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14th and U to Logan in 2003; Retail Taking Off Two Years After Whole Foods Came to the Neighborhood

By Dugie Standeford

When Jenny Pedersen began scouting a location for her home furnishings store in late 1999, she didn’t consider 14th Street, NW. She had heard something “might “ be happening along the corridor, she said, but there wasn’t much retail action at the time, and launching a business there seemed risky. She settled into a restaurant-filled area near the MCI Center although, as she recently told <I>The Washington Post<I>, she would have preferred to be near other furniture stores.

But neighborhood resident Deborah Martens and business partner David Schaefer were not deterred by the area’s surface appearance; three years ago they opened their up-scale Urban Essentials home furnishings store at 1330 U Street. At the time, just across the street, was the massive empty lot being used as a Metro construction staging area; today, the Donetelli & Klein Ellington Condominium is nearing completion. That project will be joining others recently completed and yet others ready to break ground–developments barely anticipated back in 1999.

Fast-forward four years. Walk east from Dupont Circle, perhaps along P Street, past the new Whole Foods Market (formerly known as Fresh Fields). Notice the condominium and apartment buildings under construction. Head north on 14th Street, past the John Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church, Source Theatre Company, Central Union Mission and buildings housing parts of Whitman-Walker Clinic. On a weekday evening or a Sunday afternoon, the street is humming, but without the noise level and traffic jams of downtown. Side streets brim with garden apartments and townhouses.

And there, in the 1800 block between S and T Streets, in brightly colored shops that contrast sharply with their older, seedier neighbors, lies the core of what many hope will be an urban furniture and home-furnishings Mecca.

Fourteenth Street has been an “organic commercial corridor” for many years, said John Asadoorian, a real estate broker who specializes in finding space and tenants for retail establishments. In the 1920s the street was lined with car dealerships and auto parts stores, and it was a major traffic corridor. That changed after the 1968 riots damaged many of the buildings.

Areas around Georgetown, Dupont Circle and K Street began blossoming, Asadoorian said, followed, in the 1980s, by growth around 14th and F Streets. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that developers began to see value in “overlooked urban pockets,” he said. And when they did, they rediscovered 14th Street

The coming-together of several forces revitalized the street, observed Asadoorian. People moved into the area who had “creative vision tied with an entrepreneurial bent,” and who saw a need for the kinds of merchandise they now sell. The neighborhood organized to entice Whole Foods onto P Street. Developers began looking seriously at some of the old buildings around Logan Circle as people tired of living in the suburbs. The city, too, played a part in the street’s rebirth through programs such as the Main Street initiative. More and more, merchants and realtors began to realize the area’s potential.

People have discovered that Logan Circle, and particularly 14th Street., has magnificent buildings “with great bones,” said Wayne Dickson, a commercial real estate broker who used to head the Logan Circle Citizens Association (LCCA). In fact, Dickson said, he left the leadership of the LCCA to work on a joint Main Street proposal with the U Street corridor’s Cardozo-Shaw Neighborhood Association. Part of the initiative was aimed at emphasizing 14th Street as a major furniture and home furnishings shopping destination, he said.

The pioneer in the 1800 block is Home Rule, at 1807-14th Street In 1998, its owners, Greg Link and Rod Glover, decided to open a home furnishings store there because, as Link put it, 17th Street and the area west of 14th Street were already saturated. Fourteenth Street was just sitting there, and its housing market was clearly on the move. They watched Ruff & Ready Furnishings, a used furniture store up the street from them, drawing customers and decided a home accessories shop would do well, too. On the “if-you-build-it-they-will-come theory,” they launched Home Rule, a shop filled with quirky housewares that “have a function,” said Glover.

Since then, changes have happened faster than either of them imagined. “We always knew this was possible,” they said, because of the amount of traffic Home Rule was getting and because they live in the neighborhood. They knew “the people were here but the merchandise wasn’t,” Link said. That’s why as new stores open they immediately attract shoppers, he added.

Noi Chudnoff opened Go Mama Go! nearly two years ago. At the time, she was selling Japanese dishes at Eastern Market. When she decided to find a space of her own she immediately thought of 14th Street. She knew Whole Foods was on its way and that wherever it goes “civilization is happening,” as she put it. Home Rule was flourishing and there was a shuttered thrift shop available next door at 1809-14th.

