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North Dupont Circle Seen as “Stale”; New BID Already Taking Action to Reverse Trend

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 1 of the June 2019 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

One participant at the recent Dupont Circle BID (Business Improvement District) restaurants roundtable program queried, “What is wrong with North Dupont Circle?” Most of the 18 participants agreed that North Dupont Circle, especially the retail, is stale like that of Cleveland Park, Glover Park, Woodley Park in contrast to the excitement of The Wharf, The Yards, Union Market, and Brookland.

Possibly related to “staleness” is the vacancy rate. Responding to our inquiry, Dupont Circle resident and business Owner Steve describes the area around 22nd and P Streets wrote, “There is the potential for 22 retail and yet 6 are vacant = 30%. And these vacancies are long term as much as 7 years. There seems to be no incentive for property owners to rent.”

Guided by Michael Kain of Kain & Associates, especially his son Patrick, the BID was created by the Dupont Circle North property owners to organize and add the “spark” so that this area would become once again a destination for shoppers, tourists, and residents. (Kain has been called Mayor of Dupont Circle.) Michael and Patrick spent two years meeting with property owners to persuade them to vote for joining the BID. (BIDs are financed by business and commercial property owners who have agreed to a special assessment collected with their DC real estate taxes; those funds are then remitted by the tax and revenue department to BIDs.) As they both told The InTowner, being in a position to call attention to the planned covering over of the Connecticut Avenue underpass where it emerges in the median from beneath the Circle to Q Street to create a public plaza provided the persuasion edge.

According to the Kains, the plaza concept was conceived in the 1950s but never implemented.

As Patrick later elaborated in an email, “the Lily Spandorf rendering has been hanging in our office for many years. It represents a vision she had in the 1950s of a plaza to cover the Connecticut Avenue underpass. One day about four years ago while visiting our office, former ANC Commissioner Michael Feldstein saw the rendering and suggested, “this is a great idea, we should do it!” He started setting up meetings around town and everyone loved the idea.” [Editor’s Note: Our issue of last June featured a detailed report about this project.]

The plaza and accompanying streetscape project, in partnership with the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) are seen as a definite enhancement of economic opportunities and overall enhanced attractiveness for the area.

Neighbors are excited about the new green space that may host pop-ups, festivals, performances, movies, arts, farmers markets during the week in addition to Sundays) and other events activities.

The construction will cause disruption of the area for three to four years, but the end result will be worth it, in the view of many with who we have interviewed.

As noted by the BID in its on-line newsletter, “This project is currently in the early design phase with an estimated completed date in 2023 or beyond. The Dupont Circle BID will work with DDOT and the ANC to keep stakeholders informed about community meetings and public input forums.”

This project was a major reason for the creation of the Dupont Circle BID. Colleen Hawkins, its first director will be focused on attracting new retail and creating a shared vision for enhancing the potential -– and developing excitement for -– the area.

[Editor’s Note: Our issue of last September featured a detailed report about the BID’s formation and priorities going forward.]

Market studies will be conducted to discern what businesses are needed or wanted, whether the rents are competitive, whether the city can give tax breaks or incentives, especially to small businesses. “The new BID,” as stated in its on-line newsletter, “is taking a deep-dive into every sector of the Dupont Circle ego system via a series of roundtables.”

Long-time Dupont Circle Resident Joel is skeptical: “I fear that this BID is a case of form over substance. They will hang banners, post signs, conduct meetings that few attend, and plant flowers + use monies to pay for staff and office, BUT the retail vacancy rate will remain high as will the rent along with decreasing customers.” Examples of this surely include businesses along the stretch of P Street just west of the Circle: the much relied upon former Fairfax Market, Rock Creek Clothing, and Fractured Prune. All three owners have stated there is only one reason they closed — increased rent.

Michael Kain, however, sees it differently: “Rents are stable [in Dupont Circle] and are now among the lowest retail rents in the city [while] rents in other locations have increased. Dupont Circle landlords have reduced rents to entice very desirable tenants rather than holding out for the highest rate from a less desirable tenant. The BID is making efforts to recruit the type of retailer that will improve the quality of the neighborhood for the community.”

During our interview, he also indicated that the developers in new areas like The Yards in Southwest are luring businesses to their developments by offering economic incentives. Also, said Kain, Dupont Circle needs more residential housing; son Patrick especially emphasized the need for affordable housing. And, lastly, Michael referred to the “Amazon affect,” an example being how even hair salons are being affected. The typical salon depends on product sales for half of their revenue, but instead of patrons making purchases they use their smartphones to take photos of the products and then go on Amazon to search for bargains.er via Amazon.

As noted on the website of the DC BID Council, “In 1996, the DC City Council passed enabling legislation for business improvement districts (BIDs) and since then, eleven BIDs have been created in DC, and additional BIDs are being formed. The BIDs contribute to the city in many ways. The most visible is the cleaning and safety staff that BIDs provide. They also contribute in many other significant but less visible ways. BIDs work closely with existing businesses to help them grow and thrive, and recruit new stores and restaurants to their areas. BIDs market their areas, organize community building events, provide homeless outreach services, and activate and beautify public space.”

