The restaurant scene of Columbia Heights: in here, it’s always Tuesday.

This post serves more as a prelude to a forthcoming, lengthier rumination on retail conditions in Columbia Heights, a Washington DC neighborhood I have explored multiple times in the past.IMG_9619It is among the oldest “suburbs” platted outside of the original l’Enfant plan for the capital region. I apply quotes to the word “suburb” because, though it sits almost squarely within the center of the district and is thoroughly urban by almost any metric, at one point in time it served the function of a suburb in relation to older, even more commercial active areas to the immediate south: neighborhoods like DuPont Circle, Logan Circle, Shaw, and Adams-Morgan. Additionally, Columbia Heights’ position just north of Florida Avenue is critical: Pierre l’Enfant’s original name for Florida Avenue was Boundary Street, and it represented the northern edge to which the lettering system he applied to east-west streets in his 1791 plan for the federal capital city. Just a couple blocks to the south of Florida/Boundary Street is the busily commercial U Street, followed one block north by V and then W Street; the plan for the District omitted the last three letters of the alphabet. Then comes Florida Avenue.  And immediately north of Florida Avenue is a steep hill leading into the featured neighborhood; the surveying and engineering standards of 1790 may have determined the hill was too steep for horse-drawn vehicles to navigate, so it became an appropriate boundary for the l’Enfant Plan.

More than two centuries later, this formidable slope makes the name “Columbia Heights” that much more apt.  Standing at the optimal point along the north-south arterial 16th Street NW, one can easily peer downhill at the street’s southern terminus: the White House. Back when the original developed limits of Washington did not extend much beyond the l’Enfant Plan, the neighborhood was an outlying area—as much of a bedroom community as, for example, Greenwich Village was to Lower Manhattan over two hundred years ago (when what we today call the Financial District was “New York City”). Continued urbanization in both cities eventually endowed the two low-rise, mostly residential districts with the character of urban neighborhoods.

A distressed and crime-ridden neighborhood during DC’s nadir in the 1970s and 80s, Columbia Heights today hardly looks like could have ever harbored extensive civil unrest, but 14th Street in the photo above was among the most devastated corridors in the aftermath of the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination. Visual evidence of revitalization abounds: many of same gentrifying forces that characterize the majority of District of Columbia. The Columbia Heights Metro station, completed in 1999, helped reaffirm the neighborhood’s centrality and encouraged considerable amounts of high-density, transit oriented development that have turned the intersection of Park Road and 14th Street NW into one of the biggest pedestrian nodes outside of the original plat.IMG_9639Directly across the street from the metro stop is this neighborhood civic plaza, carved out from a large multifamily residential structure completed about a decade after the Metro stop opened.IMG_9625Unlike many other neighborhoods that have surged in value, Columbia Heights has retained many of the stable Latino and African-American residents that have claimed the rowhouses and apartment buildings throughout Columbia Heights’s side streets.IMG_9756IMG_9757IMG_9758

 

Despite the population density, the steadily rising median household incomes, and one of the highest weekday Metro passenger boarding rates outside of downtown DC, the hundreds of thousands of retail square feet face continued occupancy struggles.IMG_9638IMG_9629IMG_9753The papered storefront in the photo below is particularly disconcerting.IMG_9643It’s a shuttered Panera Bread, the fast-casual restaurant chain that has been among the most consistently successful for the last decade or so. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a Panera closing, but it suggests that all the favorable economic indicators in the world weren’t enough to keep this location sufficiently profitable.

Don’t get me wrong: Columbia Heights still boasts hundreds of thousands of square feet of occupied retail, with tenants both local and nationally recognized, catering to multiple socioeconomic strata that live nearby. But the recent closures of several middle-market tenants (Panera, Staples, Five Guys, Potbelly, Children’s Place) does not necessarily augur well for surviving tenants like Starbucks, Chipotle, Petco, DSW Shoe Warehouse, or even IHOP. And here’s what I see as the culmination of these challenges:IMG_9620This building, just a block and a half north of the Columbia Heights Metro stop, receives considerable foot traffic and features mostly local establishments, which generally suggests that it lacks the magnetism to lure the big national brands.

