It’s an unseasonably warm Thursday evening at CityCenterDC, the 10-acre downtown development that is Washington’s best and maybe only shot to prove it isn’t quite so square anymore.
Sure, this isn’t Rodeo Drive, but there are some famous names here, at least for Washington. New Wizards coach Scott Brooks, owner of a condo upstairs, is dining at the celebrated Momofuku restaurant. Former D.C. mayor Vincent Gray is attending a boisterous charity fundraiser at the Paul Stuart shop. And San Diego TV reporter Nicole Gomez and her husband, Alan, are here on vacation, pushing their 1-year-old son in a stroller.
“When I think of D.C., I think of the politics and the Smithsonian, and I expected it to be pretty boring,” says Alan Gomez. “But this looks pretty cool.”
The Gomezes have a taste for Louis Vuitton. They’ll have to hurry because it closes at 7 o’clock.
The good news is there won’t be a line.
D.C. officials spent more than a decade turning the site of a failed convention center south of New York Avenue, between Ninth and 11th streets NW, into a luxury emporium filled with brands that could help reestablish downtown as a place to be.
Over two square blocks, CityCenter offers 30 stores and nine eateries, a pedestrian alley, fountains, a courtyard with a permanent video installation and an outdoor plaza. Most of it opened two years ago after it almost wasn’t built because of the financial crisis, and it has survived bumps like a salmonella scare.
Its opening capped a downtown resurgence by delivering thousands of new residents and — against considerable odds — luxury retailers such as Hermès, Bulgari and Dior into an area that not long ago was better known for emergency sirens, surface parking lots and ladies of the night.
“At first we kind of figured the major retailers didn’t think there was enough market in downtown and maybe it wasn’t the time,” said William B. Alsup III, the developer who stuck with the project through four mayors.
CityCenter has quickly become a piggy bank of tax revenue for the District. The swanky apartments, condos and office space upstairs command top prices. Yet for all the strategy and money that went into CityCenter, stroll through on a nice weeknight or a Saturday afternoon and something is missing.
“I guess I expected that there would be more people around since it’s here in the center part of town,” says Justin King, 27. Dressed in a sharp gray suit, King is here on business from Florida and carrying a bag out of Allen Edmonds, the menswear boutique.
As other cities begin to enjoy a renaissance thanks to a migration to urban neighborhoods, CityCenter has been held up as a model for reinvigorating American downtowns.
So where is everyone?
“Placemaking” has become a popular term in real estate parlance. In practice, it entails developers buying up multiple properties in a neighborhood to create a unified vibe that will attract shoppers and condo buyers.
In cities like the District, New York, San Francisco and Seattle, developers are scooping up old storefronts and empty lots. Suburban developers are trying to replicate that urban experience by building cityscapes where none were before and designing walkable communities filled with bars, restaurants and concert venues.
At its worst, the corporate engineering of neighborhoods to look like the best parts of Brooklyn or Paris can drip with insincerity. As the U Street neighborhood loses more black residents every year, it gains more pricey nightspots bearing the names of famous black musicians and artists. Chinatown has almost no remaining Chinese residents, and Gallery Place has lost nearly all its galleries.
Unlike Baltimore and Philadelphia, the District is not blessed with a large stock of industrial-era warehouses that are prized by condo builders, so they create their own versions. A super-luxury residential project that opened in the U Street neighborhood last year with a rooftop pool, a concierge and a $13-a-seat art-house movie theater downstairs sports crisscrossed metal beams on its facade. And the lobby features a brick wall covered in wads of chewed gum stuck on by visitors to the 9:30 Club concert venue next door.
But besides the project’s name, Atlantic Plumbing, nothing much remains of the modest, low-slung Atlantic Plumbing Supply Co. warehouse that it replaced.
On the other hand, the District has also benefited tremendously from the vision of developers who’ve turned vacant or industrial swaths of the city into engaging, inclusive neighborhoods. The area around Nationals Park has become a waterfront destination unlike any the city has had in recent memory. Union Market has converted a declining warehouse district in Northeast Washington into a foodie mecca. The Southwest waterfront, which is replacing an underused strip of clubs and restaurants, could be next.
Because CityCenter was controlled by one developer, it offered a rare opportunity to apply a singular vision to the redesign of a large swath of downtown Washington and create a place more cohesive than a combination of disparate owners could.
When construction began, the New York Times referred to the project as a “modern-day Rockefeller Center.”
The problem is great city neighborhoods don’t typically form that way. The messiness and chaos created by multiple visions are often what make urban streets unique and memorable.
“No one can possibly complain about all the good things this development does,” given that it replaced a series of desolate parking lots, Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott wrote in his 2014 review of CityCenter. “The real test, however, will be what happens here, whether an authentic sense of city life evolves in these spaces. Will they always feel manicured, programmed and under surveillance?”
A complex pitching $41,000 Gucci crocodile totes wasn’t the original vision. In the mid-2000s, Mayor Anthony Williams badly wanted to attract new residents to the city and stop the loss of those he already had, so when it came time for the city to tear down the old convention center, he insisted that it be replaced with housing.
