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Cleveland Park Business Climate in Flux; Owners and Residents Alike Uncertain

Accompanying images can be viewed on page 1 of the March 2018 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

Do neighborhoods reflect the businesses or the reverse? This is an often asked question by DC residents. It is now being asked by residents of Cleveland Park much as this question has faced residents of other neighborhoods in the past.

For example, 20 years ago Logan Circle residents campaigned to have a Fresh Fields (as it was known before being acquired by Whole Foods) locate in the 1400 block of P Street, NW; it opened in 2001 — and the neighborhood was never the same after that successful effort. The poorly stocked Food Mart disappeared, as did a furniture repair shop and a parking garage. Along came the much anticipated Whole Foods and a Starbucks with outdoor seating, a hardware store along with a bike shop, plus new restaurants.

In contrast, Columbia Heights developer DCUSA failed to negotiate a contract with Whole Foods. Instead, they attracted stores such as Sports Zone and Below Five where one can buy plastic items; Washington Sports Club that has trouble providing hot water; a Starbucks with no outdoor seating (or the homeless would take over), and  a Giant Food store. At any one time, 20% of the retail space is vacant. Columbia Heights’ commercial strip around the Metro station attracts about 20 homeless persons each morning. And neighbors are not excited about what they see as problems on 14th Street, although they love the nearby ambiance of 11th Street mixed use strip.

Cleveland Park neighbors are also wondering about the relationship between businesses and the mood of the neighborhood in light of the closing of beloved Artisan Lamps which has been open for 39 years –- originally on 18th Street in Adams Morgan. As owner Cyrus Manafzadeh told The InTowner, “it is hard to say goodbye to your friends and the city that you love, but retailing has long hours  and we physically are not able to give the best service that are customers deserve, therefore is time to say goodbye. We are closing on March 15th.”

[Editor’s note: Cyrus, is a businessman I’ve known for years, going all the way back to when he was originally in Adams Morgan. When I first saw this announcement about closing I was concerned that it was for declining business, but turns out, as he said to me, “I was lucky”; fact is, he had such a long-time loyal customer base plus “loyal Cleveland Park” & surrounding customers. The reason, he said, is simply that after all those years he is retiring.]

But, is the neighborhood changing?

Cleveland Park’s boundaries are defined by Rock Creek on the east, Wisconsin and Idaho Avenues on the west, Woodley Road on the south and on the north Tilden Street. The area took its name sometime around 1896 after President Grover Cleveland who had an estate there. In due course it became another of the District’s “streetcar suburbs” – as they came to be known.

Cleveland Park – a designated DC historic district —  is rated 75 on AreaVubes’s  Livability Score scale compared to 54 for DC overall; further, they give the neighborhood an A+ for amenities, housing, and employment.

 The first shop in Cleveland Park may have been Monterey Pharmacy in 1923, located in the Monterey Apartment Building at Connecticut Avenue and Porter Street. In the early 1930s the concept of “Park and Shop” began on Connecticut between Ordway and Porter Streets. THE Uptown Theater opened in 1936 and is the last of the large movie theaters in DC that is continuing to show movies.

Cleveland Park Commercial Corridor in Trouble?

Chapter 23, “Rock Creek West Area Element” of the Comprehensive Plan may capture the “trouble” best:

“A better variety of retail choices is needed in some parts of the Planning Area. It is acknowledged that the area does not need public action or the involvement of non-profit community development corporations to attract retail in the same way that other parts of the District do. However, some neighborhoods still lack the range of goods and services needed to support the basic needs of local residents. High costs are having a negative effect on some of the area’s small businesses, leading to a loss of small “mom and pop” businesses and family-owned neighborhood institutions. The community continues to favor neighborhood-serving retail rather than office space along the corridors, both to meet community needs and to avoid uses that would generate commuter traffic. . . . Some of the area’s commercial streets lack the vitality and elegance of great pedestrian-oriented neighborhood shopping streets. . . .”

Hitting the neighborhood hard was the May 2009 closing of Magruder’s, the beloved, “five star” grocery. Residents called it “a family store” where you could chat with your neighbors while purchasing fresh produce and fine meats. In business for 138 years and now because of escalating rents and competition, they closed all of their DC stores while continuing operating in the suburbs. Critics complain that Magruder’s had not kept up with changing DC and Cleveland Park.

Also closed are the 7-Eleven and Starbucks, along with restaurants such as Ripple (after 7 years), Nam-Viet (after 20 years), Palena Spanish, Lavandou French (after 20 years), Pulpo, and Dino Italian (after 8 years). All owners cited high rents, low foot traffic, and the need for more neighborhood density. Maybe the low rise buildings and the “park and shop” ideas aren’t working in DC’s “happening” city.

Possibly reflecting a sense of decline in the neighborhood was the Ordway Street resident who said, “We have quite a lot of closed shops that have been that way a while. I would love to see access to the Klingle trail from our neighborhood. Love the Firehook and want to see the Brookville Market stay in business. Don’t need a Whole Foods.”

[Editor’s note: Regarding the Brookville Super Market mentioned above by the Ordway Street resident, on the afternoon of March 28th a report on the Brookville’s imminent closing after 30 years was published on the on the Washington Post‘s website in advance of it’s appearnce in the March 29th print edition. Nancy MacWood, who chairs the neighborhood’s ANC, when asked by us about this development, said, that “Brookville was closing and Streets Market would occupy the space. It’s a big blow to many residents who remember when Brookeville agreed to replace Safeway. The owners want to retire, which is similar to a few of our business owners [like Artisan Lamps as reported above].  We’ve had the luxury of having stable, community-oriented businesses, many of which are providing daily services. The community supports and loves the people and the services. The new businesses will be welcomed and hopefully will become part of the neighborhood.”]

Positive Signs Reasons for Optimism

First, the new neighborhood branch library. Eleven months ago, on April 10, 2017, Mayor Bowser presided over the groundbreaking for a brand new building to replace the old one at 3310 Connecticut Avenue. Scheduled to open this summer, this $19.7 million building will be the 20th neighborhood library to be either constructed or substantially renovated since the ambitious undertaking of transforming the branch libraries into first-class centers for learning and community involvement with cultural resources and as places so inviting that residents would be attracted in droves. This vision of then Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper back in 2006 has proven to be a success’

Second is the Newark Park playground renovation that was completed in 2014. An especially nice feature is the walkway through the site and under shady trees. Parents and caregivers appreciate the stroller parking area and the seating throughout the site. Both younger and older children find especially exciting the climbing equipment and small boulders to sit or play on. The rubberized play surface brings additional color and accessibility to the playground.

Third, the transportation department (DDOT) will be starting construction on a $4.5 million streetscape and drainage project design later this spring.

Finally, the impending Comprehensive Plan updating may help with the revitalization of the neighborhood’s commercial strip. Currently, the Plan allows only commercial uses on the first floor. Based on a survey of residents, two ANC 3C commissioners on their own behalf submitted amendments under their names that would  allow commercial uses on the second and third floors of buildings in those few blocks. According to ANC 3C Chair Nancy MacWood, the commissioners “had an informal conversation about the scope of the changes [proposed by the two], but did not pursue the discussion by adding to a public meeting agenda or considering if we wanted to endorse their ideas.”

*Larry Ray, a former ANC commissioner for both Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights, is a Senior Lecturer at The George Washington University School of Law; he also serves on the Mayor’s LBGTQ Advisory Board.

Copyright © 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.