Posts about Retail
While new investment and street life arrive in Northwest DC neighborhoods like Petworth, Brightwood, and Takoma, Kennedy Street has been slow to respond. But a group of local citizens seeks to change that.
Shuttered storefronts define Kennedy Street today, despite its population with rising incomes, newly-arrived young families, and relatively low crime. Folks who arrived in the neighborhood ten, five, or one year ago all say they thought the same thing when they first arrived: "Kennedy Street will arrive any time now." Long-term residents also complain about the lack of services, and are resigned to driving to other neighborhoods for restaurants, groceries, arts and entertainment.
Growing weary of hearing complaints and disappointments, a group of citizens and I started the all-volunteer Kennedy Street Business and Development Association (KSBDA) in January help hasten the evolution.
Geography and the street experience hold Kennedy Street back
Challenges beyond supply and demand explain why Kennedy Street has been slow to change. The street is oriented east-west, against the grain of the city's main north-south commuter routes, and it is bisected by the imposing four-lane Missouri Avenue, isolating the eastern end of Kennedy Street from the rest of the corridor closer to Georgia Avenue.
The area's public transport connections are not ideal, as much of the street is just beyond walking distance of the Fort Totten, Takoma, and Petworth metro stations. Except along Georgia Avenue, bus service is limited outside commuter hours.
The street itself creates a difficult environment for thriving retail. Fortuitously, Kennedy Street is zoned C-2-A between Georgia Avenue and North Capitol Street, permitting a mix of housing and commercial uses. But many of the true commercial buildings are clustered around corners with row houses in between, creating gaps in potential retail clusters. In some places, alleys, the sides of houses, wooden fences, and back yards break up the street wall.
Meanwhile, the sidewalks are narrow, with retaining walls and telephone poles creating bottlenecks. Though there are few places to plant, residents and business owners alike lament the street's general lack of greenery. Some commercial buildings have no alley access at all, requiring business owners to leave waste receptacles on the sidewalk.
Limited support for Kennedy Street
The city's support for the street appears uncoordinated and uneven. After a model effort in community buy-in, the Office of Planning issued a Revitalization Plan for the street in 2008. The plan is as valid today as it was six years ago. But few of its recommendations have been implemented.
The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) offered $3.75 million in funding for streetscape improvements, but it's tied up a separate $3.1 million fund to reconfigure the intersection of Kennedy Street with Missouri and Kansas avenues, both of which are behind schedule. Quick fixes like new parking lines, street furniture, and bike racks have been generally unrealized. City programs to improve building facades and invest in businesses have barely touched Kennedy Street.
Oddly, the eastern portion is not eligible for several city incentives, though the commercial buildings there are in worse shape. Pepco has refused requests to bury or even reduce the number of overhead wires, citing the cost and reliability of the existing infrastructure.
Businesses are determined to make it work
Still, some current businesses are determined to grow with the neighborhood. Culture Coffee, a community-oriented cafe at 7th and Kennedy streets NW, has fast become the neighborhood's third space. A block away, a new outpost of Taqueria DF will add patio seating for tacos and cervezas this summer. Local take-out favorite Andrene's, at 3rd and Kennedy, has pledged to remove its plexiglass windows and open up to the street.
KSBDA has found some businesses who seek locations here, but would need to buy and invest in a space. Most owners are only looking to lease, but don't have the capital to install commercial kitchens, quality floors or new facades. Some owners are speculating on appreciation, but their marginal tenants or unavailable vacant storefronts hold the street back.
More than a few prime commercial locations are shuddered and their status is entirely unclear: are they operating irregularly, defunct, or hiding from city regulators? Other owners are absent, often elderly, and have little faith that the street could ever change. Two owners have even tried to talk me out of starting a business on the street!
So how do we overcome these challenges to help Kennedy Street fulfill the potential that residents and businesses all see? How can a movement of volunteer residents and true mom-and-pop businesses help the street become a walkable, welcoming destination, without turning to major outside developers with no attachment to how we define our neighborhood?
Many of us are ready to take action to help grow the street from the bottom up, but we need your help, your lessons, your advice, and your resources to get it done.
