The D.C. government is considering two big projects to increase retail businesses in two very different neighborhoods: Georgetown and H Street NE. Yet neither plan addresses basic retail-boosting strategies that the city should have adopted decade ago.
In Georgetown, developer Herb Miller is looking for at least $20 million in tax increment financing (TIF) to redo Georgetown Park, the mall his former company developed and that his current firm recently bought back. This remake might include a Nordstrom’s, which would be the first new department store to locate in D.C. since Neiman Marcus opened in Friendship Heights in 1977.
The odds might seem to be against this deal. Former Mayors Marion Barry and Tony Williams, as well as erstwhile Pennsylvania Avenue Development Commission director M.J. Brodie, all tried to lure department stores into the city, preferably into the “retail core” around Metro Center. When their campaigns began more than 25 years ago, there were three department stores downtown. Now there’s one.
Yet Miller has a successful record. In addition to developing Georgetown Park, he built (with TIF money) the architecturally gruesome but impressively lively Gallery Place complex. And it’s possible that Nordstrom, having saturated the suburbs, is finally ready to expand into a major East Coast city. (It does have downtown stores in the West, but on this side of the country, it’s avoided cities, save for little Providence, R.I.) Now that Georgetown has been upscaled to the point of tedium—-which may explain why Georgetown Park is struggling—-perhaps prissy Nordstrom can feel comfortable there.
The department store chain certainly wouldn’t take to scruffy H Street NE, where the city plans a $27 million fix-up in hopes of attracting some 300,000 additional square feet of retail. The idea is to build on the “Atlas District,” with its arts center and nearby bars and live-music venues.
Interestingly, both Georgetown and H Street NE would be along the route of the long-touted crosstown Metro line, which could link in Rosslyn to the Silver Line to Tysons Corner and Dulles. Building that Metro extension—-which no one is seriously discussing these days—-would cost a lot more than $27 million, but it would make both Georgetown and H Street NE more attractive to shoppers and shop-keepers alike.
There are simpler things the city can do, of course. Retail requirements and street-frontage regulations for major streets should have been instituted back in the 1970s, at the dawn of Home Rule. Parking lots that separate streets from shops—-as at the dreary H Street Connection strip mall—-should never have been allowed. City officials now say that $1 billion in annual sales tax revenue is lost to the suburbs because D.C. is—-in the retail-biz parlance—-“understored.” A lot of that cash would have been retained if the city hadn’t permitted large new buildings with minimal or no retail space to be erected on prominent sites.
Such urban essentials as maintaining and improving infrastructure, establishing zoning regulations that require effective retail spaces, and improving law enforcement—-an issue on H Street NE, but also in Georgetown—-would do more to transform D.C. than any Nordstrom’s. Yet city officials still have a lottery mentality. They continue to behave as if they can fix everything with one big score, rather than doing the slow, hard work of providing the basic services and consistent planning that would allow the city to mend itself.