Small Business


Will Chains Fill 14th Street?

Lauren Parnell Marino / Flickr

A stretch of 14th Street NW.

The 14th Street NW corridor continues its transformation, as work on luxury condo buildings marches on and announcements of restaurant openings stream in. The older businesses that opened along the strip in the aftermath of the 1968 riots are, one-by-one, closing shop (and getting millions of dollars in exchange for their buildings, if they own them). Some newer businesses are moving, too.

Development comes in waves, from pawn shops to fancier locally-owned businesses, and eventually, to chain retailers. That’s according to a few real estate experts interviewed by The New York Times, who say that 14th Street NW could eventually see its small, albiet upscale businesses, replaced by national chains and junior-sized box stores.

People move into gentrifying neighborhoods partially because they see how it could change, but also because of the unique character of such places. If  national chains come, will a neighborhood lose its desirability among such newcomers? From the Times piece:

One [resident], Tim Christensen, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1989 and is president of the Logan Circle Community Association, wondered about the cost.

“I’ve said before that when the last pawnshop and the last storefront deli leaves 14th Street, I will leave,” he said. “It’s that mixture of the gritty and the upscale that gives the neighborhood a unique character. If one day it’s all gone, I think we will feel a sense of loss.”

Gentrification does indeed come in waves. Some of the first businesses that contribute to the revitalization of a neighborhood can get priced out when turnover is complete. This is especially true for business owners who lease space and have no building to sell; they can become victims of the success they helped to create.

Crowdsourcing Neighborhood Changes

Elahe Izadi / DCentric

A sign on 14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW asks "What would you build here?"

Businesses play an important role in the transformation of neighborhoods. A certain restaurant or store can attract newcomers, make a block seem “desirable” or become a gathering spot.

But as it stands now, the public generally doesn’t have a say on what specific businesses open up in their neighborhoods, says developer Ben Miller. Should that vacant storefront be a coffee shop or a pet store?

That’s why Ben Miller and his brother, Dan, started in late 2011. They were trying to figure out what to do with the building they purchased at 1351 H Street NE, and wanted public input. So they posted the project online and asked people to vote on ideas they had already explored or submit suggestions. About 1,000 people responded, and Ben Miller says they’ll announce the final project within a few weeks.

The site is in its early stages and currently features five buildings. People sign up by providing their names and zip codes and can then comment on project ideas or suggest new ones for the featured buildings. Building owners, developers and others then use the feedback as a factor in the eventual outcome, along with economics, construction issues and other things.

“A lot of people aren’t in the process of how neighborhoods get built. They don’t know how decisions get made,” Miller says. “A lot of it can be changed by including lots of people who normally don’t get involved.”

But is targeting an online audience the best way to increase involvement? A persistent digital divide in the District means there’s a good chunk of the population who is not connected, and they’re mostly low-income folks.

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From Locksmiths To Luxury Condos: Businessman Talks 14th Street Evolution

Elahe Izadi / DCentric

Downtown Lock Co. (center) has been on 14th Street since 1910. The building has been sold to make way for luxury condominiums along a street that's experiencing rapid redevelopment.

The evolution of 14th Street NW continues with regular announcements of new upscale restaurants and residences opening up along the corridor. But 14th Street wasn’t always the epicenter of fine dining in the District; in recent decades, it was more well-known as a place where drug dealers and prostitutes congregated.

A few older businesses still remain along the strip, but they’re starting to close shop, too. Take Downtown Lock Co. at 1345 14th St. NW, the building sold to make way for five, ultra-luxury condos.

“Back when we were there, the street had a lot of drugs, prostitution, a lot of drifters,” said Downtown Lock Co. co-owner Reuben Houchens. “You had to sort of establish yourself, first of all, that you weren’t afraid to be there. Of course we weren’t. [The way] we grew up, as we used to say, we knew the streets. And you had to basically hold your ground, as far as ‘we’re here and we will only tolerate so much.’ I’m talking about the pimps prostituting the girls, and drugs addicts and drug pushers — you had to be tough.”