Some residents have received this flyer, which urges them to "SAY NO! TO CORNER STORES" in the DC Zoning Update. But on closer inspection, it's hard to tell how the flyer is arguing against corner stores.
Almost all of the text (and the photo) come directly from the DC Office of Planning's fact sheet which lays out the case for corner stores: more potential access to healthy food, ability to shop nearby without a long drive, and rules to ensure the stores don't harm neighbors.
Rather than argue against these, the flyer just repeats the same rationale, with a few comments sprinkled in like "DO YOU BELIEVE THIS?" and "YOU DECIDE."
Is this for real? Or, as David Garber mused, "genius marketing *for* corner stores and the DC Zoning Update"?
Mark Bjorge pointed out, "It's a Rorschach test. Answers will depend on where one lives." What he means is that in many neighborhoods, the basic word "corner store" conjures up images of a run-down store that just sells junk food and liquor and cigarettes and the like from behind metal gates or thick plexiglass, and with folks hanging out in front up to no good.
I've spoken to people from some neighborhoods who immediately thought of that the moment they heard about the proposal. In fact, the address on the flyer is from a section of Petworth where some corner stores have looked like that. Within that context, reading the OP fact sheet one might well have exactly this reaction of disbelief.
Perhaps this is another example like this exchange from a year ago where zoning update opponent Linda Schmitt posted a photograph of an alley accessory dwelling. To her, it perfectly illustrated what residents should fear. But to me and many others, the well-maintained, attractive, clean little brick building was instead an ideal example of why accessory dwellings sounded great.
In neighborhoods with higher-quality stores, the idea of bringing in a small grocery within walking distance sounds great. Residents of the Navy Yard neighborhood can enjoy Cornercopia, the store pictured in the OP fact sheet and the flyer, which embodies what people want in such a store. Those who feel confident that looser restrictions on zoning might bring in a desirable amenity instead of blight, therefore, are excited about zoning opening the door to such an asset.
To help ensure that new stores are only positive and not negative, OP has dialed back the corner store proposal so that now any store, except a grocery, will need a public hearing and a "special exception." It is also fair for people to demand that DC enforce the rules that limit the amount of trash and noise a store could generate.
If you think that corner stores aren't automatically a bad thing for every neighborhood, you've got one last chance to let the Zoning Commission know. There are three more public hearings on the zoning update this week.
Walmart's foray into urban format stores officially begins today, with stores on H Street and Georgia Avenue opening for business. The H Street store marks the first time in 18 years DC has had two downtown department stores.
I stopped by the downtown store and snapped a few pictures.
The main entrance leads into a small ground floor lobby. The actual store is one floor up. I was surprised to discover that aside from the lobby, the whole store is a single level.
Up on the store level, it looks like any other Walmart. Perhaps with slightly narrower aisles.
Outside, smaller stores will line H Street. A Starbucks and a Capital One bank branch will be first.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Like many DC neighborhoods, Georgetown historically had several movie theatres. While none of them are still in operation today, almost all of the buildings that once held movie theatres are largely intact.
Jonathan O'Connell of the Washington Post ran a fantastic feature Monday on the history of theatres in DC, with a map showing where historic theatres were and existing theatres are. The city had 116 movie theatres and playhouses during the 20th century, six of which were in Georgetown. Let's tally them up!
Above you see a photo of the Key Theatre. Of the historic theatres, it was on the young side. It was opened in 1969 and closed in 1997. Nowadays it (along with the former Roy Rogers next door) is occupied by Restoration Hardware.
Here is the Biograph. It was even younger than the Key Theatre. It was built in 1976 in a former car dealership and lasted until 1996. Like the Georgetown theatre, in its later years it mixed art house with adult fare, but was unable to stave off closure. Like many former theatres in DC, it now houses a CVS.
Familiar to many, the Georgetown Theatre building has lasted several decades, gutted and decrepit as it may be today. However, the facade as we now know it is thankfully not long for this world. Local architect Robert Bell has a contract to buy the building and plans to restore the neon sign and rip off the formstone exterior.
