New retail transforms once devastated D.C. neighborhood

A retail development is breathing new life into D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood. It has re-emerged as one of the District’s most desirable destinations — especially for small retailers and the city’s creative class.

Shaw gets a new retail hub unlike any other in the city

WTOP's Rachel Nania | November 30, -0001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — If you attended a show at D.C.’s 9:30 Club 10 years ago, chances are you wouldn’t recognize the music venue’s neighborhood today.

In fact, if you stood in line outside the iconic blue ticket window on V Street NW last year, you would still have a tough time familiarizing yourself among the steel-framed buildings, vibrant store windows and decorated sidewalks that seemed to pop up overnight this fall.

To say Shaw is undergoing a transformation is an understatement.

The neighborhood, which was once the epicenter of African-American culture during the Harlem Renaissance and later devastated by the city’s 1968 riots, is re-emerging as one of the District’s most desirable destinations — especially for small retailers and the city’s creative class.

It’s a shift that’s been in the works for years. In 2009, Derek Brown opened The Passenger on 7th Street, NW, and a short time later added four more bars to the stretch sandwiched between Howard University and The Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Well-known chefs such as Tom Power, RJ Cooper and Jeremiah Langhorne also established roots in Shaw. 

But a recent project is accelerating the neighborhood’s growth and is breathing new life into the historic streets.

Five years ago, The JBG Companies acquired three parcels of land in the northern section of Shaw.

Out of the formerly abandoned lots, vacant warehouses and flea markets, the Chevy Chase-based developer built The Shay at 8th Street and Florida Avenue NW and Atlantic Plumbing at 8th and V Streets NW.

Combined, the buildings contain more than 700 luxury apartment units and condos. But the most exciting tenants are those occupying the retail spaces on the ground floor.

Old meets new: Designing a modern center in a historic neighborhood   

JBG Executive Vice President Robin Mosle says creating a new neighborhood center in Shaw was an incredibly difficult task that required the careful consideration of the already established residents (a constantly changing, but largely low-income population) and its new residents (those able to pay upwards of $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment).

“Instead of just looking at one building and saying, ‘How are we going to make a nice building here?’ we felt this enormous burden of stewardship to say, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to come in now and add five or six buildings and not turn this place that already has all this kind of interesting, gritty, cultural diversity. We have to make sure that we’re honoring that, and that we’re making the neighbors who are already here be as important as the new neighbors that are coming,’” Mosle says.

To start, the team looked at what’s been drawing people to Shaw for years: entertainment.

Mosle says a small movie theater seemed like an ideal addition to the long-standing 9:30 Club and the newly renovated Howard Theatre. A few fast-casual restaurants would also fit for those wanting to grab a quick bite to eat before a show or while waiting in line.

In October, JBG brought Landmark Theatres to Atlantic Plumbing with a six-screen, 200-seat movie theater that features a full bar and food offerings. Boston-based Tasty Burger and a new concept from D.C. ramen shop Daikaya will open in the same building in early 2016.

“We always start with thinking about the person who’s right there,” Mosle says.

After making sure amenities were in place for the neighborhood’s nighttime crowd, Mosle says efforts focused on bringing in businesses that provide everyday services to the area’s growing daytime population, brought on by residents inhabiting the new apartments, as well as Howard University students.

“In this immediate block two years ago, it was a nighttime-centric crowd. And we’re really starting to change that and see that,” says James Nozar, senior vice president at JBG.

Now, Compass Coffee, electric bike shop Riide and a pizzeria from the owners of Teddy & The Bully Bar (coming soon) satisfy those needs. Danielle Vogel, owner of Glen’s Garden Market, also decided to open her grocery store’s second location at the new development.

“We first of all saw that there was really no one doing lunch in this neighborhood, and there are a lot of people moving into these apartments that need somewhere to go to get a sandwich,” Vogel says. “We also noticed that there’s not a grocery store very close by, so we wanted to build a neighborhood grocery store appropriate to the folks living in this neighborhood.”

Mosle says ready-to-wear retail was another core component of the vision for the neighborhood — and JBG aimed to build a retail hub unlike any other in the city.

“It was a lot of rallying around a vision that there could be an independent fashion district [in D.C.],” says Mosle, who adds that JBG wasn’t interested in attracting the high-end names that hang on the storefronts at CityCenter or the big-brands that populate Chinatown and Metro Center.

Instead, she wanted to curate a collection of small companies — both local and national businesses — that offer unique and useful products at a more affordable price point.

Lululemon spinoff Kit + Ace, local boutique Lettie Gooch and men’s clothing outlet Frank & Oak recently opened their doors, along with D.C.-based design studio Cherry Blossom Creative, print shop Typecase Industries and Washington Project for the Arts.

“If you think about it, retail is shrinking, the Internet is taking over and these smaller independent retailers are trying to connect with their neighborhoods. And they want to make sure that if they’re making an investment in bricks and mortar, it’s going to be in a place where there will be like retailers and in a neighborhood that can relate to their brand,” Mosle says.

Eyeglass company Warby Parker, urban bike apparel business Chrome and budget-friendly accessories brand The Tie Bar also joined the mix.

“I think they see a life and an energy in D.C., and they saw a great opportunity in D.C. to do something that was a collection, so to speak, of retailers that were in a more intimate format and more neighborhood based,” Mosle says.

“This is underground, this is artisanal, this is the creative class.”

Saving room for dinner

Shaw’s new north-end development aims to set itself apart from the nearby restaurant-dense 14th Street, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be upscale options for savvy diners.

Neighborhood Restaurant Group and chef Rob Rubba are opening Hazel across from the 9:30 Club, and Water & Wall chef Tim Ma is working on his first D.C. restaurant, Kyirisan.

“[Great neighborhoods] want to meet your needs, but they also want to be the place you go on date night,” Mosle says.

Even though the newly developed blocks are enticing curious consumers from across the area, Mosle says the new district likely won’t be a tourist draw.

“This is the hometown place that we hope will be there place where everybody who lives here feels loyal and shops,” she says.

With The Shay and Atlantic Plumbing nearing completion, JBG will soon start on its planned 250 condos and 20,000 square feet of retail at 945 Florida Ave., NW. Nozar predicts it will be another five years before all three parcels are complete.

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