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Asian Shopkeepers And The Economics Of Improving Corner Stores

A D.C. shopkeeper poses by his "Healthy Corners" stand. D.C. Central Kitchen's program delivers fresh produce to corner stores.

The fallout continues over comments Councilman Marion Barry made about Asian-owned stores in Ward 8, calling them “dirty shops.” Barry has since issued an apology, but a coalition of local and national Asian American groups have called for more meaningful engagement.

Part of Barry’s follow-up comments focused on the unhealthy foods such stores sell, and he called for the owners to sell healthier foods and fix up their stores.

Gary Cha, owner of Yes! Organic Market and former president of the Korean American Grocers Association, appeared on Monday’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show to discuss Barry’s comments and relations between black and Asian communities in D.C.

Cha spoke with DCentric after the show and reiterated that a common perception of store owners among customers is that whatever goes into the register is profit. But many take home only 6 to 7 percent of sales, Cha said. If a store makes $1 million a year, the owners take away about $60,000 for their families.

“These are people who are barely getting by. I know several of them that to make ends meet, they don’t even have health insurance,” Cha said. “So when we ask them to renovate and do this and that, they probably don’t have the financial ability to do that.”

Stocking up with healthier foods, particularly fresh produce, does require investment by store owners.  Refrigeration units are needed, which can be costly and difficult to accommodate in small stores. Also, small stores may not qualify for wholesale produce prices.

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When Early Gentrifiers Can’t Afford to Stay

Michael Feagans / Flickr

Love Cafe is closing on Jan. 29 after nine years on U Street.

Businesses move to transitional neighborhoods because space is cheap and there’s potential for future growth. But sometimes the economic success of these neighborhoods leads to the demise of the early gentrifiers.

Love Cafe opened at 15th and U Street, NW in 2003, two years before Busboys and Poets moved into the corridor and signaled rapid change in the community. This week, Love Cafe owner Warren Brown announced he’s closing Jan. 29 because rent has gotten too high. H Street Playhouse on H Street, NE is closing moving after it opened along the corridor in 2002, ahead of the trendy bars, restaurants and high rents.

Of course, some businesses that moved into neighborhoods at the beginning stages of gentrification do remain. They could be at an advantage because they got their feet in the door early. But gentrification happens in stages, and just like the longtime businesses that successfully weather gentrification, newer businesses also have to keep adapting to neighborhood changes in order to survive.

Ben’s Chili Bowl Owners Buy Longtime H Street Shop

Adam Gerard / Flickr

H Street clothing shop George’s Place, Ltd. will soon be replaced after 43 years of business. Nizam and Kamal Ali of Ben’s Chili Bowl reportedly bought the property at 10th and H Streets, NE for $900,000. The Alis aren’t set on opening another Ben’s, though; they’re conducting market research to see “what concept might best fit the neighborhood,” Washington City Paper reports.

Back in September, we profiled George’s Place owner George Butler as he was readying to sell his property after decades on H Street. He reflected upon his time on the now gentrifying corridor, and he said he felt there was little impetus to keep longtime, black-owned businesses afloat.

Ben’s is a rarity in D.C.; it’s been on U Street since before the 1968 riots, and has not only survived but thrived as that corridor experienced revitalization. Ben’s has expanded its half-smoke empire in recent years with the opening of a location at Nationals Park and Ben’s Next Door on U Street. The Alis have strong roots in the District; so if they’re the ones to buy up a longtime H Street shop to open a restaurant, should it be called gentrification? If not, then what is it?


Cupcakes and Bulletproof Glass

lamantin / Flickr

Nothing says neighborhood change and gentrification like a cupcake shop. But what if such a shop has bulletproof glass inside? The Washington City Paper reports that the first cupcake shop east of the Anacostia River, Olivia’s Cupcakes, has a “thick sheet” of bullet-resistant glass behind the counter:

“It broke my heart to do that, but it’s a deterrent,” says proprietor Cindy Bullock, who runs the cupcake shop alongside her husband, Bob Bullock, and their daughters, Kristina, 20, and Alexis, 18.

