Thinking about the opportunities for success with neighborhood commercial districts: comparing Manor Park in DC to 15th and 15th in Salt Lake
It happens that where we live in Salt Lake City is the highest income zip code in the city--although we are definitely economic laggards compared to our neighbors!
Our neighborhood is in the flat part of the Foothills in the Wasatch Mountain range with super expensive houses further up in the Foothills but is surrounded by plenty of popular neighborhoods marked by historic building stock (sadly some of which is being lost to new modern houses that are bigger).
And perhaps the biggest surprise in comparing Salt Lake to DC, recognizing that DC has more than 3x the population, is the richness and breadth of the retail environment here.
Granted we live on the high income southeast edge of the city, bordering Salt Lake County--not unlike how the top of Northwest DC borders high income Montgomery County, Maryland--but even so, within a 5 mile radius there are at least 20 full line supermarkets, a number of large commercial districts, some neighborhood commercial districts, movie theaters, etc. I don't even think that Montgomery County has many places with 20+ full line grocery stores in a five mile radius.
It isn't cheap, but it far surpasses any "independent" grocery in the DC area. (Although Streets Market does some innovative stuff, and like Harmon's has stores of significantly varying sizes.)
And Harmon's has guts--the company was a leader in the successful campaign to prevent the state from raising sales taxes on food ("Two interesting examples of supermarket firms bucking traditional political forces").
Salt Lake County has 1.16 million residents total and it's the epitome of sprawl (807 square miles), so it just doesn't make sense to me how so much retail, especially independent retail, can thrive compared to the much more compact DC+Montgomery County combination (1.7 million residents; about 460 square miles, including almost 120 square miles with development limitations).
15th and 15th neighborhood commercial district in Salt Lake versus the 6200 block of 3rd Street NW in DC. This morning Suzanne stopped at Caputo's, an area Italian deli with three stores, for some items in preparation for an art market she's holding today.
I sat in the car, and it struck me that I hadn't thought about comparing this district versus the 6200 block of 3rd Street NW in Manor Park/Takoma, which is about two blocks from our house in DC. Both are one block in length, embedded within neighborhoods, featuring independent firms, with one exception.
But the commercial district in Salt Lake thrives while Manor Park in DC languishes. And 15th and 15th isn't even Salt Lake City's most successful neighborhood retail district ("In Salt Lake City, a dynamic neighborhood with small businesses and room to stroll in," Washington Post).
Will, one of my correspondents and a lifetime resident of DC, always argues in favor of corner stores and other neighborhood retail, thinking back to the time when there was a wide range of neighborhood-based retail in the city.
I always counter that DC's neighborhoods have limited populations and the way people shop today militates against small neighborhood stores.
E.g., Capitol Hill and Dupont Circle are some of the only areas in DC where "corner stores" succeed, although perhaps the best example is Broad Branch Market in Chevy Chase ("Across D.C., a resurgence of the small neighborhood grocery store," Washington Post), one of the city's most upscale neighborhoods. Another is how the 400 block of East Capitol Street in Capitol has two successful corner markets--although neither compares to Broad Branch.
The 6200 3rd Street district has two boutiques, one a consignment store, a hat shop, two day cares, a dance school with limited hours, a small African-American focused food counter and "co-op," Peaches Kitchen--which has decent food but is slow, relying mostly on take out although it has a dine-in area, an Ethiopian religious community center, and a special events space.
Overall, more than half the space is services, not retail. (There is a small set of offices on the second floor of the largest building.)
Earlier there had been a micro grocery, but it closed just before we moved to the area in 2008, and later the consignment store replaced a dry cleaner that had been there for more than 50 years.
I've always thought that the special events space could be a neighborhood-embedded neighborhood gastropub ("Richard's Rules for Restaurant-Based Revitalization," 2005).
Both districts are one block in length, with building stock dating to the 1930s, but one is thriving with multiple distinctive high quality businesses and the other lags--the Salt Lake district does have the benefit of a number of larger buildings and less disinvestment, along with additional parking behind the buildings--even though Manor Park is in a city with more than three times the population ("D.C.’s Manor Park defined by a long-standing spirit of togetherness," Post).
In Salt Lake, it seems that at the neighborhood scale, a greater proportion of higher income households compensates for a smaller population, plus there is a more limited number of neighborhood commercial districts to compete with.
As a result, 15th and 15th is able to support both a wider range of retail and higher quality businesses, including an Italian Steakhouse offering a 32 oz. steak for $165 ("This restaurant sells the most expensive — and extravagant — steak in Utah," Salt Lake Tribune; note this article predates the onset of the pandemic, and their business model changed in response).
But it's not that Manor Park is poor, it has decent income demographics (see pages 25, 26, 42 and 50 of the DC Neighborhood Profiles publication, for demographic information of area neighborhoods), but a much smaller proportion of higher income households, especially with incomes greater than $75,000.
Manor Park DC also has a large number of close by, competing shopping districts, including in Maryland. Too much intra-city competition is a problem across DC. There are many shopping districts in close proximity. For example, Eastern Market in Capitol Hill competes with H Street NE, the Union Market district, the Navy Yard, the Wharf, and Downtown, all within a 2 mile radius.
The micro Manor Park district competes with Georgia Avenue, Columbia Heights, North Columbia Heights, Takoma Park, Silver Spring, etc. all within a couple miles.
Another factor is the quality of ownership of the businesses and access to capital. In the Salt Lake commercial district, six of the locally owned businesses are part of larger store groups (although one firm seriously retrenched in response to covid). The businesses in the Manor Park district are all small one-off businesses.
Conclusion. Key factors for the success of neighborhood commercial districts are:
- household income
- nearby population
- location/neighborhood embeddedness
- competing districts
- size of buildings
- quality of ownership/management capacity
- access to capital.