Posts about Retail
For generations, DC had a healthy mix of stores and homes in every neighborhood. Only a fraction of that diversity is still there today because 60 years ago, the city's zoning laws changed to outlaw new retail from going up in residential areas. Some corner stores are still there, but most have turned into homes. In the photos below, check out former storefronts that are now somebody's living room window.
The entrance and windows in the front 9th and Q Street NW don't look like what's on most houses. That's because it used to be a restaurant. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.
In 1958, DC's Zoning Commission designated a number of residential areas as R-4 or R-5 zones, meaning they were for row houses or apartment buildings, respectively. New retail space isn't permitted to open inside either type of zone.
The retail that was already there was grandfathered into the new law, meaning it's been allowed to stay (though if a store closes and remains vacant for three years, the location can no longer be commercial).
On the map below, which looks at the area north of East Capitol Street and south of H Street NE, the Zoning Commission's change limited new commercial buildings to the places in yellow:
Below are a few examples of Capitol Hill buildings that used to house retail. We focused on that area because it's where we live, but as the photo above indicates, you can find buildings just like them all over the District.
1201 F Street NE
Located at the intersection of 12th Street, F Street, and Maryland Avenue, this corner building once housed a grocery store owned by William G. Pond (you can read about that in Boyd's Directory of DC). The former bay window of the store is now the entrance to a home and the former store entrance facing the intersection is now a small window. The concrete steps leading to the original entrance are still visible on the right side of this photo.
711 E Street NE
In 1910, Edward T. Noll built this one-story retail building and its twin at 713 E Street NE. The buildings have large, protruding bay windows and decorative overhangs, but are now both homes.
627 3rd Street NE
Abutting an alley, this building has housed several grocery stores throughout its existence, including stores owned by Herman W. Menkin in 1909 (Boyd's Directory of DC, 1909), Myer and Rae Band from 1933 to 1969, and Cynthia Sewell as recently as 2011. The first-floor windows used to flank the entrance, with a sign overhead, but the entrance for the home is now on the right side of the building.
1000 Constitution Avenue NE
The corner of this building used to have an entrance facing the intersection, which has since been replaced by bricks. A door leading to what was once the entrance for the upstairs apartment is visible on the right side of the photo. In the early 1900's, Leon Skop ran a grocery store from this space.
The five buildings described above are among the many red pins in this incomplete map of former retail locations in or near the Capitol Hill Historic District. Photos and descriptions for each of these pins are available at our blog, DCFormerRetail.tumblr.com.
Red pins are homes that once included retail spaces. The pins are clustered in the Northwest corner of the map because the authors have not yet systematically catalogued former stores east of 14th Street NE and south of East Capitol Street. Base image from Google Maps.
In some places, corner stores are coming back!
After a laborious eight-year process, DC's Zoning Commission adopted a new zoning code that will take effect on September 6, 2016. For the first time since 1958, the code will permit new corner grocery stores by right.
Also, limited types of other corner stores will be allowed under a variance in seven of 34 types of residential zones. The areas zoned R-4 on Capitol Hill are included in this change.
Despite the well-documented benefits of street fronting stores— But the historical record demonstrates that commercial uses along today's residential streets would not be unusual in this part of the city. Indeed, without retail, the Capitol Hill Historic District is less true to its name than many residents might realize.
But the historical record demonstrates that commercial uses along today's residential streets would not be unusual in this part of the city. Indeed, without retail, the Capitol Hill Historic District is less true to its name than many residents might realize.
A key review board has denied Chick-fil-A's controversial request for a drive-thru in Van Ness. But it might not have the last word.
At its meeting on Thursday, April 28th, the five-member Public Space Committee voted unanimously to deny Chick-fil-A a permit to widen an existing curb cut for a drive-thru at 4422 Connecticut Avenue, which is now the site of the Van Ness Burger King.
The committee, which has five members from various DC government agencies, made its decision based on testimony from Chick-fil-A, Van Ness community members and representatives, and District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and Office of Planning (OP) staffers. Ryan Westrom of DDOT and OP's Tim Maher recommended against approving the curb cuts, concerned that the increased drive-thru traffic projected by Chick-fil-A would result in more conflicts between pedestrians and drivers.
