The standard reaction to Wawa locations moving into the District has been apathy or tamed excitement—that is, unless you manage a nearby, local shop.
“You couldn’t pay me money to step foot in there,” says Camille Boyette of the Wawa moving in to Adams Morgan. Boyette is the general manager of Madam’s Organ, a decades-old blues bar that now shares the neighborhood with one of the city’s six Wawa stores.
“I will silently protest,” Boyette says.
Lost City Books manager Evan Owens-Stively loves seeing the red letters and yellow goose on the side of the road when he’s looking for a quality rest stop.
“But I don’t want to see it in our neighborhood,” Owens-Stively says.
Their opposition is many-fold. Adams Morgan has a long and charmed history that could be spoiled with the entry of more chain stores, the thinking goes. This Wawa is also replacing BicycleSPACE, a D.C.-based bike shop with just two other locations now that the Adams Morgan store closed after operating since July 2015.
Owens-Stively—who’s worked at Lost City Books for the last four years, and before that, Amsterdam Falafelshop for two years—says a BicycleSPACE mechanic would come to his store every three days to purchase a science fiction book, usually something by Andre Norton. It was a symbiotic relationship: Owens-Stively is a biker who frequented BicycleSPACE.
“It felt like a place that was trying to contribute to the neighborhood as well as be a business,” says Owens-Stively of BicycleSPACE. “But Wawa is fundamentally not that … it’s going to be a drunk place for kids to get food at three in the morning.” (It’s true that the neighborhood has a pretty wild weekend scene.)
It’s not as if BicycleSPACE wanted to shutter its Adams Morgan location.
“We came to the neighborhood and really enjoyed being there,” says BicycleSPACE co-founder Phil Koopman. “The long-term economics weren’t there going forward. Obviously bigger chains could afford to pay more rent—I don’t know what it means for the neighborhood.”
Koopman wouldn’t say how much the rent was, but agreed to this: The rent is too high.
Not every D.C. Wawa has come in with the reputation of being a gentrifier. In fact, half of the Wawa locations in the District are replacing other larger chain stores. The first Wawa to open in D.C. replaced a City Sports in 2017; the second, located in Georgetown, replaced a Restoration Hardware in July 2018; and the fourth, located in Tenleytown, replaced a Sears home appliance showroom in June 2019.
The Washington Post called the inaugural Wawa a “big deal.” Of the over 800 stores nationwide, this Wawa is one of the company’s largest at more than 9,000 square feet of space. The downtown site at 1111 19th St. NW attracts a lot of office types, providing professionals with a convenient 30-minute lunch break.
“I can tell you it’s always very busy—it’s almost a daily stop for me,” says Gillian Branstetter of the National Center for Transgender Equality, an advocacy organization located a minute away from the Wawa.
Her colleague Jay Wu was super excited when the store first opened, as they self-identify as a Wawa loyalist given that they went to school in the Philadelphia suburbs. “I used to go there a lot,” says Wu. “There are so many sandwiches I can eat in my life. I prefer variety.”
Eateries nearby the 1111 19th St. NW location were concerned at first about what the Wawa meant for business—DC Pizza, which is 144 feet south, certainly was. There’s just one DC Pizza and its home of five years is between L and M streets NW.
“Since they moved in, they haven’t affected us negatively,” says DC Pizza owner Bob Daly. “Once they were here, they started bringing more people to this block so Saturday sales have gone up.”
A two-minute walk north is the 7-Eleven, where sales dropped during the first six months after Wawa moved in. But business is now back to normal, says manager Zubair Ahmed. To stay competitive, 7-Eleven added more options for hot meals and to its beverage bar.
“So far, we are good neighbors,” says Ahmed. “As a business, I don’t like somebody to take my business, but we work together.”
But in Columbia Heights, the tale of the new Wawa is more similar to that of the Adams Morgan location.
The third Wawa to move into the city in May 2019 replaced the first-ever Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza, along with Potbelly and Five Guys, in Columbia Heights.
“All three tenants had 10 year leases, with extension options, but they chose not to renew when initial lease terms expired. We then leased the combined space to Wawa,” says Chris Donatelli, the landlord for the property (and the subject of a recent City Paper article on one of his residential properties), in an email. “Some people think we kicked out the tenants to make room for Wawa. That is just not the case,” he added.
That’s true, says Pete’s owner Joel Mehr. But that’s not it.
