The tiny Giant Food store on Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest Washington is a relic from the '50s. The "F" in its old red neon sign flickers on and off. The aisles are so cramped that two carts equal a traffic jam. The etched-out graffiti has scarred the brick storefront.
Four decades after the store was built, Giant Food Inc. is proposing to redevelop a block of the busy avenue -- just north of the Washington National Cathedral at the Friendship Heights border -- so it can replace it with a new grocery store more than twice the size of the existing one. The new supermarket will have most of the perks suburban shoppers have enjoyed but urban customers have envied -- a pharmacy, bakery and gourmet foods.
The redevelopment, which would include a small strip of adjacent shops, is significant because it would be Giant's first major investment in the District in two decades. The project is part of a renewed interest in the city by major grocery chains such as Shoppers Food Warehouse and Fresh Fields. Safeway, which has maintained a large presence in the city, also is looking to expand its operations.
"We are returning to our roots," said Barry Scher, a spokesman for the Landover-based chain, which built its last Giant store in the District 20 years ago at 7th and O streets.
Since then, Giant and other grocers have turned their attention to the suburbs, where they've built bigger stores that have proved to be more profitable. The company now has four small stores in the District.
But now, retailers have realized that the shopping demands of urban residents are not being met in many city neighborhoods. In addition, the suburbs are saturated with stores, and competition for new sites is intense.
"The opportunities in the suburbs are becoming more and more limited and the chains are looking elsewhere," said Jeff Metzger, publisher of Food World in Columbia. "The locations in Bethesda, Manassas, Fairfax and Springfield are spoken for."
Both Shoppers Food Warehouse and Safeway Inc. have expressed interest in building stores in the District, although they have not officially specified locations.
Giant would like to open a store at the site of the Tivoli Theater in Columbia Heights, but Shoppers Food has considered the same location. Fresh Fields/Whole Foods Market, which now has two supermarkets in Washington, plans to build a D.C. store next year at 14th and P streets NW.
Officials at Safeway, which has the largest supermarket presence in the District, are watching their competitors closely. The retailer currently has 16 D.C. stores, including a new one in Southeast. The chain recently spent $5 million on renovating its District supermarkets.
"As our business has evolved, we made sure we maintained our presence in the District," said Safeway spokesman Craig Muckle.
Giant unveiled its blueprints for the new store Thursday night at a meeting held at the McLean Gardens community. The retailer told dozens of residents that it would raze the existing Giant Food store built in 1953 as early as next year. About five other shops, including a G.C. Murphy five-and-dime store, also would be knocked down.
The new shopping center would open sometime in 2001 with a large underground parking facility for customers and employees, as well as a small strip of stores facing Wisconsin Avenue at Newark Street.
Residents in this established neighborhood peppered Giant officials and the development's architect with questions about rumbling delivery trucks, the length of construction and the center's lighting.
Other residents, such as retiree Rosemary Soubiran, wanted to make sure the store would be just as nice as the ones in the suburbs. They asked for bakeries with freshly made buns, and the same gourmet foods found in Giant supermarkets in Montgomery and Fairfax counties.
"I didn't mention a wine shop," Soubiran said softly after the meeting. "That would be nice."
Returning to the District isn't as easy as it looks. The path through the city's building restrictions and various departments is mined with migraines, though retailers say Mayor Anthony A. Williams is trying to change things. In addition, longtime residents are often attached to the small stores in their neighborhoods and fear new development will push them out.
Giant and its owner, Dutch grocery conglomerate Royal Ahold NV, say they're interested in tweaking their suburban formats so they can push more easily into the cities. Yet some community leaders say they hope grocers will look past Northwest Washington, where many of the new supermarkets are being built.
"I hope Giant will match what they're doing on Wisconsin Avenue with a similar undertaking on Martin Luther King Avenue and Alabama Avenue," said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations.