Strategy, Not Serendipity, Needed To Renew Downtown's Retail Core
By Rudolph A. Pyatt Jr.
Development activity in downtown Washington's east end may be an encouraging sign for merchants at the Shops at National Place, among others, as local real estate experts suggest. But that kind of speculation is fairly typical of the whimsical notions that have contributed to the decline of merchandise-oriented retail in the downtown area.
What downtown merchants need most is a strategy for revitalization of what remains of the old retail core, between F and G streets NW, and from 14th to 10th streets NW.
Yet what merchants and owners of the Shops are getting instead is a promise of how wonderful business will be once the MCI Center, the new convention center, a cluster of entertainment retail establishments and more restaurants are up and running.
Though all of those developments will produce a synergy that will help revitalize downtown Washington, they should not be seen as solutions to problems that have made it increasingly difficult for merchants at the Shops and other stores in that area to be competitive with their suburban counterparts.
The existing convention center and the Shops at National Place opened in the early 1980s amid considerable fanfare and promises of great things to come. Neither, however, has lived up to those promises. The convention center proved to be too small soon after it opened and the Shops, an enclosed shopping center at 14th and F streets NW, continues to have trouble finding the right tenant mix.
It's obvious, though, that neither the Shops nor most retail outlets in that part of the city have managed to attract much business from the thousands of convention delegates who come to Washington each year. At the same time, the downtown retail district has not been the destination of choice for millions of tourists, patrons at the National and Warner theaters and nearby restaurants, District residents or thousands of commuters who work downtown.
The MCI Center and other entertainment venues could change that dramatically by attracting more people to the downtown area at night and on weekends and by creating a new environment for investment by retailers and others.
But rather than waiting for that to happen, merchants, developers and city officials should begin now to rebuild the central retail core as a viable shopping district.
As things stand, the decline of the Shops is fairly typical of the state of retail downtown. Clearly, something is missing there besides the eagerly awaited entertainment attractions on the eastern edge of downtown.
It's all so simple, as a recent letter from a reader in Arlington indicates.
"I work in the District and I find it impossible to buy items I need, like a screwdriver or a spool of thread," the reader complained. "I have long wished that during my lunch hour I could buy such items."
Imagine that: A suburban resident who longs for the convenience of shopping for merchandise in the District during his lunch hour. Presumably, there are thousands of commuters who would do the same thing if given the opportunity, though District officials have yet to discover the revenue potential.
"If such retail opportunities existed [in the District], the city could add millions to its sales tax collection coffers," the reader concluded.
District officials seem less inclined, however, to pursue that kind of opportunity than they are in letting serendipity work its way through downtown.
It was in a similar planning vacuum during the 1980s that developers overbuilt the office market and forced dozens of struggling retailers out of the downtown area. But with the development slowing dramatically because of the commercial real estate bust in the early '90s, experts are now selling entertainment.
Even so, there is room for entertainment and a revitalized merchandise-oriented retail core, said Len Harris, a former retail executive and who is now a leasing specialist with Carey Winston-Barrueta.
"I see the opportunity for small retail [businesses] between F and G streets and 10th and Eighth, where they have to keep the storefronts in those buildings," Harris said in an interview this week.
The demographics of people working downtown are much stronger than they were 20 years ago when the old downtown retail core was still relatively strong, despite an increase in the number of suburban shopping malls, according to Harris.
Harris estimates that more than one-third of the major law firms in the District now have offices near Metro Center in the heart of downtown. "Lord knows, there are enough monied people working in offices in that area. The money is there and somebody just has to gamble on the area. If you show people good stores, they'll come and shop," Harris said.
Still, he said, the District needs to adopt a retail development strategy to encourage investment by developers and merchants.
Clearly some cities, including Boston, Philadelphia and New York, have developed strategies in which they have used incentives, grants, empowerment zones and other tools to strengthen retail districts.
In the District, officials seem content to wait and hope that the convention center, the arena and other projects being built downtown will eliminate the need to make economic development policy decisions.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company