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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.


A scorched earth move by Safeway could turn the Palisades into a food desert

Possibly fed up with opposition to a mixed-use development atop its grocery store in the Palisades, Safeway has offered to sell its store. Residents worry the deal could prohibit a new grocery store in the area, leaving residents in a "food desert," but councilmembers are trying to stave off that possibility.

Photo from Google Street View..

As Richard Layman chronicles, Safeway in recent years has been eagerly pursuing deals to turn its stores on valuable urban land into mixed-use developments that contain stores at ground level. It has recently redeveloped the stores in Petworth, Georgetown, and elsewhere.

Safeway merged with the Albertsons chain this year. Albertsons has been a grocery chain for a long time, but its current owner, the Cerberus private equity firm, is looking at much more than food. Layman writes,

One of the reasons that Cerberus has moved into this sector is that many supermarket chains own real estate—store sites and shopping centers—and the value of the underlying real estate can be worth more than the profit stream from store operations.

Safeway is now less patient when it comes to redeveloping stores and will even walk away. Already the change in regimes is evident. More recently, rather than continue with a project in Tenleytown that had dragged on for years, Safeway sold the property to a local private school and will close the store. [Some hyperlinks added]

Would the deal prohibit a new grocery?

Neighbors are worried that Cerberus' sale could include a covenant forbidding a new grocery store on that site. The Current reports (huge PDF) that "Spence Spencer, chair of a Palisades Citizens Association task force on the Safeway issue, said it's his understanding that a sale of the Safeway property would include a covenant prohibiting a future grocery store on the site. The Current could not independently confirm this information, but a similar restriction will be in place at the site of the Tenleytown Safeway."

Trying to stave off this possibility, councilmembers David Catania and Mary Cheh (who represents both the Palisades and Tenleytown) are proposing an emergency bill to ban the practice, and they asked to put it on the agenda for today's council meeting. Their notice to fellow councilmembers about the bill states,

Such covenants are particularly detrimental as residents of city neighborhoods rely on the close proximity of grocers to their homes as nearly 4 in 10 District households are car-free. Further, the District's seniors and those residents who intend to age in place rely on immediate access, as they often face mobility challenges.

The District has long sought to expand the number of grocery stores in neighborhoods throughout the city as the benefits of a full service, neighborhood grocer are well established. The circumstances described above underscore the need for the Council to act in order to prohibit such restrictive covenants and prevent the creation of food deserts in the District.

Layman notes that when a proposed project falls through, residents can sometimes find themselves worse off. That certainly happened at Georgia and Missouri, where a plan to build 400 units of housing above a new Walmart got delayed from opposition and then, once it got approved, collapsed due to the recession. Instead, they settled for a 75-year lease with Walmart to build a store with no housing.

The council may pass the bill and keep the covenant out, but it's likely that Cerberus will sell to someone who wants to build new housing on the site. A standalone one-story grocery store, which some residents desire, may not be an option regardless of who owns the property.


This dying strip mall could be the next Mosaic District

Over the past few years, retail developer Edens has transformed a gritty wholesale market and a suburban multiplex into trendy retail destinations. Their next redevelopment project, a dying strip mall in Burtonsville, might be a little more challenging.

Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

Burtonsville Crossing, on Route 29 in eastern Montgomery County, has been hemorrhaging tenants since a highway bypass was built behind it in 2006 and is now 70% vacant.

This week, Edens, which has owned the strip mall since 2003, signed an agreement with the county to explore ways to redevelop it and a six-acre park-and-ride lot behind it.

Montgomery County seems to expect big things from the developer. Their press release states that Edens is "known locally for the popular epicurean mecca Union Market" in Northeast DC, and describes "conceptual plans" for restaurants, retail, housing, and a movie theatre, which sounds like the Mosaic District, the mixed-use development Edens is building next to the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station in Fairfax County.

Burtonsville, a mashup of farms, subdivisions, and apartment complexes next to the Patuxent River, has been economically struggling for years. Office buildings built during the 2000s still sit empty, while a new shopping center across from Burtonsville Crossing continues to have vacancies. While some neighborhoods remain relatively affluent, local schools are experiencing white and middle-class flight, and some areas now have poverty rates exceeding 20%.

County leaders see the park-and-ride lot as key to the area's resurgence. A 2012 master plan for the area identifies it as the location of a mixed-use neighborhood, with up to 600 homes alongside shops and offices.

But Giant, which used to be at Burtonsville Crossing before moving across the street, still owns their former store and is allowed to block new tenants who could compete with them, effectively blocking redevelopment. Building on the park-and-ride allows Edens to go around Giant and bring in an anchor store who could attract other businesses.

