And while Georgetown’s storefronts may have historic wooden beams and sidewalks where the Kennedys strode, the names outside are looking more like those in a mall. Ubiquitous brands such as Sunglass Hut, Johnny Rockets and Nike have flooded the neighborhood, filling in around mom-and-pop restaurants and chic local boutiques. Deals to bring strip-mall staples such as Michael’s craft store and T.J. Maxxare being discussed.
Developer and D.C. native Jair Lynch warned recently that suburban city-like centers could steal the District’s thunder. “Just like the suburbs kicked our butt on retail in the 1980s, that’s exactly what’s going to happen with these transit-oriented, urban neighborhoods that are coming up now,” he said.
But for all the success of town centers, don’t expect Lanier, the king of Georgetown retail, to build one. People love cities because of their eccentricities, things that developers cannot build or import: the tattoos on the woman who passes you on the sidewalk, the street person who bums cigarettes and always remembers your name.
“Both of us can go to the dentist,” Lanier says. “You can say you want the teeth of Cary Grant, where one is perfectly set next to the other one and they are white and shining and perfect. I want to have that one crooked tooth in the front — I want it back crooked. Because that’s the way that I am. And if I take it away, it’s going to bother you.”
The feeling of walking down M Street in Georgetown or on U Street cannot be duplicated, Lanier argues, because these areas were built not by a developer with a singular vision but by time.
The buildings were erected over decades, when different architects and designers were in vogue. Every owner has his own vision — one wants a bar, another wants an art gallery or a furniture store. Together, they create a chaotic mix that might not be as functional as what is dreamt up in a developer’s marketing office. But a city’s character, Lanier argues, will be a draw for much longer.
Much of that character is created by an economy’s booms and busts, as old businesses are forced to close and new ones are ushered in.
“When you look at even the most successful town centers, Reston Town Center — when you look at whether it will really, truly have the character that a much more diversified city has, you have to wonder: Will it ever have a real down cycle?” Phillips said. “That’s something that really adds character.”
Kettler has heard the criticism that town centers end up feeling like movie sets. But he sees a naturally evolving plot: Driving through the Village at Leesburg, he is happy to see that the young trees he planted a few years ago are a little taller, that there are more people hitting the treadmills at L.A. Fitness, that there are more people on the street.
“When you put the camera on and you put the actors on the stage, it looks like a real place.”
Jonathan O’Connell covers development and commercial real estate in Washington for The Washington Post’s Capital Business. Follow him on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz.
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