The Van Ness Travel Agency will remain in the Van Ness Centre mall until the end of this month, then move to the fourth floor of the Van Ness Centre building. An article in the Oct. 6 District Weekly incorrectly reported the agency's plans.
The Van Ness Centre Mall on upper Connecticut Avenue, the city's first enclosed shopping plaza, has closed after 16 years due to a lack of customers, according to mall owners. But street-level stores, including a popular Giant Food store will remain open.
The second-story mall, which once housed as many as 20 shops, will be converted to office space that Van Ness owners said they believe will be more profitable. The conversion will cost $1.3 million, according to an official of the Polinger Co., managers of the six-story building that contains the shopping area.
The owners tried to sell the building several months ago, but then changed their minds, said Robert Silverman, one of the owners. The conversion to office space "is going to help, obviously" in making the building more attractive to investors if the owners again try to sell the building, he said. "We want to make it the second floor an economically productive level."
The street-level stores, including a drugstore, a fast-food restaurant, and a popular supermarket, will not be affected by the closings.
Stores that closed included a furniture store, a shoe store, a few clothing stores, a gift shop, travel agency, beauty salon, barber shop, a dry cleaner and an optician. The last of them closed their doors Saturday.
"I had customers break into tears when they heard about the closing," said Meriam Shapiro, owner of the Bath & Closet Boutique, the mall's first tenant in 1967.
The closing ironically comes at a time when development around the Van Ness Centre is booming. The Metro station downstairs opened in December l981, shortly after the long-awaited uptown campus of the Univerity of the District of Columbia opened across the street. A few steps away at 4250 Connecticut Avenue, a new office building is being leased along with a group of new shops on the first floor. A block south the new Intelsat headquarters is under construction.
"It was busier when we didn't have Metro," said Nello Inzi, a beauty salon operator. "We were expecting a big boom, but as soon as they put the Metro in, business died out. People are just going downtown."
Silverman agreed. "Everybody thinks if you're at a Metro stop you've got a real bonanza. I'm saying our experience shows it's not," he said.
While Metro did not bring more patrons to what was essentially a neighborhood shopping center, Silverman believes the proximity and convenience of the subway will be important to companies leasing the new office space in the building.
Van Ness Centre, at 4301 Connecticut Ave. NW, was a revolutionary project in Washington when it opened in 1967 because it resembled a small city. The development contained three high-rise luxury apartment buildings with 1,682 units and a six-story building with four floors of office space and two levels of shopping.
But business in the mall always has been slow. Most of the trendy specialty shops that were among the first businesses there left long ago, finding that the Van Ness apartment complex could not provide the volume of customers they needed to be profitable.
"These shops cannot live off the 1,000 to 2,000 families in the neighborhood," said Silverman.
The shops that remained over the years--the barber shop, the beauty salon, the optician, the dry cleaner--were service-oriented businesses that could survive on a smaller number of customers drawn mostly from the neighborhood.
The mall was empty and quiet last week as the last of the merchants said their good-byes to longtime customers. "It looks like a morgue," said one Bath & Closet patron looking out on the empty concourse and darkened shop windows.
The closing puts some of the other merchants temporarily out of business. Stephen Pasternak, owner of Van Ness Opticians, says his livelihood depends on staying in the neighborhood because the shop has built up a large pool of regular customers over the years. But so far he has been unable to find a nearby location.
Brothers Ernesto and Nello Inzi, owners of Ernesto's Hair Styling, have the same problem and have decided to work for other hairdressers. "I've been here a long time and have quite a clientele," said Ernesto Inzi.
The closing will not leave Van Ness area residents, many of whom are elderly, without convenient shopping. The Prudential building across the street houses a drugstore, cafe, radio store, travel agency and a bank, according to the leasing agent, who said that a card shop, a dry-cleaning establishment and a photo-developing shop are expected soon. A total of 20 shops is planned.
But if the Van Ness Centre Mall couldn't survive, can similar businesses make it just across the street?
"This is a senior-citizen-type neighborhood," said Valerie Costelloe, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner. "Any person who walks with a cane will have to take their life in their hands to go across the street."