“They didn’t actually kick us out, they just wouldn’t negotiate a better lease price for us,” says Mehr, “We would have liked to have stayed, we just couldn’t afford to.”
The starting rent was around $10,000 per month. By the time the local pizzeria closed in April 2018 to make room for the 24-hour Wawa, the rent was around $15,000 per month due to annual increases, says Mehr. Pete’s, Potbelly, and Five Guys, were the first tenants in the building. The location was also the inaugural Pete’s outpost. Debuting in 2008, Pete’s opened when Columbia Heights was seeing less foot traffic. Mehr says the first two years were rough, but by year eight, the pizzeria really took off, so they expanded, opening three more restaurants in Silver Spring, Clarendon, and Tenleytown. (All but the Tenleytown location have subsequently closed.) By that time, though, other chains like Chipotle had moved into the neighborhood. That’s when rent really started to outpace sales.
“D.C. is not a small business friendly place to be,” says Mehr. He’s ready to leave—when City Desk called he had just returned from Denver to see if he and his family could live there.
“Everyone is looking to sell the building when the right price comes.” says Mehr. “They are more concerned with the value of the property than with the money they take in every month—that’s what I’ve been told by other landlords, not specifically Donatelli.”
Ted Guthrie, an advisory neighborhood commissioner representing Adams Morgan, sees that dynamic manifest in another way: “We have a lot of empty spaces along 18th. That tells you the price is too high,” he says. “I would love to see the landlords of some of these [vacant] buildings that are not getting any rent get cheaper rent and try to engage pop-up spaces.”
For example, says Guthrie, the property at 2406 18th St. NW has been vacant for at least two years after an Ethophian restaurant closed. Before that it was home to the infamous dance club NY NY Diva. “The problem is the guy wants too much for rent and the building is in terrible condition,” says Guthrie of the landlord, who is based in Florida.
While Guthrie is relatively happy about the Wawa moving in to Adams Morgan—saying “it’s much better than a nightclub”—Madam’s Organ owner Bill Duggan is far from thrilled. That said, Duggan doesn’t fault the Wawa.
“I do blame the ANC and the people in this neighborhood that have made it a non-desirable neighborhood for other businesses, other than corporate entities to come into,” says Duggan. “We have an ANC that is probably best known throughout the city as being the most antagonistic towards restaurants, bars—anything to do with alcohol.”
A while ago, 2424 18th St NW was a “deadly nightclub” Guthrie couldn’t recall the name of. It was also the original site of Cities, a restaurant and lounge that Duggan thought changed the neighborhood for the better. Today, Cities probably wouldn’t be able to open there thanks to the Adams Morgan Moratorium Zone, which bans nightclub licenses. But both Guthrie and Duggan agree on this: The property was too expensive so it could only be filled with a restaurant that could afford the rent, or something like a Wawa.
“That building where Wawa is going in is in the middle of the block, the largest building in the neighborhood, the anchor of a neighborhood,” says Duggan. “That anchor and that character probably will change the neighborhood just by virtue of where it is, what it is, and how large it is.”
Guthrie, who’s one of Adams Morgan’s longest-serving commissioners, says he didn’t hear of any other businesses trying to move into 2424 18th St NW. In fact, Guthrie learned of Wawa moving in after the deal was made, as there wasn’t any need for ANC input: Wawa wasn’t asking for any sort of license, like an on- or off-premise liquor license; there weren’t any zoning issues; nor was Wawa interfering with the neighborhood’s historic district status. The store is currently under construction and is slated to open in September.
The property is also one of the only storefronts where a larger chain could land.
“A lot of these businesses on 18th Street are rowhomes so they are not ADA accessible,” says Adams Morgan commissioner Japer Bowles, “So bringing in a chain, I am wary, but I’m also looking at it as like there isn’t really a lot of opportunities for chains to move into the neighborhood so for them to be in this one—that’s really it and I feel like it’ll help serve the neighborhood.”
From what Bowles hears, Wawa is a good neighbor. The ANC recently passed a resolution to add a street-level Capital Bikeshare dock in front of Wawa and the company didn’t oppose it.
The newest Wawa, located at One Thomas Circle NW, isn’t stirring as much controversy. When and where D.C. will see the next Wawa is unclear, as is the strategy behind each previous location—Wawa’s public relations manager didn’t respond to City Desk’s requests for comment.
This post has been updated to reflect which business located at 2424 18th St. NW Ted Guthrie referred to.