Road to a Retail Makeover

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 25, 2007

On H Street Northeast, there are hipster bars that draw weekend crowds large enough to rival those of U Street. There is a dance studio that teaches ballroom, ballet and Afro-Caribbean. A massive red-brick luxury condo building is rising on the western end, touting the slogan "DC's next great quarter."

The corridor once infamous for race riots and crime is in the midst of an urban revival. But one critical piece is missing: the shopping.

A few veteran mom-and-pop stores have survived the decades of neglect. A handful of national chains, such as Payless ShoeSource and Rite Aid, have staked out ground. But retail along H Street has not caught up with the rest of the development. Check-cashing stores, tax preparers and liquor stores dominate.

The District is looking at the street as one of the first places where it can influence the shopping landscape. Recently, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Planning Director Harriet Tregoning said the District will develop a citywide plan to keep and attract retail, and stem the $1 billion in sales tax they say is leaked to surrounding jurisdictions. The plan will target 20 neighborhoods where stores have failed to take hold.

H Street is on the list, along with Georgia Avenue, Shaw, M Street SE, Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue, East Capitol Street and Bladensburg Road. The other neighborhoods have not yet been identified.

Each faces its own challenges. Some require redevelopment from the ground up, others resemble suburbia. But H Street is perhaps the closest to a turnaround.

The community hopes the city's plan will create a better environment to attract retail. Among their requests are tax breaks for restoring old buildings, an expedited permitting process and cleaner streets.

"They talked about H Street in the theoretical and now we're here," said Joe Englert, who owns several popular bars in the neighborhood. "Now they've got to get in a different mind-set."

During a bumpy van ride through the corridor, Tregoning and Neil O. Albert, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, spoke about their visions of higher-quality stores on the street.

Over the next 10 years, the city thinks the neighborhood could support 300,000 square feet of retail. Through its Great Streets program, the city plans to spend $27 million sprucing up the corridor with wider sidewalks, more trees, flattering lighting, bike racks and signs for community attractions. There are plans for a trolley to ferry residents along the 1 1/2 -mile stretch.

Build it and they will come seems to be the prevailing philosophy. There are hopes for more apparel retailers, a jewelry store, book shop, pet store. The blocks from 7th to 12th streets are designated as the retail epicenter. To the west is the residential neighborhood that, with any luck, would feature a grocery store like Trader Joe's. To the east is the arts-and-entertainment zone, ending at Hechinger Mall.

"You can almost never begin with retail first, because retail wants customers," Tregoning said.

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