On the Eve of Potbelly’s Arrival on Barracks Row, Is Capitol Hill Losing It’s Character?
by Larry Janezich
On April 8, a City Paper reporter said of the closing of Remington’s: “As reported by PoPville, the building, located at 639 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, was sold a year ago and will be renovated. If a Potbelly moves in, I’m moving out.”
Well, it’s a good bet that in the coming months Potbelly will move into the space now occupied by Tandoor Grille, and “& Pizza” will replace OXXO Cleaner’s on the same block. A series of recent changes in Capitol Hill business fixtures point to the state of flux in the neighborhood’s commercial corridors. The continuing trend toward food and drink venues – including fast food – worries residents.
Gone: The old Hawk ‘n’ Dove, the 18th Amendment, Li’l Pub, Remington’s, Fusion Grill, Hello Cupcake, Monkey’s Uncle, Capitol Hill Fitness, the Dollar Store, China Wall.
On the way out: Tandoor Grill, OXXO, Capitol Hill Sporting Goods, Kraze Burgers.
On the way in: Potbelly, &Pizza, Capitol Teas, District Doughnuts, Sprint. (The owners of the former Remington’s are reportedly looking for a way to open a food venue in the half of the building not occupied by Sprint.)
Recently arrived: Pinktini Fashion Boutique, Capitol Frames, Pure Barre. Barrel, Sona, Rose’s Luxury, Chiptole, District Taco, Medium Rare, Kimchii Cafe.
Status uncertain: Nine restaurants formerly owned by Xavier Cervera. (A recent rumor that Mr. Henry’s was going on the block was knocked down by owner Alvin Ross, who told CHC “Larry Quillian will never sell the building and I’m here ‘til I die.”)
The list above reflects changes in community demographics, as family-oriented businesses replace the edgier – and to some, more interesting – food and drink venues. As the edgier places turn over, landlords look to increase revenues by renting to food and drink providers. City agencies seem disposed to businesses which provide the most tax revenue. Rodney Smith of Capitol Hill Sporting Goods, who has until January before his lease is up, says the building’s owner has been approached by a sushi bar operator.
One factor that contributes to high rent (and the bias in favor of chains that can afford them) is the major transportation hub at Eastern Market Metro. A high volume of foot traffic provides fertile ground for fast food outlets. Rents in the 400 block of 8th are reported to be $80 – $100 per square foot compared with $40 – $50 in the 700 block of 8th Street.
Residents and Barracks Row Main Street would like to see the street become home to more retail. Five of the more successful Capitol Hill retail outlets are Homebody, Labyrinth Games and Puzzles, Hill’s Kitchen, Metro Mutts, and Biker Barre. It’s noteworthy that owners of all five businesses live on Capitol Hill. Erin Mara, co-owner of Homebody, says that it helps to have a good landlord and says “sometimes, we don’t pay ourselves.” The Labyrinth Games & Puzzles and Howl to the Chief were recently listed as two of the 24 coolest small businesses in DC by Business Insider. http://read.bi/1ntYv7G Owner Kathleen Donahue of Labyrinth points to customer service and making your store a destination as the keys to retail success on Capitol Hill. Leah Daniels of Hill’s Kitchen says that engaging the community beyond the store by participating in community events, embracing the “unbelievable amount of work,” and framing your selection around customer interests and listening to their feedback is key to her store’s success.
With the current legal trouble of Kraze Burger and Cervera’s former empire, the recent anonymous comment on a recent posting on CHC: “the monoculture of food establishments on 8th is taking a beating. Maybe 8th St. needs some evolutionary diversity to survive as a commercial corridor,” seems all the more relevant.
So too do policies favoring restaurants over retail – like those which allow restaurants to pay far below minimum wage and allow tips to compensate (and exceed) the difference. Visitors from Europe and Asia – including South Korea – must be surprised at the expectation of tips in American restaurants. It’s worth remembering that customers subsidize artificially low labor costs for restaurants and bars, which depend upon greater numbers of workers to function, but which can also rely on a high mark-up for alcohol to produce a higher net profit.
And then there is the question of quality, and local versus chain. Some of the people who would pass by a Potbelly’s will try an affordable yet more interesting spot like H Street’s Toki Underground, Chupacabra, or Taste of Jamaica. Yet it is hard to design a policy tool that will facilitate one type of business over another. Likewise, the success of the locally owned Biker Barre exercise and fitness business on 7th Street probably factored in to the Pure Barre fitness chain’s decision to open an outlet over Metro Mutts on Barracks Row. It is difficult to see any threat to Biker Barre’s popularity as a result, especially since the fitness studio keeps its prices competitive.
In light of the city’s hunger for revenue at the expense of integrity of the community, it’s up to residents to hold ANC6B and city agencies accountable to preserve the commercial diversity and unique character of our neighborhood. And in the end, it will be up to the neighbors to vote with their credit cards – in either direction.