Bermuda has its Triangle, but for mysterious vanishings, nothing beats Van Ness, the Washington neighborhood where retailers arrive, struggle for months -- and then disappear.
National chains routinely go belly up in the area's four-block strip. Stores that have closed in the past five years include Baskin-Robbins, Pizza Hut, Kitchen Bazaar, Kitchen Store, Taco Bell, Roy Rogers, Payless Shoes, Petco, Safeway and the Gap.
Half a dozen independently owned shops and restaurants have come and gone, too. And unlike other neighborhoods, when stores close in Van Ness it's often impossible to find another retailer brave enough to move in. Even prime-looking real estate stands empty for years.
What's the problem? Van Ness is a design catastrophe, say urban planners, a hopeless combination of off-putting buildings, ill-conceived layouts and an unappealing mix of stores.
"It's fundamentally flawed," said Robert Wennett, president of Starwood Urban Investments, a real estate development firm in the District. "I'm offered buildings there constantly, but I'm not coming near the place."
Neither are shoppers. "They could make the buildings more attractive," said Debra Kaltenecker, a 29-year-old insurance underwriter who lives in the neighborhood. "But I'm not sure how they could do it short of tearing them down."
What's confounding is that Van Ness seems blessed with all the elements of a retail gold mine. It's on Connecticut Avenue, one of the town's busiest commuter thoroughfares. It's home to thousands of well-paid professionals. Parking spots are abundant, and its Metro station assures heavy foot traffic. A mile to the north and south, in Cleveland Park and Chevy Chase Circle, the retail sections are thriving.
But as residents have long grumbled, the buildings of Van Ness all but scream, "Don't shop here." Complicating matters, the place hosts a peculiar mishmash of populations: young black students, middle-aged white office workers and legions of eightysomethings who live nearby. Catering to such a combination is a retailer's nightmare.
Also, the strip is owned by a half-dozen landlords who have shown little inclination to collaborate on a turnaround. And though plenty of locals want spiffier stores and better restaurants, a small, highly vocal "not-in-my-back-yard" band of activists campaigns hard against any development that could perk the place up.
"They're a pretty conservative bunch," said longtime resident Pat Belcher. "We want to keep the place commercially viable, but for now it's deadsville."
Today, Van Ness is on the verge of a make-or-break moment. Two new apartment buildings are under construction there, bringing in hundreds of new residents and providing retailers with fresh incentives to attempt a redesign. Meanwhile, competition from neighborhoods including Friendship Heights -- which has lured big-name stores such as Eddie Bauer and Borders -- is heating up.
But resuscitating Van Ness would require dynamite and millions of dollars -- drastic and expensive measures that few are willing to take and that might never pay off. Here's a look at how the place landed in this mess and what's needed to clean it up.
Van Ness is home to a handful of Washington's most unloved buildings. The first batch was constructed in the late 1960s and early '70s, the waning years of Modernism, a design movement that spurned ornamental touches as being old-fashioned frippery. Anything that didn't hold up the building wasn't needed.
Up sprang countless flat-topped, concrete boxes with gridlike windows, embodying a streamlined future of efficiency and simplicity. Though initially eye-catching and novel, the buildings were soon considered too shorn of embellishment and too inhumanly scaled to be shopper-friendly.
Take Van Ness Center at 4301 Connecticut Ave. It was supposed to delight a public bored with knockoffs of classical structures and longing for something clean, original and dramatically different. At the time, Van Ness was home to nothing more than trees, a car dealership, a furniture store and the Bureau of National Standards, where the University of the District of Columbia now stands.
Van Ness Center opened in 1969, a purposefully nondescript concrete rectangle checkered with panes of glass. It featured two floors of retail, including a mezzanine -- the District's first indoor mall.
It was a success, initially. Scan Furniture and Casual Corner, among others, moved in, and in the pre-Tysons Corner age, shoppers came. "It was very vibrant," said Arnold Polinger, a principal at Polinger Shannon & Luchs Co., which manages the property. "Everybody went there."
But the center, like the product of any hot design trend, began to look dated within a few years. Demand for mezzanine space fell off fast, and the owners stopped looking for new tenants 15 years ago. Today, even the space on 4301's street level is hard to rent. Polinger has hunted unsuccessfully for 2 1/2 years for someone to move into space left empty when Roy Rogers left.
"We're dying for anyone," said Zubeida Elhindi, a Polinger property manager.
The troubles of Van Ness Center baffle the only surviving partner of Berla, Abel and Weinstein, the District firm that designed 4301 and figured the place would be teeming for decades. Jesse Weinstein, now retired and living in Maryland, stands by his building, though his recommended remedies for 4301 suggest he doesn't grasp the extent of its problems. He'd like to see more plants around the place and perhaps some ritzier eateries.
"What it needs," he said, "is a good, moderately priced French restaurant."
The stores on every beloved retail strip -- from New York's Fifth Avenue to Los Angeles's Rodeo Drive -- virtually abut the sidewalk, keeping the attention of shoppers. In Van Ness, most buildings are set back a good 50 feet from the street. And though Van Ness has plenty of parking, it's of the wrong type -- the underground, charge-by-the-hour variety, which people generally abhor.