The Dupont Circle BID’s April 25th retail roundtable panel discussion session attended by area residents and other stakeholders featured Shop Made in DC’s Stacey Price and The Urban Partnership’s Rich Bradley discuss trends facing retailers, challenges in this market, and share feedback and best practices for success.

Richard Bradley, the founder of the DowntownDC BID (the very first one established, described the steps needed to create a North Dupont Circle “destination.” First step is that there be retailers offering merchandise that shoppers will want to purchase; second, provide excellent service; third, to create “the experience”; and fourth, the aspirational fourth step of “transformation.” The result will be that shoppers, tourists, and neighbors will then seek out North Dupont Circle as their frequent destination. “People are looking for clean, safe, friendly and well managed space. Everyone including property owners must be in the game to create a common marketplace.” One of the biggest problems is absentee landlords.

An example of this type of retail might be Shop Made In DC located at 19th and N Streets, NW. Owner Stacy Price speaking at the BID roundtable described her establishment as an incubator for entrepreneurs; people frequent this shop not for the discounts but for the experience of buying hand-crafted in DC products. Her return customer rate is 70%.

A month later, on May 20th, the BID held another business roundtable panel discussion, this time the focus was on restaurants.

One of the panelists was Eden Raskin Jenkins of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW). She outlined the challenges of restaurants beginning with rising rents, tips and wages, and the lack of a qualified work force. RAMW works to help neighborhood restaurants cope with the strains generated by the booming DC economy and with initiatives that will lead to solutions. One initiative its Pro-Start program that provides sources for basic culinary skills training at three DC public schools. Another example was its support for the vast numbers of DC restaurant workers who fought to overturn the Initiative 77 referendum that, had it taken effect, would have drastically reduced their actual shift time income.

[Editor’s Note: To fully understand the restaurant workers concerns, see our September 2018 editorial published shortly prior to the DC Council’s meeting when it was to consider action to overturn Initiative 77 that had been approved in a June 2018 special election.]

The other panelist, Angela Rakis, owns a marketing consultancy focused on small business and teaches hospitality and tourism management at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, Maryland. She wants her students to realize that they can make a career in the restaurant business. She noted Union Market as a model of allowing entrepreneurs to test their products before moving to open a restaurant.

Most persons in attendance  agreed that the restaurant DC arena is saturated and is challenged by the expenses of health care and the rising minimum wage which will increase by 75-cents to $14.00 on July 1st.

Conclusion

Michael Kain is most excited about Dupont Circle business prospects. He noted numerous encouraging developments that include that the owners of Georgetown’s Peacock Café will be opening a new establishment featuring “vintage Persian” cuisine in the long-empty previous restaurant space at 21st and P Streets; the Pembrook at the Dupont Circle Hotel opened to excellent reviews; the new Dive Bar in the lower level of Darlington House is great; Nora’s just sold to the owners of Rasika; La Tomate since early last year has had its kitchen helmed by acclaimed Executive Chef Domenico Apollaro, formerly at Lupo Verde; Chico and Sorrelina on P Street opened also with great reviews; and the owners of Madhatter and The Front Page just opened Northside Tavern in the 1700 block of Connecticut Avenue.

The BID’s Colleen Hawkinson declares, “It’s an exciting time for Dupont Circle. The recent roundtables hosted by the BID have brought a diverse representation of the community together. Dupont Circle’s reputation as the city’s international core and progressive thought is guiding the path to the future.”

Dupont Circle ANC’ chairman Daniel Warwick has expressed a very positive take on the initial  work and outreach of the BID, stating, “I am exceptionally excited for the Dupont Circle BID and the work they are already doing in our community. The BID is a strong financial commitment by commercial property owners in our neighborhood that our neighborhood is worth investing in. The Dupont Circle clean team has already expanded thanks to the BID and I look forward to their continued success and stewardship of the Dupont Circle deckover project.”

RAMU’s Legislative Counsel Andrew J. Kline of The Veritas Law Firm told The InTowner that “BIDS in DC have a strong track record of promoting neighborhoods and addressing issues from a business perspective, as a great supplement to ANCs, which primarily represent residents. I expect the same from the Dupont Circle BID, as it gives that business corridor a distinct identity, promotes development there and gives businesses and property owners a common voice.”

Avery Lewis, Vice President of Linda Roth Associates, which does public relations for the hospitality sector, was complimentary: “The BID has already accomplished so much in just nine months and I can’t wait to see what the future brings for the Dupont Circle neighborhood.”

Ruth Gresser, Chef/Owner of Pizzeria Paradiso at P and 21st Streets proclaims: “I’m excited by the prospect of the Dupont Circle BID. I think it can be instrumental in keeping the Dupont Circle neighborhood vibrant and attractive to locals, businesses, and tourists.”

Larry Ray has served as Advisory Neighborhood Commission of both Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights. He was also President of the North Columbia Heights Citizens Association.

Copyright © 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.