“Several people asked (about the glass) and said, ‘It’s a beautiful shop, its unfortunate that you have it up,’ but we had to have it,” Bullock says.

“I have owned several business in this area and we have been robbed several times,” she explains. “We wanted to make [the shop] elegant and beautiful, but because of the teenagers and having my children here we wanted to protect them.”

D.C.’s bullet resistant glass initially appeared in stores in the wake of the 1968 riots, and became much more widespread at the height of the crack epidemic. Like the Bullocks, many store owners have installed glass after bad experiences.

In gentrifying neighborhoods, the glass barricade coming down is a turning point. It’s also sometimes necessary to appeal to a wealthier clientele. Take Logan Circle, where most liquor and convenience stores had the glass for decades. Then Whole Foods opened on P Street, NW in 2000. Property values rose, and Amare Lucas, owner of Best-In Liquors on P and 15th streets NW decided to take down his glass. The more inviting atmosphere, along with new stock he brought in, attracted more customers, new and longtime residents alike. “Some [customers] told me they had been in the neighborhood for 15 years, kind of passing the store by because of the glass,” Lucas told Washington City Paper‘s Dave Jamieson in 2005. “They’re in my store now. It really gives you a satisfaction.”

As Business Closes, Owner Looks Back at Decades on H Street

George Butler is closing shop after nearly five decades. His men’s clothing store, George’s Place Ltd., is an H Street NE institution, one of the longest-running businesses on a corridor now synonymous with gentrification. But the recession, online competition and H Street streetcar construction led him to call it quits.

The 73-year-old managed clothing stores on the street in the 1950s before opening his store in 1968.

“I saw a future in H Street and my being in the neighborhood, I knew a lot of my customers,” he said while sitting in the back of his store on a recent afternoon. Hats and shoes lined the walls, along with 50 percent off signs.

Through it all, he’s had a front row seat to all the ups and downs of the corridor: from the heyday when  it was “it was like Connecticut Avenue, like downtown,” to the 1968 riots. “I’m a vet, and I saw things I never saw in the war,” he recalled of the riots. “The street was unreal. Fires were everywhere. It was just burning down.”

The riots marked the commercial decline of the street, beginning decades of empty storefronts. “People left and never came back,” Butler said.

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How to Get Money For Your H Street NE Business

Elahe Izadi / DCentric

Many bars and restaurants have opened up along H Street NE in the past few years, but few retail options remain.

D.C. has just unveiled the application for a grant program that gives money to new or existing retail businesses along the H Street NE corridor. There’s about $1.25 million available for the program, and the first wave of applications is due by Oct. 26.

As we’ve noted before, the program is intended to boost retail along the commercial strip, which has seen a wave of gentrification. Many new bars and restaurants have opened up shop while daytime foot traffic has been minimal.

Longtime businesses can apply to the grant, as long as the money isn’t for liquor stores, barbershops, hair salons, phone stores, bars or restaurants. Eligible businesses include stores selling home furnishings, clothes, groceries, books, art or “general merchandise goods,” with special consideration to those with “innovative retail elements.” There are other stipulations in the application, which can be seen below:

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D.C. Program Could Boost H Street Retail

Much has been made of the changes along H Street NE as the corridor continues its transformation from a primarily low and middle income black community to one that is wealthier and whiter. Trendy bars and restaurants are increasingly opening in vacant storefronts, attracting diverse patrons en masse during late night hours. But the crowds are nowhere to be seen during the day.

A new D.C. grant program is intended to draw more retail options to the street, creating an H Street that’s as bustling during the day as during the evening. That’s welcome news for many existing business owners who want more people on the streets and in their shops.

“You just don’t want it to be all bars and restaurants,” said Anna Collins, co-owner of pet store Metro Mutts at 5th and H streets.
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