The InTowner
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From the Publisher's Desk...

WHAT’S WRONG WITH 17TH STREET? NOTHING

On one of the neighborhood blogs a couple of months ago it was written that Dupont East’s “17th Street corridor . . . is a disappointment. . . . It’s a major retail corridor [italics supplied] . . . [y]et it’s also the least successful [italics supplied] of the area’s corridors. Many of the restaurants are not very good and not so attractive [italics supplied]. Some retail spaces stay empty [italics supplied].

This blogger echoes the sentiments of a number of the persons who had been interviewed exactly one year ago by The InTowner for an article about the then perceived condition of 17th Street strip. (Recent Retail “Exiles” Signal Shift or Dupont East’s 17th Street Strip; Business Leaders Exploring Options, June 2007, page 1.)

At the time our article was being prepared things did seem a little gloomy; one prominent retailer had moved to 14th Street and several storefronts were indeed empty. But that was then and this is now. In fact, there has been a noticeable turn-around in less than the 12 months since that article was published, something that we are surprised that the blogger didn’t notice just 60 days ago when it was written that “retail spaces stay empty.” If some were empty then they are no longer so and even ones that may seem empty at this time are on track to be empty no longer in very short order.

But back in April it was apparent that the old Casa Pena store building, which had seemed so sad last June was about to be turned into a beautiful and busy yoga studio, spa and health-oriented business; as we were going to press, Tranquil Space was already an inviting presence between Corcoran and R Streets. And not only does the establishment’s large storefront dress up the block but owner Kimberly Wilson’s investing in restoring the exterior of the building was a big plus for the street.

Another retail space that had been noted last June as vacant didn’t stay that way for long; Picasso Gallery, dealing in fine art and museum-quality picture framing, remodeled and created an extremely attractive spot across from the Admiral Dupont condo building. Even the small English basement space across from Annie’s that seemed doomed was taken over by the expanding Coldwell Banker office. And the long-shuttered restaurant with its spacious sidewalk patio on the ground floor of the building housing Cobalt and 30 Degrees is planning to re-open later this summer.

Of course, there was concern about the street’s largest retail space where Universal Gear had been. But that won’t be empty much longer as the PharmaCare pharmacy which has outgrown its space at Church Street will move up the block and re-open sometime in August where Universal Gear had been. All this movement is clear evidence that the street is hardly dead. There’s even a development underway for the long-closed former Angie’s New Leaf space next to JR’s Bar & Grill; later this summer it, too, will come back to retail life.

Notwithstanding, the blogger might still claim 17th Street between P and R Streets to be “the least successful of what is stated to be a “major retail corridor.” Herein lies a fallacy. First off, a three-block stretch of street hardly qualifies as a major corridor, something that residents of the area have understood for years as one can tell by those three blocks generally being referred to as the 17th Street Strip. Furthermore, these few blocks never were a home to major retail, that was always the province of nearby Connecticut Avenue. 17th street was always what it is and properly should be, a place for convenient neighborhood shopping. Think about it: a supermarket (albeit small by today’s standards) and a convenience food store, a CVS that sells all sorts of stuff that people need and seem to want, a genuine pharmacy, a friendly community bank, two frame shops, two video stores (one of which is independently owned by a local resident), and — maybe most remarkably of all — a fabulous hardware store that has everything anybody could possibly need, along with its own adjacent housewares store.

By listing all these stores (and we apologize if we omitted any) it should be apparent that the neighborhood has something that very few other neighborhoods can boast having: stores selling exactly what neighborhood people need to carry on comfortably without having to turn simple shopping into a huge project requiring leaving home for hours at end. This is what neighborhood shopping is all about and residents in the 17th Street area ought to be thankful for it.

Nothing pretentious, just practical, is what in fact makes 17th Street a true success and the envy of so many others around the city. And it is this atmosphere of non-pretension that also makes the neighborhood’s restaurants so desirable. After all, many residents get their fill of expense account dining and fancy restaurants all the time, but how nice to come home and just go around the corner to a favorite comfortable eatery and have a decent meal at reasonable prices. But this doesn’t mean that the restaurants are “not very good and not so attractive” as our blogger asserts. What it means is these restaurants are trying to serve a real neighborhood.

As for not being “attractive,” well décor is in the eye of the beholder and we suspect that most folk going out for an informal neighborhood dinner are happy enough that the tabs are not inflated to help recoup the cost of fancy interior design. Having said this, however, we wonder how the quirky faux art deco of the Trio or the exposed brick of Hanks or the cozy home-like feel of Floriana’s or the handsomely re-done dining rooms of Annie’s could offend anyone? All these establishment, along with others on the street, meet the real life needs of the neighbors. The last thing they want is for 17th Street to become a trendy tourist destination like Georgetown or a shopping mecca like Friendship Heights.