Businesses Vanish From Once-Vibrant Stretch of Cleveland Park

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dead leaves have begun to collect outside the locked storefront where some of the District's wealthiest residents once got their daily caffeine fix. The Starbucks sign came down three months ago. The green-umbrella sidewalk tables are gone.

Next door, the upscale furniture consignment store has moved out. At Supercuts, one door down, two signs announce "We're closing soon!" Up Connecticut Avenue, an ice cream parlor is "closed until further notice," and a tailor warns customers to pick up their orders soon. After 23 years, a sign on the door says the shop is "closing for good" Tuesday.

The number of empty and soon-to-be-vacant storefronts -- one in six-- in this three-block stretch is the source of discussion on local blogs and the Cleveland Park e-mail group list: How did one of the District's most affluent and stable neighborhoods fall on hard times? ("It's official," one blogger declared recently. "Cleveland Park is dead.") How will the historic neighborhood rebound?

"I'm very concerned," said D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who lived in Cleveland Park in the 1980s before moving to nearby Forest Hills. Calling the June departure of Starbucks particularly "disturbing," Cheh said: "You can't even maintain a coffee shop in Cleveland Park? Come on. That's pretty telling."

Small businesses, which typically have high failure rates, come and go in most neighborhoods. Despite its affluence, Cleveland Park is hardly immune to the nation's deep recession. And even with a Metro stop in the heart of its business strip, business owners say a shortage of parking takes its toll.

Many Cleveland Park residents and business owners say the biggest factor behind the empty storefronts is a 20-year-old zoning rule limiting neighborhood restaurants and bars, which many say they think is being enforced too strictly. After all, most businesses in other parking-starved areas, such as Dupont Circle and Georgetown, appear -- so far, at least -- to be weathering the economic downturn. In Cleveland Park, 11 of 64 storefronts are vacant.

The Northwest neighborhood, about a mile wide and a half-mile long, is bordered by the Wisconsin and Connecticut avenue corridors, from Macomb Street north to Tilden Street.

How Cleveland Park charts its survival could determine whether it will retain the slightly sleepy feel of a leafy suburban area, like its northern D.C. neighbor, Chevy Chase, or rev up into even more of a dining and nightlife destination, like Dupont Circle to the south.

The debate has thrown the 98-year-old Cleveland Park Citizens Association into turmoil. A slate of candidates promoting more development is campaigning to take over the association's leadership in what is expected to be a hotly contested election Sept. 29. Members of Advocates for Wisconsin Avenue Renewal, which was formed during a decade-long battle over plans to build a two-story Giant Food supermarket and a five-story residential and retail building on Wisconsin at Newark Street, say the citizens association has been anti-business for years. The renewal group supported the Wisconsin Avenue proposal, which is expected to take three years to build. The citizens association opposed the higher-density development, which the D.C. Zoning Commission approved in July.

"There's been a history in Cleveland Park of neighbors organizing to oppose change and trying to preserve Cleveland Park as a small village," said Jeff Davis, a founding member of the renewal group who is running for citizens association president. "We like our small neighborhood feel, but we need to let local businesses know we welcome them and will support them once they're here."

The citizens association's president, George Idelson, who is not seeking reelection, said reports of the neighborhood's demise are "overblown" by those pushing for growth. He said business owners have complained of rising commercial rents, a slow city permitting process and neglected streets and sidewalks. The zoning restriction limiting bars and restaurants has ensured that residents can walk to a diverse mix of businesses, he said.

"Yes, there are stores leaving, but I think most people consider Cleveland Park a very desirable place to do business," Idelson said. "All you have to do is walk up and down the street, and you'll see most stores are doing quite well."

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