But it’s not for lack of trying.

failed TGI Fridays in Columbia Heights

The corner of the building remains sheathed in paper, with permitting info on either side of the doorway. Thanks to their superlative visual prominence, corners tend to command higher leasing rates than other portions of a building. Perhaps those City-initiated signs indicate something lucrative.IMG_9623Hmmm, a liquor permit. Those are expensive. Whatever is planned for this corner, the owner probably has particularly deep pockets. Let’s take a closer look.  (And forgive my reflection on the right side of the pic; I’m usually better about avoiding that condition.)IMG_9624Is it legible? The licensee is TGI Fridays Inc. Yup, the ubiquitous national chain, a suburban archetype, plans to try its hand at the site….

…except that the posting date is August 9, 2013. This notification is almost five years old. The age of the sign suggests two things: corporate-based expansion plans for TGI Fridays have hit a snag, and nothing else has come in the last five years to supersede this liquor permit—or the lease. While it’s possible that TGI Fridays is still working out some kinks, let’s be realistic here: it doesn’t usually take a national chain this long to get through permitting, and the landlord was probably delighted to secure a lease for a stable, broadly recognized chain with real potential to bring in the crowds.

But is it so stable? TGI Fridays, like many of the time-worn middle-American restaurant chains, has faced flat or declining sales in recent years, resulting in the closure of some of the least profitable locations. Though broadly associated with suburbia, Fridays historically has boasted locations in the absolute center of downtowns, often intended to attract convention-goers or other tourists. But a racially and socioeconomically diverse urban neighborhood like Columbia Heights, which had a reputation for crime as recently as fifteen years ago? That’s a gamble. And, given the enormous hurdles that bricks-and-mortar retail are facing in 2018, the business development team at Fridays probably decided—despite the surging restaurant scene in DC and numerous other cities—that Columbia Heights simply wasn’t worth the risk. After all, most of the growth of restaurants has come through either fast casual chains (like Panera and Five Guys) or eclectic local and ethnic eateries. DC is replete with hybrid ethnic/fast-casual mini-chains (many of them originating in the region), and if Columbia Heights cannot support a location of the home-grown Five Guys or the dominant Panera, it’s unlikely to attract a Fridays, Chili’s, Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday, or any of the other middlebrow chains that have begun to falter these last few years.

The lease went bust. This papered-up corner at the heart of Columbia Heights probably reveals little about the neighborhood as a whole, but it speaks volumes on the challenges facing all forms of retail in the Age of the Internet. While retail usually follows rooftops, the struggles to keep occupancy in Columbia Heights–where rooftops are everywhere–don’t speak well for the future. If a neighborhood with a population density greater than 99% of the country’s land area can’t keep its tenants, what does that say for sprawling suburbia—where TGI Fridays has been as entrenched as scrapbooking and soccer leagues?

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16 thoughts on “The restaurant scene of Columbia Heights: in here, it’s always Tuesday.

  1. John Dinkeldein

    High end blight…..thanks Greenwich Village in New York. You started the trend. Gentrification in its purist sense

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Indeed, and then the next rule: location, location, location. Lots of rooftops in Columbia Heights–but under those rooftops is a demographic that is not so prone to support a TGI Fridays…

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt

        Based on the financials, the contingent that supports places like TGI Friday’s is steadily on the wane. I can’t help but think of the sharp parody, Tchotchkes, from “Office Space” about 20 years ago.

        Reply
  2. Marc H.

    Excellent piece on Columbia Heights. I learned a lot about the origin of Columbia Heights, and about the original plan of l’Enfant. My main hypothesis for the cause of the failed chains in Columbia Heights was only briefly addressed when you discussed the success of Ethnic Eateries. I believe that the chains fail because young and hip people don’t like chains. They like different. They like authentic. They like mom and pop. So perhaps the retail is failing because those spaces are too big for the small mom and pop restaurants. My guess…happy Wednesday!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Hey! I think you’re on to something. In Columbia Heights, the Ethiopian and Salvadoran eateries tend to cluster along the side streets where the leasable space is smaller and probably cheaper, since there’s less foot traffic. But busy 14th Street gets (or used to get) the chains. And I agree: the gentrifying young ‘uns aren’t that interest in places like TGI Fridays, which remind them of childhood in the burbs. As usual, the folks at The Onion seem to understand it best: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpSo-VJTeE8

      Reply
  3. Brian M

    I wonder if the “R” word is a big factor? Built into their formulas and paradigms is a “No investment in Black/Latino areas” algorithm?

