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Major Retail Center Finally Opens in Columbia Heights; Great Excitement Generated in Neighborhood and Citywide

By Michael K. Wilkinson

On March 4th, at 6:30 pm, the Columbia Heights Target store threw its doors open for the first time to a range of political, government, real estate and neighborhood personalities, as well as a select few regular Target shoppers.

With that, the neighborhood officially changed forever.

Becoming a Regional Destination

Of course, change has been happening progressively in the neighborhood for nearly a decade, since the Columbia Heights Metro station opened in September 1999. In the last two years, the change has accelerated as new buildings have been built and old ones renovated, along the 14th Street corridor. With each new project, more retail, entertainment and dining options have appeared for nearby residents to shop and enjoy.

With the opening of the DC-USA retail complex, though, something else changed about Columbia Heights, something different than what happens when a hip new restaurant or bar opens in a neighborhood, or when an area gets “hot” and the demographics shift.

The DC-USA project, whose largest tenant is Target and whose other retailers include such household names as Bed Bath & Beyond, Marshalls, Best Buy and Staples, has transformed Columbia Heights overnight from just another neighborhood to a regional retail destination. Columbia Heights has now replaced Alexandria’s Potomac Yards as the name many District residents will think of when they need household goods, whether they live two blocks away or across the city.

Anatomy of DC-USA: Don’t Call It A Mall

While DC-USA is known mostly for its big-box tenants, it contains plenty of space for smaller retailers, mostly at street level. In fact, the facility is not what you would refer to as a mall, but rather an “urban retail complex,” a distinction borne out by the fact that the majority of the retail storefronts are accessed from one of three streets surrounding the building.

The main entrance to the building is in the middle of the 3100 block of 14th Street, between Irving Street and Park Road. The first thing you notice is the dramatic, light-filled atrium, three-and-a-half stories of glass and white-painted steel looking out over the Kenyon Square condominium building across 14th Street. On the ground floor, two large empty spaces flank the main entrance; an escalator (one up, one down) is straight ahead; and a hallway to the right leads past a bank of four elevators to the Marshalls store, which is scheduled to open on March 20th.

Ride up the escalators to the second floor, and you find the entrances to Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, Maggie Moo’s and an yet-to-be-leased space originally intended for a local sub shop franchise that was unable to commit in the end. (In addition to the Starbucks and Pizza Hut Express located just inside the main entrance to Target, these two spaces are as close to a “food court” as you’re going to get at DC-USA.)

Up on the top floor are the entrances to the Washington Sports Club and a fairly large, empty space the developer is hoping to lease to an upscale retailer. The upper level of the Target takes up half of the third floor, but it is accessed from an escalator inside the store, not the DC-USA lobby. The sports club occupies the Irving Street side of the building, and is the largest one in the region for the chain. It features a regulation-size basketball court, Olympic-size swimming pool, large workout area, breakout rooms for spinning and other classes, and a large roof deck looking out over Irving Street.

At street level, only one store, Lane Bryant, was ready to open at the same time as the Target. There is much more activity along 14th Street than on Irving Street and Park Road. Work has begun at Radio Shack, Staples and the Vitamin Shoppe. Other announced retailers and food establishments include Mattress Discounters, Children’s Place, Desi’s Chicken & Steak Rotisserie (a locally-owned business), Panda Express, and Payless ShoeSource.

Upscale Retail?

A total of about 80,000 square feet of space, including 15,000 square feet set aside for local businesses, is still available for both large and small retailers, both inside the lobby and fronting outside at street level.

With the facility opening to the public, tenanted by mostly discount retailers, the developer has decided to change retail brokers in an effort to bring in some upscale offerings for the remaining space. Unfortunately, says GRID Properties President Drew Greenwald, making the case to both retail executives and their brokers that Columbia Heights is the right place for upscale retail has been an uphill effort since the beginning.

In a conversation with The InTowner the week before the official opening of the facility, Greenwald outlined a vision for rounding out the retail mix with such retailers as REI (outdoor gear and clothing), Banana Republic, Urban Outfitters, Barnes & Noble and the Richmond-based organic grocery store, Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market.

The developer has nearly completed negotiations on a lease with Ellwood Thompson’s for one of the two, large retail spaces directly behind the restored façade of the old Columbia Heights post office on Irving Street, but has come up against a conflict with another prospective tenant over where to situate each store’s façade along the street. He noted that neighborhood support has been instrumental in attracting the retailer to Columbia Heights, a sentiment reflected in a posting from Ryan Youngman, CEO of Ellwood Thompson’s, to the ColumbiaHeightsNews.org website: “We continue to be persistent in our attempts to come to Columbia Heights and service the community’s local organic needs (go locavores!!). Columbia Heights’ outstanding community outreach has been absolutely a ‘catalyst’ in our decision making.”