Chick-fil-A says it'll stop traffic backups, but not persuasively
There is already a drive-thru here for Burger King, but it gets little traffic. A Chick-fil-A would draw much more. To try to prevent traffic backups, the store plans to have three to four employees taking orders on iPads on the north driveway, more employees at another station for taking cash in the back, and another area on the south driveway with a door for more staff to deliver the food. They also mentioned using the rear parking lot for overflow, assuming there would be available spaces.
"What would prevent a back up onto Connecticut Avenue?" they were asked. Chick-fil-A had a ready response: They would hire an off-duty police officer to direct traffic. Matthew Marcou, the chair of the Public Space Committee, raised his eyebrow at this, and quipped, "DDOT can't get any for other projects."
Chick-fil-A also promised to have additional staff on hand to quickly handle orders if a surge in drive-thru business was causing backups. ANC 3F Commissioner Sally Gresham said promises of "self-monitoring" – which Chick-fil-A representatives continued to stress – were not enough. The city had no enforcement mechanism, she testified, if Chick-fil-A did not uphold its agreements.
Community groups and experts oppose the drive-thru
Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3F voted unanimously in February to oppose Chick-fil-A's drive-thru. Steve Gresham, a member of an ANC committee formed to study Chick-fil-A's application, testified about flaws in the drive-thru system, such as the lanes being too narrow to accommodate employees taking orders. And during peak hours of business, he said, cars could be blocking the sidewalk at either the entrance or exit of the drive-thru more than half of the time.
ANC 3F hired Karina Ricks, a former chair of the Public Space Committee, to consult. She stated in written testimony that the drive-thru did not meet regulatory muster. Ricks also said the drive-thru would create an unsafe environment for pedestrians and bicyclists – conditions that would run counter to DDOT's moveDC, the long-term DC transportation plan, and the goals of Vision Zero to reduce all traffic fatalities and serious injuries in the District to zero by 2024.
In addition, she said, the city was making substantial investments in Van Ness, in planning and implementation, to create a vibrant, walkable commercial area.
The Chick-fil-A can thrive without a drive-thru
Dipa Mehta, a co-chair of the economic development committee of Van Ness Main Street, presented research showing a safe, walkable environment is a key ingredient to fostering economic development. The car traffic generated by Chick-fil-A would be detrimental to the business climate at Van Ness, she said.
Chick-fil-A has stated in the past that the Van Ness location does not currently generate enough pedestrian traffic to support its business. However, I as a Van Ness Main Street board member testified that Chick-fil-A was underestimating the chain's potential to attract walk-in customers from the immediate area, given the large number of high-rise residential buildings nearby.
Marcou asked Chick-fil-A about pedestrian traffic in Tenleytown, where Chick-fil-A is building a restaurant without a drive-thru. The answer: They had not done a pedestrian count there.
Though comments on Forest Hills Connection articles about Chick-fil-A's plans indicate at least some residents support a drive-thru, the opposition has been more outspoken and organized. A Ward 3 Vision petition opposing the drive-thru collected 366 signatures. In addition, The Northwest Current published an open letter to Mayor Bowser from several signatories, including the owners of Bread Furst and Acacia Bistro, and co-presidents of the Hastings Condo Association, representing the building just north of the site at 4444 Connecticut. They asked for Bowser's support in opposing the drive-thru.
Only one resident testified in support of the Chick-fil-A drive-thru. However, he explained that he had business ties to the location. He said similar driveway situations exist in nearby locations – at the Park and Shop in Cleveland Park, at the Whole Foods in Tenleytown, and at the Tenleytown CVS – and pedestrians adjusted.
Committee member Reg Bazile cut him off. "Those locations are not similar," he said.
Marcou recommended that Chick-fil-A continue to pursue a Van Ness location, only without the drive-thru element. Chick-fil-A also has the option of going to court. That's what a citizens' group did in 1980, when a Burger King franchisee sought and received permits for the drive-thru in 1980. The court sided with the franchisee.
Van Ness Main Street President Mary Beth Ray said the community would support the restaurant without the drive-thru. "Our research has shown how wildly popular their food is, and we hope [Chick-fil-A's] interest in Van Ness goes beyond the drive thru," Ray said in an email. "Van Ness is open for business."
This originally ran on Forest Hills Connection.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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