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Considering that suburban Prince George’s County MD, with a 65% African American population, has at least 4 TGI Fridays, I don’t think that’s likely to be a big factor.

      As far as these restaurant mega-chains are concerned, the most influential color is and has long been green.

      Reply
      1. Columbia Heights Resident

        Take a look at the ANC, the proposed voluntary agreement (a.k.a. the “V.A.”) for the liquor license, and the comments from the Samuel E. Kelsey building. What happened is all matter of public record. No speculation needed. Also, the DCUSA building is a private/public partnership. Quite a few of the leases at DCUSA are only open to minority business owners. The situation is very complicated and cannot be reduced to a simple supply/demand analysis. Its all in the public record. Why not do a little research before posting?

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt

          Thank you for the comments. I guess some of the additional research could have elicited the following: the economic climate of similarly themed restaurants (e.g., the closure of Ruby Tuesday across the street at about the same time that Friday’s stalled); the floorplate and GLA of the restaurant space; the capacity of an ANC to completely thwart a business completely versus forcing concessions; the capacity for most small business owners to afford the lease at a space as large as this one.

          In short, it is equally simplistic to imply that “public record” explains everything in a situation like this, when TGI Fridays’ failure is less an outlier and more indicative of a broader trend with sit-down American casual eateries. Perhaps I eschewed responsibility at investigating administrative proceedings in the neighborhood, but I’m volleying it back your way through the considerations i just listed. Essentially, there is ALWAYS room for more research. And, no matter how much research I/we do, some people will never truly be happy.

          Reply
          1. Brian M

            You run a semi-casual blog. You can’t be expected to be a deep researcher that captures all of the pet issues and topics and reader might want. Keep on doing what you do! 🙂

            Reply
  4. Alex Pline

    Your article and especially the comments above are indicative of the many factors that are affecting the retail crisis in this country. The old tried and true mixed use typology was that was page one in the standard revitalization play book is certainly becoming less relevant. Hidden forces beyond supply and demand often affect the success of these spaces; regulations (such as indicated above) and commercial real estate finance are the two that come to mind. I don’t have any answers at the moment, but it’s clear that in a very soft retail market, these hidden factors and perverse incentives often come to the surface.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks for the message, Alex. My impression is that the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) for this area was opposed to the TGI Fridays because of its alcohol permit and the expectation that it would encourage a rowdy environment, when fixed-income seniors live in the spaces immediately above it. A just criticism, but highly unlikely to be the only thing keeping this space from getting leased. After all, Fridays has closed underperforming stores since 2012, and this space has continued to sit vacant, with little to know prospect for new tenants. The aging signage and sagging butcher paper on the windows makes it clear to the untrained eye that the site has been vacant for a long time. It’s probably disastrous for the owner of this parcel to remain untenanted for so long, and I’d imagine in the future the ANC will have to make concessions (if it hasn’t already) or the owner will have to subdivide the space for smaller tenants that can afford it…perhaps more entrepreneurs who, while often less stable, are eager to claim what should be desirable retail space.

      Reply
  5. Russ

    I’m a bit behind in my reading. Beautiful location, well written piece. I too am surprised to see a Paneras close especially near a metro station. What is the answer for areas like this or even the old downtown’s. Is it brewpubs? Restaurants? Apartments? Shopping? I wish I knew. There are so many beautiful, quite downtowns that just dont have that big draw. You’ve taught me more about the DC area. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks for the message, Russ. Not only did a Panera close, but, across the street, a Five Guys and Potbelly’s closed to make way for a Wawa. (A BIG Wawa apparently.) From a property manager perspective, it seems surprising that a convenience store (however nice Wawas may be) would be more desirable than two fast-casual restaurants, neither of which (same as Panera) seem to be struggling financially at the national level.

      With the closure of all these “suburban-minded” restaurant chains in Columbia Heights (the three listed, also Ruby Tuesday), it seems the demographic mix in this super-dense neighborhood may be better suited to locally owned establishments. That’s fine and good, but a fancy new building like the DCUSA structure (which housed Panera) wants some of the national chains because they have deeper pockets and will always pay the monthly rent on time. It’s a tough balance to achieve, and if you can’t find it, you end up with lots of vacancies…like the ones seen in my photos, it seems.

      Reply

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