Obsolete and underperforming buildings: is it the building or the micro-economy of the retail trade area?
A couple weeks ago, we tried to go to dinner at Mezcalero, a restaurant on the 14th Street strip in "North Columbia Heights"--centered around the Spring Street intersection. It had been recommended to us, but we hadn't managed to get over there. More recently, it has been getting a fair number of press mentions ("Mezcalero Cocina Mexicana: You can't go wrong with the tacos here," Washington Post).
The district is mostly small footprint "historic" buildings dating to the 1930s and before.
The blocks include a mix of residential properties, so it isn't always one contiguous commercial district. But increasingly, the buildings have been fixed up and are used as restaurants.
We ended up at Airedale, a cool space, but the food could have been better.
But while we were out there I couldn't help but think back to the development of the DC "Retail Action Strategy" planning process back in 2007,
This one was of many strips of commercial buildings referred to by the economic development consultants running the planning process as "obsolete and underperforming." Then the businesses catered to Latinos, and the properties experienced disinvestment.
-- DC Retail Action Strategy, DC Office of Planning
-- Central 14th Street NW Commercial District Analysis, DC Office of Planning
The difference from 2007 to 2017 was electric. But the size and location of the buildings hadn't changed.
What changed was the micro-economy of the neighborhood and the economic vitality of the "retail trade area" served by the North Columbia Heights commercial district.
As a result of new households, more households, greater household income, and greater willingness to spend money and eat out, the commercial district became much more economically viable.
It's very easy to fall into the trap of what I call "blaming the building," when the real issue is the state of the economy of the retail trade area.
Similarly, the words "dilapidated" and "blighted" are over- and mis-used. Instead, I prefer the term "disinvestment." The solution to disinvestment is not demolition but "investment."
No one would call the North Columbia Heights retail district obsolete or underperforming now.
Instead they would point to it as an urban success, and that the building size fosters innovation and the development and nurturing of independent businesses. And a classic example of what Jane Jacobs was writing about when she said that to be vital, cities need to "maintain a large stock of old buildings."
And they would call attention to how as the buildings turn over, they are renovated and experience significant new investment and improvement.
Note that this is the lesson of the Main Street commercial district revitalization approach. If you want to save "historic buildings," what you have to do is fix the micro-economy of the area that is expected to patronize the commercial district.
The challenge that remains is extending the investments in the buildings to the commercial district as a whole in terms of marketing support and public realm improvements. The city doesn't have a good system for doing that.