke a usual chorus of objections that such a building would be "too tall." But it's not; a taller building would be more compatible with this area because existing buildings are more vertical in nature and new buildings are generally taller than this one. Arguably, this building is too short to be compatible.

But since this was already redeveloped recently, it's likely to stay as is for some time. That's a big missed opportunity.

What other buildings do you think are too short and/or represent missed opportunities for more housing?

Retail


DC's "Little Ethiopia" has moved to Silver Spring and Alexandria

Historically, the DC area's Ethiopian diaspora has centered on Adams Morgan and Shaw. But as the community has grown, it's mostly moved out of the District. Today, the region actually has two "Little Ethiopias": one in Silver Spring and one in Alexandria.


Where the region's Ethiopian population lives. Map by the author.

Ethiopians have a lot of roots in the DC area

Ethiopians first began moving to the United States in the 1970s, fleeing a military dictatorship. The DC area has the nation's largest Ethiopian community, but just how big it is up for debate.

The 2013 American Community Survey found about 40,000 people of Ethiopian ancestry in the region, while the Arlington-based Ethiopian Community Development Center says there are 100,000 Ethiopians living in the area.

There's also a large population from Eritrea, which broke off from Ethiopia in 1991. The Census doesn't break out ancestry data for Eritreans for local areas. But in 2005, but the Population Reference Bureau estimated that about 2% of African-born blacks in the region, or about 2,300 people, came from Eritrea.

Today, Ethiopians are the largest African immigrant group in the region, making up one-fifth of the region's African diaspora. There are about 1200 Ethiopian-owned businesses in the region, according to the ECDC, as well as the Ethiopian community's own Yellow Pages. Famous Ethiopian entertainers have settled in the area, and major events serving the diaspora are held here, like this sports and live music festival that was at the University of Maryland this summer.

Two "Little Ethiopias" emerge

When the diaspora began, Ethiopians arriving in DC settled in Adams Morgan, then along 9th Street NW in Shaw, occasionally called "Little Ethiopia." Since 2000, DC's Ethiopian population has more than doubled, from 2134 to 4807 in 2013, though it's shifted north towards Petworth and Brightwood.

But like many immigrants in the region, many Ethiopians moved to Maryland and Virginia, and today most of the community lives outside the District. Montgomery County has the region's largest cluster of Ethiopians, with nearly 13,000 residents claiming Ethiopian ancestry, three times as many as in 2000. Fairfax County and the city of Alexandria have the region's second- and third-largest Ethiopian populations.


Ethiopian nightlife in Silver Spring. Photo by Reemberto Rodriguez.

Today, there are two "Little Ethiopias." One sits in Silver Spring and Takoma Park, and reaches into far northwest DC. Another is in Alexandria and extends west towards the Skyline area of Fairfax County.

Both areas are home to several thousand people of Ethiopian descent. Ethiopians make up 29% of one Census tract next to downtown Silver Spring, while one census tract in Alexandria, consisting of a large apartment complex called Southern Towers, is 40% Ethiopian.

The most Ethiopian places

The most prominent sign of the region's "Little Ethiopias" is food. Downtown Silver Spring has dozens of Ethiopian eateries, and with those numbers come specialization: there are white-tablecloth places, sports bars, an "Ethiopian Chipotle," and of course, many different coffee shops. Meanwhile, chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain visited an Ethiopian market in Skyline on the DC episode of his show No Reservations.


Montgomery County's annual Ethiopian Festival in Silver Spring. Photo by Alan Bowser on Flickr.

These communities are also gathering and economic hubs not only for Ethiopians, but the wider African diaspora living in the DC area. Silver Spring is home to I/O Spaces, a coworking space geared to the African community. Montgomery County, which hosts an annual Ethiopian Festival in Silver Spring, is also the first jurisdiction in the nation to name September African Heritage Month.

Will "Little Ethiopia" continue to move farther out?

Why did Little Ethiopia, like so many other immigrant enclaves in the DC area, leave the District? Gentrification and displacement may be one cause. Though it's also likely that people moved to Maryland and Virginia for cheaper housing, better schools, or to be close to friends and family.

It'll be interesting to see if the region's Ethiopian population continue to move further out. There are already large concentrations of Ethiopians extending far from both Little Ethiopias: the one in Silver Spring stretches north towards Burtonsville, while the one in Alexandria continues south along I-95 towards Lorton.

Retail


When DC's fish market comes ashore, it will re-create a historic food destination

The Maine Avenue Fish Market on the Southwest Waterfront, the oldest open-air seafood marketplace in America, was exiled offshore in 1960. There are now plans underway to expand it back onto land and expand its offerings beyond just seafood.


The renovated oyster shed in the foreground, along with a proposed distillery, and under-construction office building. Rendering by Hoffman-Madison Waterfront/McGraw Bagnoli Architects.

Today, the barges the market sits on hugs two piers that jut into the Washington Channel. Market vendors alternately look up or down upon their customers, depending on the tides. The piers will remain essentially untouched, but today's ragtag parking lot will be replaced with a "shared space" Market Square, stretching east to the newly installed stoplight at Maine Avenue.