The Mosaic District. Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

While the details are still sketchy, this project could give this aging suburban community a new center, much in the same way that Edens has done for the Mosaic District. Ten years ago, Mosaic was a multiplex in a sea of parking. Today's it's becoming a walkable neighborhood, with an art-house movie theatre, a Target, and locally-owned shops and restaurants surrounding a public plaza. New townhouses there sell for upward of $700,000, while thousands of apartments are popping up nearby.

The circumstances in Burtonsville are a little different. For starters, it's a relatively spread-out, low-density community that doesn't seem to have the critical mass to support the retail that already exists.

Unlike Union Market, which is in an area with little retail, a 2007 market study found lots of retail competition for Burtonsville, like Maple Lawn, a walkable retail district three miles north in Howard County, and the new Towne Centre at Laurel lifestyle center a few miles east. Unlike Mosaic District, there's no Metro station nearby, though there are plans for a Bus Rapid Transit line between Burtonsville and Silver Spring.

But after years of bad news about Burtonsville, the county's press release suggests a hint of confidence about what could happen there. County officials will start negotiations with Edens shortly, meaning we'll probably see more details in the months to come.

Public Spaces

America's Main Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, is anything but

Pennsylvania Avenue. All photos by the author.

"It's a disgrace—fix it."

Those are the words President John F. Kennedy allegedly uttered as his inauguration motorcade inched along Pennsylvania Avenue in 1961. At the time, "America's Main Street" between the US Capitol and the White House was a cluttered and dilapidated street replete with X-rated theater houses, pawn shops and liquor stores.

Thanks largely to the work of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, today's Pennsylvania Avenue, with its grand buildings, parks and memorials bears little resemblance to its 1961 iteration. And yet, it largely fails in its role as a major urban thoroughfare in DC's increasingly dense and bustling downtown. Why is that?

The vistas along this stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue are grand, and many of the buildings along it are iconic—but grand vistas and iconic buildings do not by themselves create a lively and engaging street.

Broadway is the heart of New York's theater district; Michigan Avenue in Chicago boasts world-class shopping; Paris's Champs Elysees combines premier dining and shopping while connecting two of the world's iconic structures. In contrast, Pennsylvania Avenue boasts an abundance of government buildings, monolithic office towers, and large, often-empty public plazas, making it largely devoid of the kind of kind of attractions that bring in people and create the streetlife associated with other popular downtown streets.

Among the problems is an overall lack of street-level retail. Short of the occasional restaurant and attractions such as the Newseum, there is very little that brings people to the street. Many office buildings have banks and other retail that create dead zones. Government buildings such as the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission and IRS headquarters have no street-facing retail at all, creating entire blocks devoid of activity. Other buildings fronting Pennsylvania—most notably the FBI Building—are openly hostile to pedestrians.

The sidewalk outside the FBI building.

Incremental steps are being taken to change this. There is the makeover of the Old Post Office building into a luxury Trump-brand hotel which will soon get underway, and the FBI is actively seeking to relocate to new quarters off of Pennsylvania, potentially opening up a prime spot for redevelopment. But overall, change on this front has been very slow in coming.

Another hindrance to turning Pennsylvania Avenue into a hub of activity is the plazas and parks that dot its landscape, many of which are not inviting, have not been well-maintained, or simply were not well-designed. Towards the White House end of this stretch of Pennsylvania, Freedom Plaza is convenient for protests and World Cup match watching, but otherwise its concrete and asphalt is not a welcoming place for lingering.

Freedom plaza.

The plaza that fronts the Reagan Building is simply an open space surrounded by lifeless government offices that feels cut off from its surroundings. Towards the Capitol end, spaces such as John Marshall Park and the park in front of the National Gallery are more visually attractive, yet lack the features or notable characteristics that draw people in.

The one exception is the Navy Memorial on the north side of Pennsylvania between 7th and 9th streets, whose distinguishing water features, preponderance of seating and surrounding restaurants and cafes make for both an attractive and inviting space.

The Navy Memorial.

Yet it largely stands alone as a magnet for activity along the city's "grand boulevard," which otherwise features too many public spaces that are designed to simply be passed through.

Finally, there is the matter of the street itself. At eight lanes wide, with two bike lanes running along its center, Pennsylvania Avenue is the widest thoroughfare in the District that is not a freeway. As such, it can be an intimidating environment for anyone traversing it, whether on foot, on a bike or in a car.

Lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Tourists pausing to snap a photo of the Capitol Building while crossing Pennsylvania must quickly scurry across those multitude of lanes in order to make it to the other side before the light turns. Cyclists are put at risk by drivers making illegal U-turns and otherwise behaving erratically. Drivers must contend with a road designed more like an urban highway that, particularly at peak commuting hours, sees an enormous amount of vehicular traffic.

At nighttime, stretches of Pennsylvania can have an almost eerie, deserted feeling which, when coupled with the intimidating size of the Avenue itself, does not make for a particularly welcoming environment.

Empty sidewalk at 10th and Pennsylvania.

In response to this situation, the National Capital Planning Commission is embarking upon a "Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative." Working in concert with federal and District agencies, the initiative seeks to, among other goals, "develop a vision for how [Pennsylvania] Avenue can meet local and national needs in a 21st century capital city."

The initiative aims to address problems with Pennsylvania Avenue that include wear and tear to its public spaces, aging infrastructure, and the jurisdictional challenges that are inherent in a thoroughfare that serves as both a busy downtown street and a staging ground for presidential parades.

The NCPC is hosting a public workshop on July 23 where members of the public can learn about the initiative, ask questions and share their thoughts on what changes and improvements are needed.

Pennsylvania Avenue is in a much better state than when President Kennedy meandered along it some 50 years ago. With the efforts of NCPC and others with a vested stake in its future, Pennsylvania Avenue may finally become the Main Street it was always meant to be.


To turn this Silver Spring street around, one building owner put in fake stores

For years, the ground-floor shops at the Guardian Building in downtown Silver Spring have sat empty. To lure new tenants, the building's owner brought the space to life with fake storefronts.

All photos from Devin Arkin.

The Arkin family has owned this six-story office building, located at Georgia Avenue and Cameron Street, for decades. But as owner Michael Arkin's health declined and he wasn't able to keep the building up, many of the retail tenants moved away, retired, or passed away. After a stroke a few years ago, his sons took over management of the building. "We had our work cut out for us," said son Devin Arkin, who grew up in Silver Spring but now lives in Chicago.

The Guardian Building before.

The sons renovated the building and commissioned an sculpture for the lobby of 1950s-era hardware they found in the basement. But they weren't sure what to do with its nearly 7,400 square feet of empty retail space until they read about towns in Northern Ireland who disguised their empty shops with murals depicting open, lively businesses.

Arkin's advertising firm Huckleberry Pie crafted scenes of busy stores, like a men's wear store and a bakery, and fitted them over the empty windows. Workers toil away behind the counter as ducks and chickens peer out from door frames. Discrete "For Lease" and "Build to Suit" signs appear between images of food and goods.

The fake storefronts seen from across the street.

Cameron Street is a few blocks away from the shops and restaurants along Ellsworth Drive, and as a result there isn't a lot of foot traffic. The Guardian Building isn't alone in having an empty first floor. The Cameron, an apartment building across the street, lost one of its two ground floor tenants, an outpatient surgery center. And two blocks away at Cameron and Spring streets, there are ground floor spaces at United Therapeutics' new headquarters that have been vacant for nearly four years.

If all of the storefronts on Cameron Street were filled, it might actually become a compelling destination that could draw shoppers and diners from other parts of downtown Silver Spring. But since most of them are empty, nobody wants to be the first to take the risk. (Other than Jimmy John's sandwich shop in the first floor of the Cameron, which as a chain can draw customers on name recognition alone.)

Hopefully, the Guardian Building can buck the trend. Its fake storefronts may not convince anyone, but it does look better than it did before. Hopefully, they'll catch the eye of potential tenants soon. According to this marketing brochure, the space is still vacant.


Hungry for neighborhood eateries, Anacostia could get a Busboys & Poets

Neighborhood restaurants can be the foundation of a community. In Anacostia, plans to bring popular local chain Busboys & Poets to the area are moving forward, while residents remember one sub shop that was the "spot to come to" before closing a generation ago.

Photo by Daquella manera on Flickr.

In recent years, restauranteur and mayoral candidate Andy Shallal has hinted he intends to open a Busboys & Poets in Anacostia. In response, residents launched a marketing campaign to woo the restaurant.

At last night's Washington City Paper debate, Shallal publicly confirmed he is in negotiations for 2 possible locations in Anacostia: the former American Furniture store at 2004 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, and the city-owned Big K lot in the 2200 block of MLK. Community sources say Shallal is exploring "franchising" the Busboys & Poets brand to a black-owned management group that would run the restaurant in the former furniture store.

A block away, long-time resident Melvin Holloway stands on the corner of the lot at the junction of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Pleasant Street, and Maple View Place SE and points to a sign.

Miles Long in 1984. Photo from the Anacostia Community Museum Archives.

"See: March 27, 1961," he says, singling out a date on the side of the neon sign's illuminating shell. "That's about when the Miles Long opened. It closed, probably, in the late '70s. But their memory is still strong."

The reverence that still exists in the hearts and stomachs of Anacostians for the Miles Long, decades after its closing, is a testament to the yearning both long-time and newer arrivals have for landmark neighborhood eateries. When discussing Anacostia in recent years with my Uncle Gary, who worked for Goodyear on Railroad Avenue in the 1970s, he always mentions the Miles Long.

Melvin Holloway stands in front of the former Miles Long. Photo by author.

According to Holloway, Miles Long "was the spot to come to at night, the spot to come to when it opened up early in the morning, and anytime in between. You could smell the fried onions they'd put on the steak sandwiches blocks away."

The Miles Long building had a brief second life in 2012 when a couple from Bethesda opened Mama's Kitchen, a pizzeria that the Washington Post highlighted as one of the first sit-down restaurants to open in the area in years. Since then, Mama's Kitchen moved to 2028 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue and became Mama's BBQ, Blues & Pizza.

A neighborhood dining scene is slowly returning. In recent years, Uniontown Bar & Grill opened at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and W Street. On Good Hope Road, Nurish Food & Drink recently opened in the Anacostia Arts Center, housed in the old Woolworth building and down the street from local mainstay Tony's Place.

Changes are coming for hungry Anacostians. Time will tell what neighborhood eatery future generations will get to remember.


St. Elizabeths East could become a community hub, but it'll take time

In January 2003, then-Mayor Anthony Williams announced plans to reimagine St. Elizabeths East Campus as a new community hub. Over 10 years later, it's beginning to materialize, but the private investment and new opportunities neighbors were promised have yet to arrive.

The Pavilion at Saint Elizabeth's East awaits activation. All photos by the author.

Neighborhood residents, community leaders, and local business owners participated in the first planning process for the District-owned campus in Congress Heights. Now, Mayor Vincent Gray is doing it again. After decades of disinvestment in the area, his administration is building new schools, new recreation centers, and the St. Elizabeths Pavilion, a new community center that opened last year.

While a planned vendor market hasn't started yet, a series of temporary events have positioned the pavilion to become an established rental venue, says Catherine Buell, Executive Director of St. Elizabeths East. To attract activity to the site, the city opened a free ice slide, hosted a free performance by a Grammy-award winning R&B artist, held fitness classes and has drawn a line-up of popular food trucks.

"The Pavilion has been a success," says Buell, a resident of Historic Anacostia, noting that over 10,000 people from across the region have come to St. Elizabeths East, a former mental health institution that was previously closed to the public. "And they are comfortable here," she adds.

Confirming city officials' desire to make the Pavilion a family-friendly destination, on a recent weekend, its meeting space hosted a community organization, while in the next room a group of small children played games under adult supervision.

Rendering of what an active Pavilion might look like one day.

Officials admit there's still work to do. "There were areas we needed to do a better job of tending to," says Buell. "We knew starting up an enterprise was going to be hard, but we have developed and built up a dynamic brand."

Last month, Victor Hoskins, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, disclosed the city had prematurely terminated its relationship with a management company that the city had paid over $250,000 to assist with marketing, booking and event planning at the Pavilion. The next step will be soliciting "successful third-party rentals" that can begin making the Pavilion a place of commerce. "Vendors are interested," Buell affirms.

Elsewhere on the campus, redevelopment plans are slowly moving forward. St. Elizabeths East Chapel, where Mayor Williams first announced plans to redevelop the campus in 2003, could soon become the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center, a business incubator that "will bridge the gap between the innovation field and local community" until a more permanent space is built. The permanent space, the 500,000-square-foot St. Elizabeth's Innovation Hub, can't proceed until 2016, when important infrastructure improvements are built.

In a press release, District officials said they "expect to create" a Demonstration Center with a "Digital Inclusion Center" with a state-of-the-art computer lab where residents can receive computer training, classrooms for job training and placement services, community meeting space, and "entrepreneurship and career conference areas." It should open this summer.

But the key phrase is "we expect to create." In conversations with community members in and around Congress Heights, many expressed a fatigue over the past decade in attending meetings and reading stories that foretold a new day of private investment and opportunity was round the corner. That day has yet to come.

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