The design flaws of Van Ness lead to another problem: a lousy mix of stores. The area boasts a handful of fast-food options, but nowhere to splurge on a fancy dinner. Even Starbucks has forsaken the place. On a Sunday, the finest coffee shop around, Sirius Coffee, is closed, so java lovers must get their fix at either the local Burger King or a pizza joint.
Meanwhile, many essentials of a neighborhood -- a bakery, a bookstore and a place to buy a quart of milk fast -- are missing. There's also no "destination retail," the sort of venues that people make special trips to visit, such as movie theaters or department stores.
Local critics have pinned the blame on shortsighted, greedy and absentee landlords. "These guys are like banks," said Andrew Frank, owner of Sirius Coffee. "They only care about one thing; they don't care about customers."
But Van Ness's landlords typically don't have the luxury of being choosy. Consider the mini-tempest stirred by the recent arrival of Dry Clean Depot at 4418 Connecticut. Many residents believed another dry cleaner was the last thing the area needed -- it already had a handful.
"We had a public meeting with Dry Clean Depot and we told them, `We don't need you, we don't want you, please go somewhere else,' " said Scott Strauss, a former member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. "It was hotly debated for a while, and we couldn't do anything about it."
Those protests were heard loud and clear by the company that leases Dry Clean Depot's building, Borger Management Inc. But Borger was in a bind. After a Petco left the space, the company contacted scores of national chains, including Blockbuster Video, only to be rejected by each. Dozens of restaurants turned it down, too.
"Then along comes Dry Clean Depot and they say, `Yes, this is a good location for us,' " said Joe Borger, the company's president. "We didn't have a list of tenants to choose from, that's for sure."
So Van Ness is stuck in a vicious cycle: The area's buildings, layout and parking turn off shoppers, which turns off retailers, which leads to a bad mix of stores, which further turns off shoppers, and so on.
Breaking this cycle would be tough. In Van Ness, a core group of locals -- most of them elderly -- are dead set against changes that might draw crowds. When Sirius Coffee wanted to offer live outdoor music, for instance, residents rejected the idea. (Sirius needed their approval because it has a liquor license.) And when a restaurant wanted to offer sidewalk dining, that was nixed too.
"Have you ever been to an ANC meeting?" asked Strauss. "If you don't like something and you get five other people to show up, you've got leverage."
Van Ness's just-say-no crowd argues that it's simply trying to maintain some tranquillity. "Sound does carry at night," said one live-music opponent who declined to be identified. "And if you allow one business to have live music, then why shouldn't all businesses be allowed to do it?"
But even if residents were to unanimously back a redesign, there's a final hurdle. Van Ness is owned by a half-dozen companies plus the D.C. government, and none of these owners seems interested in coming up with a plan to work together. There have been efforts in the past, but they went nowhere.
Karl Corby, who owns an office and retail building at 4201 Connecticut, vaguely remembers an invitation from a group of retailers a year or so ago. "I didn't attend myself," Corby said. "Not too much came out of it. They wanted a contribution to do some promotion but I never heard much more about it."
Other owners have attended similar meetings over the years, but the costs of a wide-scale turnaround have proved daunting and big payoffs are by no means assured. Several years ago, Polinger Shannon & Luchs drafted blueprints for a redesign of Van Ness Center, then tried to generate interest among national retailers such as Borders Books.
"We hired brokers and approached hundreds of retailers," Polinger said. "But nobody had an interest in moving in."
Even subtracting its design flaws, Van Ness is treacherous terrain for retailers. With its cross-section of ages, incomes and races, stores that work tend to be lowest-common-denominator outlets peddling must-have stuff, such as a CVS pharmacy and a Giant Food. These are vital to the neighborhood but don't exactly add charm to the place.
All of which, say urban planners, means that Van Ness is like a hospital patient on life support -- barely alive and likely to stay that way for a long time.
The neighborhood was conceived and executed during what turned out to be a brief, unfortunate moment in urban planning. Since the plans for Van Ness were drafted, city planners have learned that shoppers crave what they had all along: the Main Street-style strips of Cleveland Park and Georgetown, with buildings clustered tightly together, close to the sidewalks, scaled to human dimensions and accessible to cars but designed mostly for pedestrians.
"Slowly, over a 20-year period, dragging their feet and in fear of change, retailers are being forced by customers to create Main Street again," said Andres Duany, a Miami architect and a critic of Modernism.
So experts say that even if Van Ness never becomes a mecca for shoppers, it will endure as a lesson in how to avoid the creation of a retail disaster area.
A LOOK AT VAN NESS
Number of residents:
Residents by race:
Hispanic origin* 365
Asian or Pacific Is. 334
African American 273
Native American 12
Median household income: $66,156
*Hispanics may be any race
CAPTION: A product of a hot design trend that quickly became dated, Van Ness Center at 4301 Connecticut Ave. is a nondescript concrete building that has trouble attracting tenants and shoppers.