Bell only intends to restore the facade to its state immediately before the formstone was applied. That is apparently a simple stucco style, but unfortunately I couldn't locate a picture of what that looked like. Bell confirmed that he had no plans to restore the facade of the Dumbarton Theatre, which was what became the Georgetown in the 1950s. It was opened in 1913, shortly before this photo was taken:
Bell plans to restore the neon side, making it red, while returning the frame to its original black color. I predict it will displace the old Riggs Bank dome as the iconic Georgetown image once it's finally repaired.
This obviously isn't a theatre, but the Tommy Hilfiger stands at the site of the former Lido Theatre. The theatre was open from 1909 to 1948. I unfortunately could not find any picture of the original theatre. The facade was changed significantly for Tommy Hilfiger, here's what it looked like in the 1990's:
The former Lido Theatre (on the far left). Photo courtesy of the author.
I'm not certain, but chances are that this isn't really the original building. It just looks way more mid-century than turn-of-the-century. The theatre shut in 1948, and that building looks awfully 1950's-ish. I suspect that's when the current structure was built, or it may mean the building's facade was redone later on. So maybe this is one that should be considered "lost."
This is also obviously not a photo of a theatre, but before this building held Nike or Barnes and Noble, it held the Cerebus 1-2-3 Theatre. Like many of the large and similar looking buildings on 14th St., this property was also originally built as a car dealership. The theatre occupied the space from 1970 to 1993.
Last, but not least, on O'Connell's list is the Foundry Theatre. The photo above shows it as it is today, but it hasn't really changed much since the theatre closed in 2002. It was the youngest theatre on this list, having been opened in 1984. For all intents and purposes, it was replaced by the Georgetown AMC theatre, which opened the same year.
So at one point in the late 1970's, there were four different movie theatres open in Georgetown. Now there's just one (two if you count Letelier Theatre) but we've got almost all the old shells. In the age of Netflix and on-demand movies, maybe we should be happy we've even got that.
Crossposted on Georgetown Metropolitan.
Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous in the DC area, with multiple Chinatowns across the region and a plethora of carryout joints. But a century ago, Chinese food was more of a novelty here.
Hong Kong Restaurant in Congress Heights, once the only Chinese restaurant east of the river. Photo from the collection of Jerry McCoy.
The city's first Chinese restaurants opened on Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1890s, according to local historian John DeFerrari, author of the recently published Historic Restaurants of Washington, DC: Capital Eats. He cites a 1903 Washington Times article that described Chinese restaurants as a fad among the city's "smart set," who liked to go "slumming" in DC's small Chinatown at 4th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, now home to the National Gallery of Art.
Within a matter of decades, says DeFerrari, their numbers began to grow. In the 1920s and 1930s, neighborhood Chinese restaurants began appearing all over the city, serving dishes like chow mein and chop suey. Since Chinese restaurants traditionally didn't serve alcohol, they were particularly well-suited to weather the Prohibition era.
But you couldn't find them in every neighborhood. East of the Anacostia River, perhaps the only Chinese joint was the Hong Kong Restaurant at 3109B Nichols Avenue SE in Congress Heights.
It is unclear when the restaurant opened and when it closed, but it was around long enough to appear in a postcard. "Its style as seen in the old postcard is typical of restaurants of the 1930s and 1940s," notes DeFerrari. The address shown says Nichols Avenue, which became Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in the 1970s.
It is within reason to speculate the restaurant was open into the 1950s, before the neighborhood desegregated. During that era, the streetcar ran up and down Nichols Avenue from Anacostia, a white neighborhood, through Hillsdale/Barry Farm, a black neighborhood, to Congress Heights, then a white neighborhood. As the only Chinese joint east of the river, the Hong Kong was likely a destination for many residents there.
Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue is home to convenience stores, liquor stores, mobile phone providers, offices for contractors and social services, a car-wash, an athletic footwear store, and a weekly newspaper, along with the well-known Player's Lounge.
Meanwhile, the weather-beaten storefront remains, the restaurant is long gone, replaced today by a dollar store advertising Newport cigarettes for sale and letting customers know that it accepts EBT and food stamps.
