If you facelift it, maybe they'll come. (image via DMPED)

The Fort Davis Shopping Center, right off the intersection of Alabama and Pennsylvania Avenues SE, isn’t much to look at: A flat, low-lying strip mall, most of its storefronts are empty. The D.C. Department of Health Services is its biggest tenant, with a large service center on the lower level, but the building emptied out significantly when the District cut the mental health program that had also been housed there.

The building also houses the office of ANC 7B, which last night quizzed Chris LoPiano, representative of landlord CityInterests LLC, on their efforts to lease it out.

“It’s very disturbing to us that you have vacant storefronts,” said Commissioner Robert Richards.

It’s not for lack of trying, LoPiano said: He’s been through three brokers in three years, offered the space at rates in the low $20s per square foot, and talked to about 20 interested retailers. But the closest CityInterests has gotten to a new tenant is an guy interested in buying Lee’s Mini Mart and—maybe—expanding it into the adjacent storefront, with more fresh groceries. It’s a tough sell, though, given that lotto tickets and beer are the mini mart’s main source of revenue.

“We believe in this community. We believe there’s buying power in this community,” LoPiano assured the commissioners. “That said, it doesn’t mean the retailers believe it.”

With the help of a grant from the city’s Great Streets program, CityInterests will soon start work on a half-million dollar façade update, re-doing the fronts in brick and adding backlit “vertical elements” to create a sense of safety and visibility from further away. The additions are just decorative, LoPiano explained, but might make the place look nice enough to attract something the community wants.

Fort Davis is one of five shopping malls that CityInterests bought from a company called UrbanAmerica in 2007. One of them, East River Park at Minnesota and Benning, has turned around in a big way: LoPiano lured a Safeway and a CVS, which he says does three times the amount of sales per square foot than the national average. And a month ago, it opened the celebrated Rays the Steaks—which was the tenth restaurant CityInterests tried to talk into locating there.

The developer’s latest project is the South Capitol Shopping Center, which is bigger than Fort Davis, but not in much better shape tenant-wise. CityInterests was awarded an $8.8 million TIF grant earlier this year, and is slowly working through the several different agencies, plus the City Council, that need to sign off on the closing of a public alley (their Council hearing today was postponed). Then they need to get the project financed, and they can’t do that without major retail interest.

The Community of Hope, which provides healthcare and supportive services to low-income and homeless residents, has signed on for 50,000 square feet. But attracting another anchor tenant, ideally a grocery store, is proving more difficult.
“We’ve talked to everyone,” LoPiano said. “They’re not willing to work hard to figure out the neighborhood retail. There are people who buy groceries every day. And they eat asparagus.”

The South Capitol Shopping Center floor plan.