Chudnoff came because, as she said, she knew “that this is a gay neighborhood” whose residents care about improving the area. The store sells “eclectic, edgy” art and home furnishings. Chudnoff donates artwork to Whitman-Walker as a way of giving back to the gay community that supports her shop. Business is “very good,” she said: “Local people are loyal.”

Over the past several months, two furniture stores have opened in the 1800 block. Vastu, at No. 1829, is owned by Jason Claire and Eric Kole. Both live in the neighborhood, and decided to open a business there after market research showed that thousands of condominium units were either under construction or about to be built near Whole Foods, Claire said.

The neighborhood has a “loyal customer base” that wants to support local business, Claire said, but his store also attracts plenty of suburban shoppers. Vastu specializes in original, “warm, clean-lined modern” furniture aimed at both empty-nesters moving back into the city and young professionals. It also operates as an art gallery, exhibiting, for now, mostly local artists and holding openings every two months.

Just next door, at No. 1831, is Chris Reiter’s store, Muleh. Reiter, who also owns a shop in Bethesda, found the 14th Street area particularly attractive because it’s on the border of the city’s eastward expansion. Despite a checkered economy, he said, the area is loaded with luxury housing. To help homeowners fill those spacious lofts, Muleh sells a “warm version of modern design” that includes varied textures and the use of organic materials such as fibers and different woods.

But making a home means more than just buying chairs and glassware. Joe Carmack, who moved to DC to study garden design at The George Washington University, “always wanted a garden store” on 14th Street, he said. A year ago, he took over a former towing lot at 1801-14th and opened the Garden District. The full-service store sells everything from peat moss to perennials to fresh-cut flowers, and offers garden design services.

Carmack chose the area for several reasons, he said. The streets are wide, car and pedestrian traffic bring in a good flow of shoppers, and there’s an urban, diverse feel to 14th Street that other parts of town don’t have. Since he opened, four new businesses have arrived on the block, driven by the “explosive amount of new housing” there. “People need stuff,” Carmack said.

Business was good for Ron Henderson even before he moved into his building next door to Carmack, at No. 1803, in late March. He opened Pulp last November in a shop over a nearby store, selling cards, candles, gift wraps and home items such as picture frames. Henderson, a clinical psychologist, came from California to interview for a job. But after having an “Oprah moment,” he decided to bag the job search and find something more fulfilling. He began to shop in the 14th Street area, where he noticed the need for a good card shop.

What struck Henderson about the neighborhood was its “sense of community.” It was attracting not only young, upwardly mobile residents but Salvadorans and Ethiopians. Too, he said, it’s become “the new gay frontier” as Dupont Circle gets pricier. But while gentrification is happening, he said, an effort is being made to maintain the neighborhood’s rich African-American culture and its diversity. Pulp encourages neighborliness by offering a “card bar” where customers can sit, write cards, and listen to music, and an “altar” where they can place photographs of family and friends.

Also catering to the growing number of homeowners and renters in the neighborhood is Logan Hardware. After living in the area five years, and polling others in the community, Gina Schaefer and husband Marc Friedman “knew the neighborhood really wanted a hardware store.” They opened in March at 1416 P Street, next to Whole Foods, in a building that once housed an auto showroom. Business, said Schaefer, has been “awesome.”

In a neighborhood where 75 percent of housing units are rented, Logan Hardware tries to balance the more transient products aimed at renters with those needed by homeowners, Schaefer said. The store offers a rental program for items such as power tools geared toward renters and smaller spaces. It also cuts glass, repairs screens, fixes lamps, and sells custom paints.

The 14th Street corridor is becoming the area in which to shop for home, said Home Rule’s Link. Reincarnations Furnishings, after 11 years on 17th Street, just relocated to 14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue. More residential and retail projects are in the works, said Asadoorian: “The best is yet to come.”

Restaurants will be the “next wave,” predicted Pulp’s Henderson. He may be right. In late September, David Winer, owner of Grillfish Restaurant on New Hampshire Avenue and M Street, will open Logan Tavern at 1423 P Street. Like other new establishments along the corridor, the tavern will be neighbor-friendly, staying open late on weekends and serving brunch.

Whole Foods’ decision to locate in the Logan Circle area sparked the growth along 14th Street, Winer said. That change would have occurred without Whole Foods, but the supermarket gave it “legitimacy,” he said. Now, Winer added, “big-time retailing can happen here.”

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