“When I first set my eyes on the Uline Arena, it just felt so right for REI,” said Rachel Ligtenberg, divisional vice president for retail at REI. “It’s the perfect vibrant, active, dense urban environment for us.”
The retailer has long had a presence in the Washington suburbs, where it has six locations dating back to 1987. But the arrival of the company’s first District store marks a landmark moment not only for REI, but for the state of big-box retail in the District.
The number of young professionals in the District has ballooned in recent years. In NoMa alone — the emerging neighborhood behind Union Station — more than 5,400 new residents have moved in over the last three years, according to Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District. The average age among newcomers: Just over 30.
“If you went back 15 years, or even 10 years ago, NoMa was mostly vacant lots,” Jasper said. A store like REI “would definitely not have worked before.”
Executives from REI, which stands for Recreational Equipment, Inc., began scouting locations in the District about 18 months ago. The number of bike lanes in the area, coupled with outdoor parks and a population eager to go hiking, cycling and paddling made it a particularly good fit for the company, Ligtenberg said.
“It was time for us to come to the District,” she said. “We felt like we’d already done a respectable job serving the outlying community.”
Douglas Development, which owns the historic property, began construction two months ago. REI will occupy the arena’s first floor, while the top three floors will be converted to 170,000 square feet of commercial office space. There is also room for 20,000 square feet of additional retail space, according to Norman Jemal, principal at Douglas Development.
In addition to retail, the store will also offer educational programs, classroom spaces and outdoor excursions including sunset kayak tours of the monuments, overnight backpacking in Shenandoah National Park and outdoor rock climbing at Carderock.
“Our Washington, D.C. flagship will be an immersive experience – much more than a retail store,” Jerry Stritzke, president and chief executive of REI, said in a statement.
REI isn’t the first retailer of its kind to announce an expansion in the area. In November, Cabela’s, the chain of hunting, fishing and camping gear stores, said it would be opening its first area store in Gainesville. The company’s 79,000-square-foot, slated to open in spring 2017, will have an indoor archery range, boat shop, gun library and a fudge shop.
REI, the country’s largest co-op, has 5 million members. There are 281,000 members in the Washington area, making it the largest concentration of REI members in the eastern United States. The company hopes to create 150 jobs in the District.
Uline Arena, which opened in 1931 as the M.J. Ice Company, has had a rich and varied history. President Eisenhower hosted his inaugural ball there, and the Beatles picked it as the site of their first U.S. concert.