New developments in urban areas often have a lot of chains. At Pike + Rose, the large mixed-use development on Rockville Pike, all of the first six restaurants to open will be chains as well. Will there be room for local businesses in the future White Flint?
Representatives from Federal Realty say their goal is to create an interesting array of shops and restaurants, no matter what they are. "It's less important to us whether something is a chain than [having] a mix of retail types, a mix of expense points, and a mix of dining types," says Evan Goldman, vice president of development. "We want...a diverse mix of options to get a diverse mix of people there."
Projects like Pike + Rose can be risky. Successful retail isn't a given even on a busy corridor like Rockville Pike, and both developers and business owners want to minimize risk. Unlike chains, which have a standard store format that's easy to recreate, small businesses also have to design and build a space from scratch, costing money and time.
And if an entrepreneur opens a second location that fails, their business may be sunk. If a chain's 20th store isn't successful, existing branches can help subsidize it. That's why developers often find it easier to work with chains in new projects.
"We know they can perform, they know they can perform," Goldman says. "And God forbid it doesn't perform, it's not going to take down their company or ours."
Where do chains go today?
When Pike + Rose is finished several years from now, it may look like other town center developments in the region, with a mix of stand-alone stores, national chains, and local chains, which I define as locally-owned businesses whose locations are primarily in the DC area. So Georgetown-based Sweetgreen counts, because all but 4 of its 20 locations are here, but Virginia-based Five Guys, which has over 1,000 locations across North America, doesn't.
Some projects have more locals than others. They're 22% of the businesses at the Market Common at Clarendon to 65% at the Mosaic District in Fairfax. At Bethesda Row and Rockville Town Square, both owned by Federal Realty, locals make up between 50 and 60% of all businesses.
The distribution of chains vs. local businesses at 7 DC-area town center projects. Image by the author.
Locally-owned restaurants and shops, whether one-offs or small chains, can be an asset for communities, supporting the local economy and providing unique attraction for customers. To make it easier for them to open, they need to have lower risks. There are two ways to do that: reduce the cost of doing business, or increase the potential number of customers.
How can we do that? Read the rest of my post on the Friends of White Flint..
What should Southwest DC look like over the next few years? Will it continue to be a quiet neighborhood despite increasing development around it? Or will it become a bustling area with more people and retail?
On Wednesday, the DC Office of Planning held a kickoff meeting for the Southwest Neighborhood Plan, which will be the Small Area Plan that will cover most of Southwest DC. The plan will address some of the development pressure that the neighborhood is experiencing, thanks in part to DC's growing population.
The neighborhood is currently surrounded by large development projects, like the Southwest Ecodistrict, the Wharf, and the Yards. Nationals Park borders the neighborhood, as well as the future DC United stadium and associated redevelopment in Buzzard Point. This creates a challenge for planners trying to craft a distinct vision for Southwest.
As the name "kickoff" implies, OP is still in the very early stages of putting the plan together. Right now there are no preconceived notions of what the plan will look like. Theoretically, everything is under consideration. The plan will focus on development along I and M streets, but plan will address issues of conservation, sustainability, and connectivity in areas to the north and south.
During this stage, OP is seeking input on what values are important to the community. Many residents value the diversity, affordability, green space, and access the neighborhood provides. But while some residents want more restaurants, retail, and bars, others are worried that competition will force out existing businesses. Neighbors also differed on whether a streetcar on M Street would be a good idea.
At the meeting, Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning seemed optimistic that the neighborhood could build on its shared values to overcome differences and mold a plan. She pointed out that people aren't for or against the streetcar because it's a streetcar, they are for it or against it because of the perceived effects a streetcar will bring to traffic and the neighborhood. OP will continue to take input and then analyze and report back in late fall. They hope to have a final draft of the plan by Spring 2014.
Much of the land in the area is currently occupied by housing, which seems unlikely to go away over the next several years. But DC owns a fair bit of land that Tregoning called "underutilized." These are shorter structures like the DMV branch and inspection station and the DC Fire Department repair shop, located on M Street SW about halfway between the Waterfront and Navy Yard Metro stations. In the future, this area could sit right on a proposed streetcar line.
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