In all, about a dozen retailers and restaurants have closed shop recently, adding to the already troubling number of empty storefronts along this section of Wisconsin Avenue on the D.C.-Maryland border.
“The pandemic obviously was a tipping point for many businesses,” said Nolan Rodman, who owns Rodman’s, a specialty grocery and pharmacy and Washington institution since 1955. “The real problem had started long before that.”
Friendship Heights, a commercial and residential district connecting the District and Montgomery County, took a big hit when CityCenterDC, a 10-acre emporium of luxury condos, high-end stores and fine restaurants, opened in 2014. Several of its posh retailers, including Louis Vuitton and Dior, relocated to the downtown D.C. development.
The pandemic and accompanying shutdown worsened the situation. Neiman Marcus, which filed for bankruptcy in May, announced in August the closure of 20 stores, including its Mazza Gallerie location. Lord & Taylor is slated to close as the company shuts down its remaining stores.
Friendship Heights has also increasingly found itself competing for shoppers who have more options for places to spend their dollars, from new outlet malls to trendy new shopping districts offering a dining scene and nightlife.
“The fact that [Friendship Heights] has not evolved along with the times has kind of left it behind,” Rodman said. “There’s just not enough new, interesting growth. No new buildings. No nightlife. No big coffee shops to hang out, nor a large selection of bars and restaurants.”
Among the retailers remaining in the corridor are Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, and discount stores Nordstrom Rack, Marshalls and T.J. Maxx. The AMC Theater, which occupies Mazza’s top level, is closed because of coronavirus restrictions.
Some residents and business leaders worry it could take years to recover and revitalize the area after this most recent wave of departures. Others say the exits present an opportunity for the area to reinvent itself.
“The pandemic may at least provide the impetus for some change,” said Jonathan Bender, who represents the area as a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. “Hopefully the owners of these places will be thinking about more radical change.”
'It should be flourishing'
When Mazza Gallerie opened in 1977, developers predicted the enclosed 60-store shopping mall would become the center of a new downtown in Northwest Washington. It would be the District’s version of Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive.
Neiman Marcus was one of the first stores to open at the four-story mall, bringing a certain cachet to the capital region. It also was a fierce competitor to Lord & Taylor, which had already built a loyal clientele down the block since opening in 1959.
Mazza’s marble structure was built atop Metro’s Red Line. The delayed construction of the subway station in the late 1970s caused massive traffic snarls and, some said, contributed to setbacks for the new shopping mall.
A year after opening, Mazza Gallerie was unable to fill spaces, and merchants complained that sales in the center were disappointing. The long-troubled 294,000-square-foot retail center was sold in 1997 and again in 2004 and 2017. It was sold this August in a foreclosure auction for $38 million — less than half of what it was purchased for three years earlier.
The Metro station’s opening in 1984, along with the shopping district’s proximity to the region’s highways — roughly four miles from the Capital Beltway — did help attract retailers to the area in the decades that followed.
In 2005, the Collection at Chevy Chase, on the Maryland side in Montgomery County, opened with a tenant lineup that included Dior, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. Discount retailers on the D.C. side of the border added bargain hunters to the mix of shoppers.
Jeffrey Slavin, mayor of the nearby town of Somerset in Montgomery County, said residents lament the lack of such services as a 24-hour pharmacy, a convenience store and a hardware store. Although retailers have come and gone over the years, Slavin said, the area feels a lot more deserted these days.
“It’s a complete disaster,” Slavin said. “This is one of the most sought-after neighborhoods in the United States. The demographics are amazing. It’s very convenient. You have a Metro stop there. It should be flourishing.”
Friendship Heights has one of the wealthiest Zip codes in the Washington region, with average household incomes ranging from $170,000 to $200,000 a year. Its residents also are highly educated — well over 80 percent have a college degree. The commercial district stretching about a mile of Wisconsin Avenue is surrounded by million-dollar single-family homes and condominiums.
Yet the vacancy rate of retail space within a half-mile of Western and Wisconsin avenues has more than doubled in the past year, according to data provided by the Washington DC Economic Partnership. Of 1.3 million square feet, nearly 11 percent was vacant in the third quarter of 2020. That rate will jump significantly after the closures of Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus.
Some business leaders challenge a growing perception that the area is on the verge of becoming a ghost town, saying that Friendship Heights is in a better position to rebound than other commercial districts hit hard by the pandemic economic crisis.
The area’s economic demographics, along with its access to transit and a major commuter route make the location very desirable, said Ben Wu, chief executive of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation, and a former deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Commerce.
“There’s certainly still a cachet for retailers to be in Friendship Heights,” Wu said. “The assets that we have, the ones that have attracted retailers to Friendship Heights, will continue. So I don’t see a mass exodus of companies.”
The turbulence in the retail and restaurant industries, however, remains a threat and a significant concern, officials in D.C. and Montgomery County said.
Montgomery County Council member Andrew Friedson, a Democrat who represents the area, said this latest crisis brings a greater sense of urgency for the private and public sectors in both jurisdictions to work more collaboratively to address long-known problems in Friendship Heights.
“It’s increasingly clear that Friendship Heights needs a real sense of place,” Friedson said.
