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Chains, Charm Struggle to Co-Exist on Hill

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in an occasional series looking at issues facing Capitol Hill residents.

For some residents on Capitol Hill, the brown paper in the first-floor windows at 401 Eighth St. SE is a sign of good things to come, and for others it’s simply an albatross in the making.

In fact, the Starbucks Coffee outlet set to open there later this year is probably both. While it is perhaps just another benign coffee shop, it is also part of the debate over the changing dynamic of the the Hill’s business community.

The Starbucks, the second of the chain to open in Capitol Hill since 2001, is one of a handful of new businesses preparing to open its doors in the area, in part the result of citywide programs designed to lure retailers and restaurateurs into the District of Columbia.

Those programs include a focus on two Capitol Hill retail areas: Barracks Row along Eighth Street Southeast between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Navy Yard, and the 1.5-mile stretch of H Street Northeast between the Hopscotch Bridge behind Union Station and 15th Street Northeast.

Both neighborhoods are striving to fill shops that will not only provide needed services to Hill dwellers but also transform the areas into “destinations” for other Washington residents. Local officials acknowledge that they also must strike a balance between small businesses and mammoth national retail chains.

“It’s important to have some chains and franchises to show tourists that you’re in a great neighborhood,” said Bill McLeod, executive director of Barracks Row Main Street, which focuses on revitalizing the business district along Eighth Street Southeast. “But at the same time, if you’re in a neighborhood full of chains and franchises, then you might as well be in a shopping mall or in a suburban center. The uniqueness is lost, so you could be anywhere in America.”

The fear that large retailers could dilute the personality of the Hill neighborhood became evident, according to Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals President Bill Rouchell, when the first Capitol Hill Starbucks, on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, opened its doors.

“So many people were like, ‘Oh my God. If Starbucks comes to Capitol Hill, that is the beginning of suburbia creeping in,’” Rouchell recalled. “There is a real feeling on Capitol Hill, and it’s sort of sad, and once again it’s the reason why I think we have a lot of [properties] empty here, people here just do not want chains.”

The carefully tended mixture that results from those concerns is probably most evident on Barracks Row itself, where just a few steps from the Eastern Market Metro plaza, storefronts are filled by the likes of national corporations such as Foot Locker, Radio Shack, Blockbuster and the planned Starbucks outlet, but also local entrepreneurs such as Ophelia’s Florist, Capitol Hill Bikes and Starfish Cafe.

From his viewpoint, McLeod said, the selection of stores needs to entice not only Hill dwellers running day-to-day errands, but also tourists, residents of the Marine Barracks and the nearly 10,000 employees of the Navy Yard, which borders the Anacostia River.

It’s within that large audience, containing many people who may not be overly familiar with Barracks Row, that a well-known chain retailer can provide a boost to smaller businesses.

“Starbucks sends a really strong signal to all those tourists coming out of the Eastern Market Metro on Saturday and Sunday that the neighborhood has arrived, come to the corner and see what’s down the street. Whereas before, we didn’t have that,” McLeod said.

But some, like business owner Cathy Braxton, say a simple coffee shop, no matter how popular, might not be a big enough draw for many would-be shoppers.

“At the end of the day, Starbucks is a coffee shop,” said Braxton, who opened NZen, a gift and jewelry shop on Eighth Street in 2002.

‘A Solid Anchor’

On a recent weekday afternoon, Braxton is working behind a counter piled with documents, mostly papers and files related to her other career as a practicing attorney. Her shop is filled with large glass cases, light-colored wood floors and shelves displaying soap and trinkets.

She considers herself and other new shop owners in the neighborhood “pioneers” who must face lingering problems in the area, such as the numerous loiterers who pass time on the sidewalks outside her store.

“While this is an area that’s changing, it hasn’t changed yet,” Braxton said, noting that in the few months since she opened her store she’s already been robbed once.

Braxton believes a national clothing retailer, like an Old Navy or Gap, or even a gourmet grocery store could help increase foot traffic on the street, one of the holy grails of success for shop owners.

“If you get a solid anchor retail store to come into your area, that helps bring in smaller independent retailers,” she said.

But even if officials wanted to entice a retailer of significant size, the area would be hard pressed to offer accommodations, explains George Didden, who heads the Capitol Hill Business Improvement District’s board of directors.

“There’s just not enough of a footprint in most of those buildings to attract chains,” Didden said. “You’re not going to get the Gap, and you’re not going to get The Limited and you’re not going to get those kinds of retailers.”

Didden, who also serves as chairman of the Barracks Row Economic Revitalization Committee, said an economic study conducted by the group suggests ideal businesses for the area include restaurants, art-related businesses or work space for artists and even a fabric store.

