Last fall, I immodestly proposed a remake of the square that includes the Q Street entrance to the Dupont Circle Metro Station. One reason the time was right, I noted, was that Riggs Bank had been absorbed by PNC, a Pittsburgh institution. That meant less need for local office space for the bank, so that the retail buildings on the west side of the 1500 block of Connecticut Avenue NW, which Riggs converted to office space in 1997, could return to their previous use.
None of my more extravagant ideas for the square are on anyone’s public agenda, but the shops on that block are coming back. According to the Washington Business Journal, local retail broker John Asadoorian has been hired to lease the space that was once home to Kemp Mill Records, Beadazzled, Burrito Brothers, Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips, various ice cream parlors, and Rascals (a gay bar). There’s 20,000 square feet of available space, most of it behind façades clearly designed for retail use.
At $100 per square foot, the shops won’t rent to small, independent, or start-up businesses. But however corporate the block’s new retailers, they’ll create activity that will enliven the area. It never made sense to have a retail dead zone at the center of the one of the city’s liveliest neighborhoods, and next to one of its busiest Metro stations.
Of course, the original flip to office space didn’t have to happen. If the city had instituted the sort of retail requirements that exist in most well-planned cities, Riggs would never have been able to convert the Connecticut Avenue frontage to offices. So the return of shops to one side of one block doesn’t say anything about the larger issue of lively retail corridors. Citywide, D.C.’s retail strategy is still based on wishful thinking and the kindness of strangers.