“What Friendship Heights needs is not more stores selling $1,500-pairs of shoes or a $5,000-piece of expensive jewelry,” he said. “It needs nice local places to grab a cup of coffee, to have a nice meal, to pick up some groceries and enjoy an evening out.”
Because Friendship Heights straddles two jurisdictions, it has been a challenge for decades to create a sense of vibrancy that is continuous across the border. The Maryland side developed later, bringing more modern open-air shopping, while the D.C. side, despite some renovations over the years, has kept an antiquated facade with two enclosed malls and older shopping strips.
D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said the city has tried for many years to encourage redevelopment in the area and to work with property owners to bring new life to empty parking lots overgrown with weeds. The District’s new Comprehensive Plan calls for more density in the commercial corridor, with multiuse redevelopment on top of the Metro.
“The tools are there, at least from the government perspective, if we could get the businesses and the property owners to want to do that,” said Cheh, noting the area is zoned for density.
Despite challenges in the past, she said, the commercial district had been self-sufficient for decades, and property owners saw no need for major investments while they continued to collect rents.
“These old-fashioned malls, they’re just not working anymore,” Cheh said. “They’re dying, and they can’t stay. We need a new model. We need mixed-use development. We need greater density. And we need to modernize.”
The area also lacks a singular entity such as a Business Improvement District to promote and lead in hard times. Some elected officials said they are open to the idea of creating one but said it has to be an effort led by the private sector.
Signs of life
D.C. resident Laura-Ann Knott grew up about a mile from Mazza Gallerie and has done most of her shopping in the area all her life. Seeing her favorite stores close is discouraging, she said.
“I never left, and for me to see all these changes, that breaks my heart,” said Knott, who worked briefly at the recently closed McDonald’s in 1982.
Knott is especially torn by the closure of Lord & Taylor, where she worked five years in the 1980s while going to the University of Maryland. She has shopped there since. She used to lunch with friends at the now-defunct cafe and grew up seeing the neighborhood women get pampered at the store’s hair salon.
“I am very heartbroken,” said Knott, a life coach. “I know they are just stupid stores, but they mean a lot to me.”
Not everything is bad news. A rebranding of the Collection at Chevy Chase, the shopping center that lost several high-end stores in 2017 — including Gucci and Dior — has yielded new life.
Developer Chevy Chase Land Company built a new plaza and has signed new restaurants and retailers that appeal to a younger demographic. Some openings were postponed this summer as a result of the pandemic, but the plaza has become a vibrant space for millennials to hang out and participate in activities like yoga classes.
A new grocery is coming to the site of the former Giant Food store, which closed in January, on the northeast side of Western Avenue, according to the developer, who declined to confirm reports that an Amazon Go store is coming to that space.
Two new restaurants — Junction Bistro, Bar & Bakery and the Hunter’s Hound — are expected to open soon, while Little Beet Table, which closed just months after its debut because of the pandemic says it will reopen next year.
“We are currently in negotiations with several tenants to fill the remaining vacancies and anticipate being substantially leased by the end of 2021,” said Jenn Coursen, a spokeswoman for the Chevy Chase Land Company.
On the east side of Wisconsin Avenue just inside the city line, Chevy Chase Pavilion was a ghost town on a recent Friday. Before the pandemic, its atrium was bustling with visitors.
Tired shoppers could find a place to rest and grab a cup of coffee. Now the atrium is deserted. Gone is the Starbucks kiosk and the comfortable chairs that always seemed to be taken.
“This place used to be so busy at this time,” said Juan Cruz, a janitor who on this Friday morning was mopping. “Now it’s empty. It’s just too sad.”
Home to an Embassy Suites hotel and Cheesecake Factory, among a handful of other stores, the Pavilion was also going through a turbulent period before the pandemic. Major vacancies — including those left by Bryan Voltaggio’s restaurant Range two years ago and H&M a year ago — have been unfilled. Last year, the owners unsuccessfully sought to convert some of that retail space into medical space, citing a 50 percent vacancy.
Across the city line in Montgomery County, P.F. Chang’s closed at the onset of the pandemic, as did Peet’s Coffee, which lasted less than a year in the Shops at Wisconsin Place. Le Pain Quotidien also shut its doors.
Economic development officials in the District and Montgomery said they are working to support businesses, providing tools during the pandemic that allow food to be served outdoors or facilitate curbside service. As economic crisis continues and the retail marketplace remains volatile, officials say they are working to prevent a ripple effect that could force the departures of the two department stores that remain on the D.C. side.
At Rodman’s, the family-owned grocery and pharmacy just a block from the Metro station entrance, foot traffic dropped up to 50 percent at the onset of the pandemic and is still down by as much as 20 percent. Rodman, the third-generation owner, said the company had to create an email order option for curbside pickup almost overnight, until recently upgrading its website to give people the option to shop online. It just opened a cafe in the front of the store — a new amenity the company hopes will pay off.
Rodman said they have survived this latest storm because they sell essentials — food, wine and medicine. But for Friendship Heights to thrive, he said, it needs a major revival.
“If it stays the way it is, we are going to see the same issues occurring,” he said. “And it’s not going to help any of the businesses that are here or that are trying to come here.”