The Downtown Drag

Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles has an array of shops and businesses.
Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles has an array of shops and businesses. But downtown Washington is not known for its art galleries, old bookstores or high-fashion boutiques. (Pete Saloutos - © Pete Saloutos/corbis)
By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, September 8, 2006

One of the disappointing things about downtown Washington is how limited and boring its retail offerings are, particularly considering the wealth and sophistication of the millions of people who live and work in the District or visit here each year.

It's not simply that Washington doesn't have anything like New York's Madison Avenue or L.A.'s Melrose Avenue. If you work downtown, it's hard to find a lunch counter, a cobbler, a barbershop or even an old-fashioned pub. A club scene has begun to reemerge on F Street, and a home-furnishings district in Georgetown. But can you name a part of downtown known for its art galleries, or old bookstores, or high-fashion boutiques?

There are lots of explanations for this, having to do with how the city developed and the physical and cultural realities of being a government town. And there's no denying that things have been getting better.

But a big part of the blame lies with real estate developers who, in their rush to deliver more lucrative office space demanded by law firms, associations and government agencies, have been allowed to ignore the vitality of the city's streetscape.

As it happens, some of the most disappointing recent examples involve some of the handsomest new office buildings by some of the city's classiest developers.

Let's start with 1601 K Street, three blocks north of the White House on 16th Street, developed by the JBG Cos. Most of the building is occupied by a single law firm, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, which as part of its lease negotiation asked for the ground-floor space for its reception area and conference room. I'm sure this works splendidly for Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, along with JBG, which gets the sky-high rents that premium office space commands. For the rest of us, however, the building contributes to what is virtually a block-long dead zone along a stretch of K Street that could be one of the liveliest areas of downtown.

Wilmer Hale also has a splendid new headquarters, at 1875 Pennsylvania Ave., developed by EastBanc Inc. With its marble and glass and a soaring central lobby, the building is a monument to good taste, law-firm consolidation and $500-an-hour billing rates. But it, too, is an island unto itself, with nothing to offer the passerby except glimpses of the anteroom of the firm's well-appointed conference center.

Just one block west is the new annex of the International Monetary Fund, with its unusual and attractive waterfall facing the Avenue of Presidents. At the insistence of city officials, the IMF agreed to include ground-floor retail accessible from the street and open to the public. But in the year since the building opened, the space has remained empty, reportedly because onerous airport-like security requirements have driven away interested restaurant tenants. (An IMF official hinted yesterday that an announcement may be imminent.)

When it comes to using security concerns to trump good urban planning, however, nobody beats the federal government. A wonderful example can be found in the neighborhood around H and 9th streets NW. There, the Secret Service, the U.S. Mint and the Smithsonian have moved into stolid new office buildings bordering the site of the city's old convention center. But instead of the ground-floor shops and cafes envisioned for an area that holds great promise for extending the East End revival, passersby are treated to locked doors, vacant windows and security guards who make it clear pedestrians are not really welcome.

Even when developers include ground-floor retail space in their office buildings -- or are required to do it by special zoning rules, as in the old downtown shopping district -- the results can be disappointing. The spaces often do not include the ceiling height, display windows and other features that make for successful retailing. And because they want long leases and top-credit tenants, office developers prefer banks and national chains willing to pay rents closer to those of the offices upstairs. The exceptions are dry cleaners or sandwich shops, which developers view as amenities for the people working in the buildings.

A true revival of downtown retailing will require mechanisms to get around these natural inclinations of developers -- and the obsessive security concerns of the government.

One obvious place to start would be an amendment to the D.C. zoning ordinance to require appropriately designed ground-floor retail space in all new or renovated office buildings downtown. If certain federal agencies can't live with that, plenty of suburban developers are eager to build the fortresses they crave. And if, as developers claim, such an ordinance shaves a bit off the value of downtown property, it would represent a fraction of the windfall developers have enjoyed during the boom of the past five years. My own guess is that, in creating a more vibrant downtown, such a zoning change would make their office properties more valuable in the long run, not less.

The city might also consider an idea put forward by Anthony Lanier, who has almost single-handedly engineered a retail revival in Georgetown in recent years. (Paradoxically, he's also the developer of the retail-less Wilmer Hale building.) Lanier suggests that the District set up an entity that would lease all the retail space in office buildings in a particular downtown area -- a "master lease." Some of the stores could be sublet at higher rents to banks and Starbucks shops, while other space might be rented at a discount to smaller, independent retailers to create variety and excitement. This is hardly a radical concept -- it's exactly what mall owners do to assemble a mix of stores that can attract shoppers. Only, in this case, it would be done on behalf of a variety of building owners, who would effectively pool their retail space and share the risks and rewards.

Yes, it's great that hot new shopping districts have taken root on 7th Street in the East End, and in Chevy Chase, and at 14th and U. But the potential remains for a much larger, untapped retail market downtown, for independents as well as national chains, if only the city and its developers could muster the will and the patience to make it happen.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached

© 2006 The Washington Post Company