A similar campaign seems to be underway to attract REI and a bookstore to the neighborhood. Greenwald told The InTowner that he has been working with REI representatives to bring the retailer to the development, but that it has been difficult to convince the company to take a space in an urban retail center when most of its stores are performing well in affluent suburban areas. Many local residents have weighed in supporting REI, with one neighborhood resident writing on the WardOneDC listserv, “This is about the best news since Whole Foods coming to Logan Circle,” and noting that Hudson Trail Outfitters does a “bang-up business” at Tenley Circle.

A bookstore also has a longstanding base of support, with years of inquiries by the developer’s broker and low-simmering calls from the neighborhood, through blogs and listservs. Now that the facility has opened to the public, neighborhood residents are hoping that one of the national or local booksellers will take a renewed interest in the area and open a store. While Greenwald states that he has been working to attract one of the national chains since the beginning (mentioning Barnes & Noble and Borders by name), some nearby residents have suggested the names of — and provided contact information for — several popular local booksellers to Greenwald, whose company is based in New York. Among them are Olsson’s, Kramerbooks and Politics & Prose.

With 15,000 square feet of space reserved for local, minority and neighborhood entrepreneurs, proposals are under active consideration from a wide range of businesses, including: La Bodega (a wine and cheese purveyor), Frillz Gift, One World Markets (Papaya King), The Remedy for Living (home furniture), Café Afrique, Delectable Bakery, WOW Wingery, and Pho 14 (Vietnamese soups). Already committed are Desi’s and Maggie Moos. It should be noted that the local businesses are often the last to be identified in a development because planning cycles and marketing infrastructure for national retailers allow them much more lead time than locally-owned businesses.

An Emerging “Restaurant Row” in Columbia Heights

Also nearing completion, across the street from DC-USA on the south side of Irving Street, is Donatelli Development’s mixed-use Highland Park project. In addition to its 229 luxury rental apartments, the building has seven retail spaces, all of which are leased and in various states of completion.

Six of the seven spaces at Highland Park will be restaurants, which include a fine-dining restaurant in the British “gastropub” style, with an eclectic but accessible and affordable menu, from Hank’s Oyster Bar founder chef Jamie Leeds; Five Guys Burgers and Fries, started in 1986 just a few miles away in Arlington.; Pete’s, bringing New Haven-style “apizza” to Washington, in addition to fresh pastas, panini, soups, antipasto, salads and gelato, as well as a selection of domestic and Italian wines and beers ; Potbelly Sandwich Works, offering sandwiches made to order, salads, soups, smoothies and various sweets; Zinnia, a locally-owned sit-down restaurant serving an exotic menu of Caribbean foods and drinks, tapas-style, in a comfortable lounge environment; Sake Club, featuring high-end, pan-Asian cuisine with “martini lounge chic” décor, following on the first location on Connecticut Avenue in Woodley Park.

These six newcomers join a number of other restaurants in the neighborhood, which together represent something of an emerging “restaurant row” in Columbia Heights. Across the street at Kenyon Square, a Starbucks has been buzzing since the summer; the Heights has built on the reputation of its sister branch, Logan Tavern, near 14th Street across from the P Street Whole Foods; and a new restaurant, Royal Blue Mediterranean Bistro, is under construction. A little farther up 14th Street, Pollo Campero, Rita’s, Mayorga Lounge, Rumbero Café and Sticky Fingers Bakery are serving the growing population with a diverse selection of foods in both sit-down and fast-casual environments. Nearby, El Rinconcito contributes an extensive El Salvadoran and Mexican menu to the mix from a two-story dining room across the street from the Super Giant on Park Road just east of 14th Street; and Red Rocks Brick Oven Pizzeria pipes the scent of individual-sized pizzas throughout the vicinity of 11th Street and Park Road.<ENDMARK>

Copyright © 1998 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Michael K. Wilkinson. All rights reserved

Editor’s Note: We first reported about this development plan in 1993. See, “Major Anchor Project for Columbia Heights Getting Boost from Target Stores,” December 2002, page 1. Follow-up reports appeared in later issues: “Fresh Fields Announces Deal With Developer to Join Target on 14th St.,” April 2003, page 1; “Final Hurdle Cleared Now Ensures Columbia Heights Retail Project,” December 2005, page 1; and “Long-Awaited Major Columbia Heights Project Underway,” May 2006, page 1. These reports may all be read in their respective monthly issues which are available in the Current & Back Issues Archive at www.intowner.com.