This was a novel concept; only a few thousand people lived downtown then. Williams laid out a plan for a complex of housing, shopping, restaurants and, most notable, a grand central library to replace the down-on-its-heels Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library at Ninth and G streets NW.
In an op-ed, Williams wrote that a new library “would be a centerpiece of our collective statement on how we value learning” and said it could “stand as an emblem of everything good and inspiring about our city.”
Williams envisioned a private project, but with a clear civic purpose. Ultimately, he couldn’t overcome opposition to moving the central library out of the MLK building. The next idea for the CityCenter site was a restaurant district that could build on the success José Andrés and other chefs had achieved downtown. That was eventually scrapped for a luxury retail destination that could help to stem an estimated $1 billion in annual sales bleeding to the suburbs.
When the District selected Houston-based Hines as the developer, some critics groaned; the company is better known for erecting and leasing office buildings than for creative placemaking. William Alsup and his colleague Howard Riker are thorough, cautious men who have probably never been accused of being fashionable. But during the financial crisis, the company’s global real estate connections saved CityCenter from oblivion by luring a $650 million investment from a sovereign wealth fund in Qatar.
That deal came with its own set of pressures. The Qataris required the project to adhere to sharia law, a potential public relations nightmare given that Washington was waging wars in two Islamic countries. Sharia-compliant investing sometimes avoids businesses focused on alcohol, pornography and the collection of interest.
But the Koran doesn’t bar the sale of 3½ -inch silk pumps from Hermès, and the Qataris signed on to finance a complex with exclusively luxury stores on all sides of six buildings. Downtown had already demonstrated the ability to draw tourists, to Verizon Center and the International Spy Museum, but for high-end retail to work, CityCenter would have to capture wealthy international tourists from Europe, Asia and the Middle East who are used to dropping tens of thousands of dollars in Tysons Corner after landing at nearby Dulles International Airport.
The project needed buy-in from luxury retailers, and an early and prominent believer in CityCenter was Angela Ahrendts, then the chief executive of Burberry. Ahrendts opted to shutter the Burberry store on Connecticut Avenue close to K Street NW for a chance to help assemble a lineup of stores that would ultimately include Kate Spade, Louis Vuitton and Salvatore Ferragamo. (A Tesla showroom is also on the way, and CityCenter’s second phase, featuring a Conrad hotel, is now under construction.)
“She was the first one who said, ‘I think this will work,’ ” Alsup said. “She encouraged us to approach the other ones and signed on early.”
Only one coveted retailer got away: Apple. Hines so badly wanted the world’s largest tech company to open in CityCenter that it tailored an enormous storefront for it in the complex’s most visible location, overlooking the triangular park along New York Avenue, looking out toward the convention center. But the iPhone dispenser decided against it. Ironically, Ahrendts now oversees retail at Apple, which recently expressed interest in leasing the former Carnegie Library nearby — a twist that clearly irks Riker.
Apple, which draws throngs of people with its product releases and, increasingly, with company-sponsored concerts and events, would likely have helped to neutralize two of CityCenter’s most common criticisms: It’s rarely crowded, and there isn’t much to buy or do there for anyone other than one-percenters.
On a recent weekday evening, Peter and Rhoda Trooboff are walking through CityCenter on their way to a meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, laughing arm-in-arm.
Peter has the most Washington of jobs, as a senior international trade attorney at the white shoe law firm Covington & Burling, in the offices upstairs. They’ve been to a couple of the restaurants, they say, but they have never bought anything from a store nor plan to.
“Who is buying these things?” Peter says. “Is it enough to keep these stores going?”
Few figures are publicly available, but D.C. and Hines officials insist CityCenter is a smashing financial success. Covington & Burling leased most of the 520,000 square feet of office space. Tenants of the fully occupied 458 rental apartments pay $3,000 a month for 550-square-foot studios and $4,000 for 750-square-foot one-bedrooms. Home buyers like former attorney general Eric Holder and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) also quickly snatched up the 216 condos. Of the 16 units sold this year, the average price was $1.5 million.
Those values benefit the District, which taxes the property and owns the land beneath on a 99-year lease to Hines. The city discounted the land value to compensate Hines for construction of the park along New York Avenue and the streets that run through the project, as well as the inclusion of some affordable apartments. The city also gets about $3.5 million annually in lease payments, and once the project’s profits hit a threshold, the city gets to keep 25 percent of the excess. Brian Kenner, D.C. deputy mayor for planning and economic development, calls the tax revenue his “favorite part of the project.”
“CityCenter has not only met our expectations but has set a high bar for downtown development in the District,” he said.
The Qataris are pleased as well. “We did this in the height of the economic crisis,” Stephen Pettit, chairman of Qatari Diar Americas, boasted at a recent real estate conference.