Five small buildings and temporary kiosks on the square will house a variety of local food businesses. Closest to the piers, a pair of World War I-era structures built to shuck oysters will be become an oyster bar and dining patio. These new businesses could open as soon as spring 2017.


Perusing the fish market in 2006. Photo by Elvert Xavier Barnes Photography.

A pair of three-story buildings on its eastern side, near a 10-story office building with several restaurants, will house a rum distillery, a restaurant with wine bar, and a deli. Two additional single-story pavilions could house vendors selling sandwiches, coffee, bread, and flowers.

An additional pier, now under construction just east of the market, could provide room for four additional waterborne retailers. Market services like fish cleaning would move into a new building under the highway bridge. A quarter-acre of outdoor dining space will ensure that everyone can get a seat.

McGraw Bagnoli Architects, whose prior work includes the interior of Right Proper brewpub, designed the new structures.

Oyster shucking shed at the fish market
The oyster shed today. Photo by Payton Chung.

"By and large, we love the way it is," developer Monty Hoffman told the Washington Business Journal's Michael Neibauer. "We're embracing it and we plan to add more on the land side," as part of "repositioning it for the next generation."

Hoffman-Madison Waterfront holds a long-term lease on the market as part of its larger redevelopment of the Southwest Waterfront. Next door is The Wharf, where nine blocks of mixed-use development are now under construction.

HMW filed the plans with the federal Commission on Fine Arts, which reviews developments along the waterfront and other scenic locations. The CFA applauded the plans for "maintaining the vitality and eclectic character of the beloved Maine Avenue Fish Market."

They also noted the fine line that the development faces in combining a messy, 200-year-old social institution, 100-year-old buildings, and shiny new buildings, and "cautioned against trying to recreate this random, energetic character in the architecture of the new buildings, which will inevitably result in a falseness made obvious by the authenticity of the existing context."

Yet expanding the fish market onto shore also honors its history. The site was once home to Eastern Market-style municipal market halls for fish and for produce. When those were demolished in 1960 along with the rest of the Southwest neighborhood, some of the fish vendors decamped to their boats, leasing dock space directly from the District—but, under federal law, selling only seafood. With this plan, the Maine Avenue market can come full circle and once again serve Washingtonians a complete meal.

Public Spaces


Springfield Town Center might save enclosed malls

Shopping malls are having a rough time as consumers increasingly shop elsewhere. While it's too early to say they're done for, successful malls have to take big steps to stay current. Springfield Town Center is experimenting with ways to do just that, including unique international stores and a central court laid out like an urban plaza.


Inside the new Springfield Town Center. Photo by Ser Amantio di Nicolao.

Last weekend, my boyfriend and I visited Springfield Town Center, a few minutes from his house in Annandale. Before it reopened in October, it was Springfield Mall, a 1970's-era regional shopping center that once hosted Prince Charles and Princess Diana but had fallen so far that owner Vornado felt the only solution was to tear the entire thing down and start from scratch.

This isn't the only mall in the region that's being replaced with something else. Laurel Mall is now Towne Centre at Laurel, an outdoor shopping center. Landmark Mall in Alexandria and White Flint Mall in North Bethesda will soon become mixed-use districts. And the former Landover Mall is a candidate for the FBI's new headquarters.

What sets Springfield Town Center apart is that it's still an enclosed mall. Vornado kept the three anchor stores, Macy's, JCPenney, and Target, but demolished the old mall and built a new, reconfigured one in its place. Still, the new mall feels very different than enclosed malls you've seen before.


The old Springfield Mall. Photo by Rev. Xanatos Satanicos... on Flickr.

Malls still have a place

The assumption among real estate folks is that shoppers would rather spend their money at big-box stores that offer one-stop shopping, or head to historic main streets or lifestyle centers where they can get out and walk around outside.

But the mall isn't over yet, as some hope. Real estate analysts CoStar estimate that about 80% of the nation's existing malls are still healthy, though it's not clear what "healthy" means.

Malls must adapt to survive

As going to the mall becomes a once-in-a-while occasion, the malls that are thriving are super-regional malls like Tysons Corner Center, a 15-minute drive from Springfield. While it's smaller than Tysons, Springfield Town Center's bet is that shoppers will go to the mall if it offers something you can't find anywhere else.

Vornado brought in several "fast-fashion" retailers who are both new to the DC area and generally not found in malls: Uniqlo from Japan, Spain's Suiteblanco, and Topshop and F&F, both from the UK. Inside, there are deliberate design choices that make the mall feel like a place to linger: high-quality materials, bright lighting, and a large room with tables, chairs, and a grand central staircase that calls to mind an old train station waiting room.

It seems to be working, if only because of the curiosity factor surrounding a new mall. Two weeks after the holiday shopping season, Springfield Town Center was packed. The parking lots were full and the corridors were bustling with shoppers, especially teenagers, who are turning away from shopping malls. The mall's two sit-down restaurants, Maggiano's and Yard House, both had an hour-long wait.

I'm curious to see if shoppers will choose Springfield Town Center over big-box stores and downtowns, or even bigger malls like Tysons. There are plans to eventually surround the mall with offices and apartments, similar to what's happening at Tysons Corner Center and the Mall in Columbia in Maryland. Ultimately, that might create the kind of environment, and support the diversity of retail, that will draw shoppers in the long run.

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