“We’re not going to get a lot of chain stores, nor do we want them. We’re looking for smaller, entrepreneurial-type businesses,” he said.

Though difficult, it isn’t completely unfathomable to place a larger store into the neighborhood, said Derrick Woody, an economic revitalization planner in the D.C. Office of Planning.

“Our neighborhoods really aren’t set up for too many large, big boxes to come in,” he said. “They’re all traditionally developed corridors, but if a big box use wants to come in with an urban format there might be some potential there, although there’s still going to be some challenge in achieving the floor plates that they need.”

It’s not simply the limited floor space available in many properties, though, that keeps national retail shops from opening on the Hill.

There are the concerns that chain stores chip away at the Hill’s personality, CHAMPS’ Rouchell said.

That attitude, he asserts, combined with the cost of renting or purchasing property on the Hill, has led to a dearth of services that can’t be supplied by smaller, independent retailers.

“I don’t think the mom and pop stores here don’t have a chance anymore,” said Rouchell, owner of the Maison Orleans Bed and Breakfast. “The rents are a fortune. Mom and pop operations, unless you’ve got a product that really can sell and that people would walk to, I just don’t know how many of those could survive, because it’s just so easy to jump in a car and go across the river [to Virginia] and do your shopping.

“For so many people, that has become a way of life now, too long has passed.”

‘We’re Here to Help Each Other’

Still, some Capitol Hill proprietors argue that residents would happily walk a few blocks rather than get behind the wheel and into the metropolitan area’s congested traffic lanes.

“The prevailing feeling of a good portion of the Hill is, ‘If it’s here I’ll buy it here,’” said Bruce Robey, owner of both the Voice of the Hill newspaper and the H Street Playhouse.

On Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, Al Shuman, co-owner of the Trover Shop bookstore, echoed those sentiments.

Shuman said although many Hill residents may leave the District for larger purchases, they shop close to home for small items. “We have a lot of customers who go out of their way to support the independents,” he said.

For Art’s Sake Café owner Paula Lancaster notes that it’s not only the customers but also fellow business owners who help publicize one another’s services.

As an example, Lancaster points to an art exhibit she hosted at her pottery painting studio, which featured food donated by neighboring La Plaza, a Salvadoran and Mexican restaurant.

“I’m always directing people to other places. … We’re here to help each other,” she said. That camaraderie is important for Lancaster’s business, which opened in the fall of 2002, because much of her advertising depends on word of mouth.

‘Creative Business’

On the Hill’s northern end, in the H Street Northeast corridor, residents and District officials have visions of a revitalized retail district, reflecting the heyday of a neighborhood that has never quite recovered from the riots of the late 1960s.

Armed with a revitalization plan created by the Office of Planning and through the work of H Street Main Street, residents believe they could see a second coming of the area completed in as little as 10 years.

“We’re trying to get the neighborhood what they need and what they deserve,” said Anwar Saleem, chairman of H Street Main Street, which like Barracks Row Main Street works to attract businesses through a program financed by a combination of District funds matched with privately raised monies.

Woody, in the planning office, uses the redevelopment of 14th Street Northwest, which has seen a growth in furniture and housewares shops along with basic services, as a guide for how the H Street corridor could change.

“On H Street we’re going to see the same kind of thing, in that there is a preference for — within the core of the corridor — basic goods and services, some clothiers, a small neighborhood grocer, coffee shop, a few restaurants, a hardware store,” Woody said.

In fact, the corridor has already begun to change, with the planned renovation of the Atlas Theater and opening of the H Street Playhouse in 2002, and more recently shops such as Imagine U Unique, and the openings this month of businesses such as Ella’s Coffee, Art Gallery and Custom Framing, and Beri, a day spa.

“This is not going to be small business, this is going to be creative business. You have to be very creative in your approach at opening new businesses — something that is going to attract the neighborhood and also folks on the outside of this neighborhood,” said Saleem, who also heads the H Street Merchants and Professionals Association.

Much like the southern end of the Hill, H Street must deal with issues of limited space, with most of its buildings averaging 1,500 to 2,000 square feet, Saleem said.

More important, notes Tomika Hughey, H Street Main Street’s executive director, is drawing a diverse cross-section of businesses to the area through careful planning.

“What happens in urban neighborhoods such as H Street that are in transition, we, for the sake of development and just having something, we may just take anything,” Hughey said. “When if we wait a little longer or work a little harder we can get something right the first time. But what happens when we just take anything, is we get development that often doesn’t add positively to our neighborhood.”

The city’s revitalization plan calls for four districts along H Street, including an arts and theater area, and residents would like to see those plans supplemented with the addition of sit-down restaurants and other services, Hughey said, adding, “We want places where people can come on Saturdays and sit down and enjoy themselves.”