It’s All on Your Doorstep

Mixed-use developments are popping up all over the Washington area

July 26, 2013

Michaela Courtney lives in a mixed-use development in Arlington that has apartments, a Giant, restaurants and bars.

You’ve probably noticed a trend in the new apartment buildings going up in and around D.C. The ground floors contain much more than a lobby. They’re full of shops, restaurants, bars and every other convenience one could want. This trendy template for development is known as a mixed-use community, and it’s here in a big way.

Business on the Bottom …

It’s pretty obvious why mixed-use developments are popular: Renters get easy access to goods and services, while businesses have built-in — or live-in — clients.

“It’s just easy,” says Michaela Courtney, 29, a brand ambassador for Asics who lives at Penrose Square (2501 Ninth Road S, Arlington; 703-271-8009). Her building on Columbia Pike has apartments as well as a Giant and a variety of bars and restaurants. “I can just make quick trips for groceries or come down to meet someone at a bar,” she says.

In many ways, it re-creates a classic urban lifestyle. “What developers are doing is trying create that great American city experience,” Toby Bozzuto, president of The Bozzuto Group, which builds mixed-use developments in the area.

These types of developments may be a natural result of Washington’s growth.

“You have to have more density, but you don’t have more land,” says Colline Hernandez-Ayala, a partner at GTM Architects, which designs mixed-use buildings in the area. “The new solution is mixed-use where you get everything in one.”

In a city where long hours and rushed schedules are the norm, density can make life easier.

“Being able to have everything you need so close is just convenient,” says Taylor Price, a 28-year-old government employee who lives at The Avenue in Foggy Bottom (2221 I St. NW; 202-730-9739) above shops and a Whole Foods.

That convenience is great for businesses, too.

“It’s basically having built-in clientele,” says Doron Petersan, president and owner of Sticky Fingers (1370 Park Road NW; 202-299-9700), which rents a space in the first floor of the Park Triangle Apartments complex in Columbia Heights. “We have people we can market to and an audience that we can give offers to.”

A Shifting Market

Mixed-use development has spiked in the past decade, according to Bozzuto, with some companies starting to build almost exclusively in that realm.

“Probably 90 percent of our new development is [mixed use],” says Bozzuto, whose company has more than 50 properties in the area.

This spike comes from a variety of changes in the culture of D.C. renters.

“Whether it be frustration with traffic congestion, a desire for a walkable community to call home versus the old American dream of a white-picket fence and homeownership, or a shift to a more transient workforce, we have seen an increase in people’s desire for the ‘live, work, play’ urban environments,” says Rich Ellis, a senior project manager at Boston Properties, developer of The Avenue.

This cultural shift has brought people back into the city and nearby areas. If the people are there, that’s where businesses want to be.

“I don’t see why a developer wouldn’t choose mixed-use,” says Todd Thrasher, owner of Eamonn’s/TNT, a bar and restaurant at the mixed-use building Penrose Square. “You have so many more avenues for cash flow to come in.”

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

It’s not just the convenience of city living that draws renters to mixed-use developments, but community as well.

“We aren’t at a Cheers level yet,” Thrasher says, “but it’s definitely easier to develop a community. People can just come down and have a drink.”

Having all of your needs nearby can foster community among renters, too. “I’ve met a lot of people in my building versus when I lived in other buildings without this stuff,” Courtney says.

As far as developers are concerned, community is good for business. “When you create these communities, people come and they don’t want to leave,” Ellis says.

Development Woes

Of course, there are downsides. These types of developments can be challenging and expensive to build.

“You could have a grocery store with apartments above,” Hernandez-Ayala says. “That leads to a lot of work on how to make things like air conditioning work.”

Mixed-use developments have also been criticized for their huge size and scope, which tend to make people already living in the area wary. Rents could soar, and local businesses could struggle against the new competition.

“Developers are sometimes required to have local business [in the mix], but it’s usually an afterthought,” says Sticky Fingers’ Petersan.

These days, developers often try to get community support before construction starts. “We’ll show the community early plans, and the developer responds to their concepts,” Hernandez-Ayala says.

Ellis says working together is the goal. “We talk with everyone to figure out how to collaborate,” he says. “Building a community is the really important thing.”

Written by Express contributor Matthew Razak

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