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Life Around Dupont Circle Takes a New Turn

Some local merchants concede that the chain stores have increased foot traffic.
Some local merchants concede that the chain stores have increased foot traffic. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Chris Kirkham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 14, 2006

For more than a generation, the Third Day has been a Dupont Circle landmark, a garden shop in the middle of a city. People walking by would be stopped by the vibrant pink of a bromeliad or pulled through the door by a pungent whiff of basil.

By the end of November, the shop will be history.

One door away, Neil Conway of District Hardware expects to be forced out of Dupont this year by rising rents. He'll probably move, depriving people in the neighborhood of the best place to buy a screwdriver or a paintbrush.

Sweeping change is underway in one of the most distinctive neighborhoods in Washington, driven by trends in the market for commercial real estate.

Polished national chains such as Cosi, Ann Taylor Loft and Chipotle are snapping up historic storefronts and supplanting quirky local merchants. The chains are helping to drive up commercial rents, which have doubled -- even tripled, in some places -- in a decade. They see profit and a chance to associate their stores with the cachet of a funky neighborhood.

But some people who live in the neighborhood see a unique cityscape slipping away.

Along Connecticut Avenue, independent art galleries, curiosity shops and restaurants with names like the Golden Booeymonger are gone. Many independent merchants say they can't pay the rents the chains pay, so they are closing or moving. As they do, many residents contend, the utility of the neighborhood for people who live there is disappearing with them.

"I used to feel a lot more at home on Connecticut," said Rob Halligan, president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association. "But now it feels a lot more like somebody else's neighborhood I'm walking through than my own."

A similar story has played out across the country in recent years.

From New York's SoHo to Chicago's Lincoln Park to San Francisco's Hayes Valley, chain stores are remaking urban neighborhoods, sparking protest. In some places, people have managed to slow the trend and retain a mix of local and national retailers, while other neighborhoods, Georgetown among them, have essentially become shopping malls.

Dupont has not reached that point; the neighborhood still has far more local merchants than national chains. But the balance is shifting. Private and public decisions over the next couple of years could determine how much of the neighborhood's old character survives.

Chains Move In

Phil Herbert has seen the end coming for a long time.

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