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The recent news that Woodward & Lothrop will almost certainly be bought by Federated Department Stores, a national department-store chain that has no interest in Woodies’ downtown store, confirms an ongoing trend that’s ominous to downtowns both lively and moribund. Despite the best (which is to say, the worst) efforts of D.C.’s planners and office-space developers, the city’s traditional downtown remains a viable shopping area: Woodies reports that its large 11th and F Streets NW flagship store is its second-best-performing store. That doesn’t matter, however, to Federated, which like most national chains has a cookie-cutter approach it applies nationwide: a medium-size store in a regional mall in an affluent suburb.
Meanwhile, there are national chains that can still distinguish active streets from deserted ones. Show-biz retailer Warner Bros. recently opened a new outlet at 11th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, just two blocks south of the threatened Woodies. The Warner Bros. Store carefully localized its image with bigger-than-life display-window figurines of Bugs, Daffy, and other WB characters posing as Capitol Hill and Oval Office types. It’s hardly the new department store the city’s been seeking for nearly two decades, but it is a rare expression of corporate interest in downtown D.C.
The Warner Bros. Store is across the street from Planet Hollywood and two blocks from the Hard Rock Cafe, the neighborhood’s pioneering show-biz business. These establishments—which see downtown Washington as another Orlando rather than another Detroit or Newark —exist primarily to lighten the wallets of tourists who visit the nearby Mall, FBI Building, White House, and other federal attractions. Nonetheless, they may be local residents’ only hope for an active downtown.
These businesses are slated to be joined by two multiplex cinemas, one in the office building to be erected (eventually) at 11th and E Streets, the other in the now-shuttered east building of the Pavilion at the Old Post Office on the south side of 11th and Pennsylvania. The latter development is reportedly in hot pursuit of other show-biz retail possibilities, notably the area’s first branch of the Virgin Megastore. The recorded-music chain has large, bustling outlets on such major European shopping thoroughfares as London’s Oxford Street and Paris’ Avenue des Champs Élysées. Also mentioned as a possibility is Niketown, the high-concept shoe and clothing store that has outlets in New York and Chicago (and which last year contemplated a Georgetown location).
There are plenty of other urban-oriented businesses that would fit this glitzier definition of downtown, from Dive (the submarine-themed sub shop partially owned by Steven Spielberg) and House of Blues (Dan Aykroyd’s pseudo-juke-joint) to a commercial IMAX theater like the one Sony opened last year in Manhattan. (So far, Sony has committed to only one other location, in San Francisco, but in order to amortize the production costs of the commercial IMAX films it’s started to make, it will need more theaters that can show them.)
Central D.C. actually has little in common with Orlando. With its legions of federal workers and lawyers, excellent public-transit connections, and close proximity to residential neighborhoods, it much more closely resembles a traditional mixed-use downtown. National chains that increasingly dominate retailing believe such areas don’t (or can’t) exist. With Federated-owned chains like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s enforcing the dominant suburban model of separated uses, serious shopping can happen only in discrete (and usually remote) shopping malls. (D.C. residents have actually supported this city-killing precept by flocking to Pentagon City to shop.)
The new corporate interest in urban retail is keyed only to play-time, not work-time, neighborhoods. That explains why the only D.C. neighborhood that’s experienced a significant recent increase in national-chain retail development is Georgetown, known (at least to out-of-towners) as Washington’s party precinct. To the new breed of urban retailer, the local attorney or bureaucrat carrying a gold card is of less interest than the visiting teen-ager with just enough cash to buy a logo-festooned sweatshirt.
What remains to be seen, of course, is what a potential boom in show-biz retail might do for old-fashioned shopping. Will the Warner Bros. Store and its peers attract enough tourist money to pique the interest of ordinary retailers? It seems unlikely today, but eventually the jangle of the cash registers in the vicinity of Planet Hollywood might catch the tin ear of a department-store executive.