Three years after the opening of the new Washington Convention Center, only three businesses are open among the building’s 11 community retail spaces on 7th, 9th, and N Streets — Abou Master Goldsmith, Capitol Business Center, and Enterprise Car Rental. In addition to the three open business, four more have signed leases but have not yet opened – Euro Market, Divine Cravings Bakery, Old Dominion Brewery, and J. Sumner Salon. Four more retail spaces remain vacant, awaiting prospective tenants.
During a visual inspection of each space last Sunday I found little to no evidence of any construction in the rented spaces for the market, bakery, or salon. Finish work seemed to be underway at the Old Dominion Brewery, where chairs and new kitchen equipment stood stacked inside the doorway in original packaging and decals had been applied to the windows.
The Washington Convention Center Authority’s External Affairs Manager Theresa DuBois cited a variety of reasons why so few businesses have opened when I spoke to her this week, including construction difficulties finding contractors or completing work in a functioning building. DuBois pointed out the pace has accelerated since an internal shift in February 2006 re-assigned the retail to a new person within the Convention Center Authority. Although Warehouse is thriving on 7th Street and a pet spa and coffee shop recently opened on 9th adjacent the Convention Center, a variety of boarded up and abandoned properties are present. The organization Shaw Main Streets has found mixed success in their efforts to spark a revitalization of the two streets as commercial corridors.
In the past a series of incorrect predictions have been made about when the businesses would open. The Washington Post’s Fritz Hahn reported in March 2005 the Old Dominion Brewing Company would be open by the end of summer 2005. In March 2006, DC Councilmember Jack Evans’ newsletter claimed he thought the businesses with signed leases would be open by the end of the summer, sparking interest over at the popular neighborhood blog In Shaw.
The retail spaces — whose only public entrances are to the surrounding streets — were incorporated into the Convention Center in response to public criticism of early designs. An early scale model displayed at the National Capital Planning Commission in 1996 shocked attendees, and one commission member famously commented the design seemed like the center was a “battleship being plowed into the community.”(1) Others criticized the existing plans for blocking off traffic on L and M Streets.
In response to these and other criticisms, the Washington Convention Center Authority and their architects went back to the drawing board to re-open M and L streets, reduce the mass of the structure by sinking it into the ground, and adding the 11 retail spaces around the perimeter of the structure. The site where the Convention Center now sits along 7th and 9th Streets was a lively commercial corridor for much of Washington’s history. By the 1960s the stores were showing their age as more retailers moved to the rapidly growing suburbs. During the 1968 riot many businesses along these two streets were damaged or burned, and the city acquired and razed the properties to use for an urban renewal scheme. When the plans didn’t materialize the site stood empty for years.
Ultimately, much of the eventual neighborhood and community support for the Convention Center hinged on the design changes adopted by the city — a letter in support of the center published by the Post in June 1997 singled out the retail as what would “make the crucial difference to our streets, bringing both foot traffic and increased safety to many sidewalks.”(3) In 1998, a project architect suggested a “pharmacy, bank and coffee shop and other stores could be built into the east and west sides of the building … [and] more shops or a police substation could be on the N Street at the north end of the building.”(2)
During the construction period Convention Center officials went to great lengths to satisfy neighborhood residents, and the community benefit agreement included grants to neighboring businesses for lost business, jobs and training for neighborhood residents, and a program that issued grants to property owners in the surrounding community for historic preservation of their property (PDF). However, three years after the Convention Center’s official opening in March 2003, no pharmacy, bank, coffee shop, or police substation has opened in the building. Interested in locating your business in the Convention Center? The renting of the spaces is being handled by Lewis Real Estate Services who can be reached at (202) 585-1143.
(1) Forgey, Benjamin. 1996. Big, Bad and Ugly; D.C. Convention Center Design Doesn’t Fit the Site. Washington Post, November 9.
(2) Montgomery, David. 1998. New Design for D.C. Center Unveiled. Washington Post, May 14.
(3) Dixon, Francesca. 1997. Letter to the Editor. Washington Post, June 2.