Where will Washington Design Center vendors go?

Douglas Jemal, Anthony Lanier and other developers are aggressively trying to woo more than 20 vendors of the Washington Design Center to relocate to their properties when the design center closes its current location near L’Enfant Plaza.

The vendors, who supply fabrics, carpets, furniture and antiques to designers of apartments, hotels, offices and luxury homes, have long pitched their wares in showrooms at 300 D St. SW. That building, however, was sold in July for $50 million and is slated to become a Bible museum.

Many of the vendors have begun collectively considering where to relocate and have toured sites in Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District, according to Arthur J. Santry III, senior managing director and principal at Cassidy Turley, which is managing their hunt for space.

It isn’t a straightforward search. Though many of the vendors would like to relocate together, each has a separate lease in their current location. Figuring out where to put two dozen design studios is difficult because many are not ideally suited for either traditional storefronts or office space. And though the vendors prefer easy automobile and Metro access, they may not be able to afford rent in those areas.

“The biggest problem the design center faces is you’d love to be in a high-traffic retail area, but those rents are higher there,” Santry said.

Lanier, principal of EastBanc, took a bus full of vendors on a tour of Georgetown recently, showing off not just his properties, but others. He said the concept is a natural fit for Georgetown because of all the other boutiques and design firms in the neighborhood. The day ended with an open bar reception at L2 Lounge. “There is no place that makes more sense for the design center to locate than to Georgetown because Georgetown already is a design center,” Lanier said.

But Jemal has also laid out plans for a new Washington Design Center in a redeveloped property at New York Avenue and 16th Street NE, next to the historical Hecht’s warehouse. Jemal’s Douglas Development acquired the property last year.

Jemal and Antunovich Associates, the Chicago-based architecture and design firm, envision the vendors as a central part of a redeveloped Hecht’s campus. Freight elevators would allow for easy access to furniture and antique sellers and an interior courtyard would provide a respite from New York Avenue traffic noise. A parking garage would be built between the design center and the Art Deco-style Hecht’s building.

Jemal said the project ought to serve as a gateway to the city. “I made my pitch. We’ll see what happens,” he said.

New York Avenue NE is likely to cost less compared with locations in Georgetown, Alexandria and the East End of downtown — some of the other places the vendors have considered.

Could the vendors be in Georgetown, either in office space or retail space off the main M Street and Wisconsin Avenue corridors? Joe Sternlieb, executive director of the Georgetown Business Improvement District (and former EastBanc employee), pitched Georgetown alongside Lanier and said the neighborhood “has unusually good deals on non-core retail space.”

Sternlieb said there were a number of locations in Georgetown, some office, some retail, that he thought the vendors would be able to afford.

“People consider Georgetown a very expensive place for real estate,” he said. “In some cases that’s true, but in a lot of cases it isn’t. And I think when people look at the space it makes them aware of how affordable and terrific Georgetown is.”

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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