Retail vacancies beg a question of identity
By Danielle Douglas,
Ann Marie Baldine remembers the specialty boutiques that filled Chevy Chase Pavilion, when she opened her rug shop La Musa at the Friendship Heights mall 16 years ago.
There were quirky stores such as Gazelle wearable art and shops such as women’s designer Koffi Agosu. The 11-story pavilion also housed national chains Pottery Barn and Cheesecake Factory, but the mix was balanced and it was still “a neighborhood place,” Baldine said.
The speciality stores thinned out over the years and were replaced by national chains. “When they brought in the Stein Mart and CVS, I never felt as though they really defined the niche that they had at this place.”
That lack of an identity, Baldine said, is evident throughout the shopping district.
“How do you have a TJ Maxx with a Tiffany’s?” she questioned. “The mix is crazy. We need more artsy, unique stores, not some place that you can find at Montgomery Mall or White Flint.”
A string of recent store closings in Friendship Heights may present an opportunity to usher in a new lineup of distinctive merchants to the shopping district, which stretches from Jennifer Street NW up beyond South Park Avenue in Chevy Chase.
But the district is carved up between nine property owners, with differing approaches to leasing their sites. There is no unified vision for the retail hub, which has become a neighborhood of dead zones and hot spots.
“The area wasn’t planned,” said Janis Schiff, a commercial real estate attorney at Holland & Knight in D.C., who specializes in retail. “It sort of evolved on its own, with each land owner developing their own semi-self-contained project. It didn’t necessarily fit with everything else.”
On paper, Friendship Heights seems like the ideal location for any retailer: it’s home to one of the Washington area’s wealthiest populations, resides along the main thoroughfare of Wisconsin Avenue, and is centered around a Metro station and bus terminal.
A who’s who of department stores — Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdales — anchor the district. Yet the area is never quite as bustling as Georgetown or Tysons Corner Center.
The closing of Borders bookstore, Filene’s Basement and Pottery Barn in the past 12 months has left a few dark storefronts along Wisconsin Avenue.
Farther up the street at the Wisconsin Place development, the Whole Foods welcomes a steady stream of customers, much like the Clyde’s restaurant across the street at Chevy Chase Center.
The center, however, is peppered with vacancies, which may soon be filled, according to David Smith, president of Chevy Chase Land Co., owner of the project. He said there are “leases out for signature” to fill three spaces along Wisconsin Circle, but declined to offer any details.
Smith noted that his company is also in talks with restaurateurs to replace Famoso and M Cafe, which closed last April, at the Collection at Chevy Chase, which is next to Chevy Chase Center.
A need for more eateries
Restaurants are in short supply in the shopping corridor, said Jonathan Bender, a neighborhood commissioner for Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E. “You get some cross-fertilization on foot traffic with restaurants, so they become kind of an anchor in the evenings,” he said. “The folks moving into this neighborhood have disposable income, eat out and want a walkable space.”
Later this month, Rosa Mexicano is scheduled to open a 7,304-square-foot restaurant at 5225 Wisconsin Ave. NW.
“Rosa will add a new dynamic to the area. It has a thriving bar scene and could become a popular hang out,” said Perry Reith, senior asset manager at Grosvenor, which owns the site.
Reith said he believes Friendship Heights, where Grosvenor owns more than 153,000 square feet of mixed-use space, “matured and stabilized during the last economic cycle.” He said, “New tenants will take all of the vacant locations in time because the area, despite the turnover in tenants, has attractive demographics. ”