He also described how the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, was in town last year visiting President Obama and decided to grab a bite at DBGB Kitchen and Bar with his security detail. “We swung him in and asked a manager, ‘Can we find a nice table for this guy? He is the landlord,’ ” Pettit recalled. “So he ... sat out on the sidewalk and watched the reaction of the people going by and the reactions to the buildings. And word got back to Doha, and we’re heroes.”
Perhaps the clearest sign of the project’s financial strength is the luxury retail exodus from the area around the Friendship Heights Metro station, formerly the city’s most posh shopping district. Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Bulgari are among those to make the move to CityCenter.
“They all want to be near the core of downtown, and this is a market that can’t support two luxury destinations,” said Michael Smith, a retail broker who has worked in both locations. “So it had to be one or the other.”
Hermès even decided to close its store in Tysons Corner and open downtown, unthinkable 20 years ago.
Stepping into CityCenter can feel like hitting the mute button on the energy and noise of the surrounding streets, but not always in a good way. And Hines executives are aware that something is missing. They are pressing to bring more crowds by rolling out events and promotions including exercise classes, concerts, farmers markets, tastings and a Christmas tree lighting after Thanksgiving. The 2016 marketing campaign (“Clothe. Collect. Dine. Connect.”) is focused on experiences at CityCenter and around the city rather than the brands.
If their efforts haven’t taken hold yet, maybe that’s because of how luxury retail works.
Luxury stores do not need to be crowded to be successful, said Melina Cordero, a retail researcher at CBRE. Cordero guessed that most of CityCenter’s sales come from international visitors who may buy multiple items at once, sometimes accompanied by personal shoppers or stylists. That doesn’t make for a lively scene.
“Luxury retail, a lot of times, they don’t want their stores to be very crowded,” she said. “They quickly target the consumers that they think are going to spend, and they spend a lot of time with them and they give them champagne and they walk around with them. It’s quality over quantity.”
One of the early boosters of CityCenter, Gerry Widdicombe, director of economic development for the DowntownDC Business Improvement District, said many of the stores serve as brand promotion and boost online sales even if no one walks out with bags.
“It’s like Madison Avenue: It’s more about advertising than it is about sales. And you don’t need that many customers to pay the rent,” he said.
Hines also imposes a fastidious, if not slightly obsessive, way of managing the complex’s super-lux reputation. The appearance of any potentially lower-brow offerings is frowned upon. The only retailer to close so far, jeweler Alexis Bittar, left after new owners discussed changing the store concept to something Hines didn’t care for.
When the Mediterranean restaurant Fig & Olive reopened after a salmonella outbreak that affected up to 70 people, CityCenter’s social media team unleashed a torrent of promotions, pumping up the restaurant’s fixed-price menu, its first cookbook, its pumpkin martini and National Fig Week.
CityCenter’s smooth gray corridors may not bring Paris to mind, but they are always clean and well-lit, and security comes in many forms. Do not try to bike, skateboard or set up a tripod here or risk being approached by center security.
Architectural photographer Mary Ford Parker has spent hours photographing the complex for glossy promotional materials produced by other real estate firms but said Hines allows her to photograph the project only on the condition that the company can review and edit the photos before they are published. She said they don’t like shots featuring passersby “in flip-flops and sports jerseys.”
She also had to apply to Hines for a press pass, which she wears around her neck one evening while sitting in the park area. “They’re extremely protective of their brand,” she says. “If I don’t have this they’re on me faster than a fly on butter.”
Hines officials say their restrictions are no different than most public parks. Yet it’s hard not to notice that homeless people who are ubiquitous within a three-block radius of CityCenter are noticeably absent within its boundaries. For all of Georgetown’s snooty reputation, on a weekend afternoon M Street is filled with a wider variety of humanity: young, old, couples on dates, parents with strollers, panhandlers, buskers, packs of college kids and tourists lined up 30-deep on the sidewalk outside Georgetown Cupcake, no matter the weather.
Even without the crowds, perhaps City-Center is what the District needed: something so fancy that no one could question the capital’s status among top-tier cities. A bulwark against the suburban leech of sales taxes. A reminder of a time in the city when window shopping at Garfinkel’s and the Hecht’s store were hallowed holiday customs.
It’s hard to recall now how badly, a decade ago, the city needed to show that it could develop a first-class downtown that wealthy people would consider living in. “Back in the day, myself and other folks thought housing could not come west of Ninth Street,” said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations and a longtime advocate for downtown. “What a prescient thing we did there including housing.”
Lynch is also proud D.C. residents who want Birkin bags and Gucci shoes no longer have to go to Maryland or Virginia. But he’s mindful of the way the city uses public space, and of who feels welcome and who doesn’t. He suggests D.C. leaders might want to think more broadly about residents’ needs when weighing in on future prime downtown redevelopment sites like the dilapidated D.C. police headquarters and Verizon Center, which might relocate.
“Could we include a new state-of-the-art police headquarters? Could we add a recreational facility, an athletic facility, a safety facility?” he said. With CityCenter, “I wish we could have been a little bit more forward-thinking.”
Jonathan O’Connell is a Washington Post staff writer.
THE LUXURY ISSUE