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Scenes From A Changing City--Part Three

No imagination is required on the third stop in today's tour of changing places in the District: Columbia Heights' new DC USA retail complex, where a Target store opened Wednesday. Here, finally, is D.C. residents' second big box shop (the Home Depot in Northeast was first) and the first good reason to stay in town rather than venture out to the suburbs to buy clothing and the general store-type stuff that Target offers.

Although many of the other shops in the mall at 14th Street and Park Road NW have not yet opened, the block was bustling this week and the whole stretch of 14th Street felt utterly transformed. I'm not much of a fan of retail developments that seek to draw people off the street and into an enclosed environment, and nobody is going to give the developer of this huge box any awards for design--it's just a hulking mass plopped into an otherwise small-scale urban neighborhood.

But 14th Street NW suddenly felt like a small chunk of 14th Street in Manhattan's Union Square neighborhood--a bustling collection of people speaking a slew of languages and filling the sidewalks with conversation. The District had plenty of cops on hand, including the Truancy Patrol, which was busy rounding up kids who hooked from school to check out the new stores. The parking garage was mostly empty and the Metro station was teeming with people carrying wares in Target bags.

And the new restaurants that have popped up across 14th Street were busier than ever, as shoppers and shop clerks ducked into Pollo Campero and Logan @ The Heights for lunch.

Will DC USA cause problems? No doubt--Irving Street and Park Road, already overstuffed crosstown routes, looks like it will be impassable during crunch hours. The mall's parking garage is accessible only from very narrow side streets--a big planning error. Contrary to inaccurate signs, one of the entrances remained fenced off yesterday, though you don't see that until well after you've committed to turning onto Hiatt Place, forcing you to drive four more blocks to correct your error.

But a city that has been starved for retail ever since the 1968 riots is finally learning what many suburban centers discovered long ago: Giving people a pleasant place in which to run their errands and hang out can alter the social life and the tenor of the streets. The cops on 14th this week said there had been no problems; to the contrary, a couple of officers told me, this was the best thing that had happened to Columbia Heights since the Metro opened. Suddenly, there is a place for people to go, and that, they believe, will mean fewer people out looking to make trouble. (Of course, more people can also mean more opportunities for bad guys, but for the most part, street thugs like to do their evil work unobserved. Crowds are good.)

We can debate the role big retail has in spurring on the soaring housing prices and the sense of exclusion that many longtime residents feel in changing neighborhoods like Columbia Heights. And as with the NPR move, the DC USA project is anything but the sole actor in this transformation. A glance in any direction from the mall immediately demonstrates the combined effect of several years of residential and retail development on nearly a dozen sites that had been more or less vacant since the riots. But the Target is what's putting people on the sidewalks right now, making visible the changes that have been brewing all this time.

By Marc Fisher |  March 7, 2008; 12:00 PM ET
Previous: Scenes From A Changing City--Part Two | Next: Listener: Agitated Fans Lose Smooth Jazz

Comments

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Whoo-hoo!

For years we've had adequate service by local, family-owned businesses, but none ever really did their job correctly and stood out. They sort of failed the community, but some of them I love and will support. Others I'm very pleased will be replaced by people who are professionals.

But this isn't about local businesses. This is about National Chains. And Target is a big, beautiful, national chain building a top-flight store right in-town.

No more spending my tax money in NoVa. No more driving 20 minutes to buy my kid some affordable sneakers that will hold up. No more driving 20 minutes for some baseballs, tennis balls, and other Saturday emergencies.

Posted by: DCer | March 7, 2008 12:46 PM

Marc, Metro is shutting down an hour early -- at 2 a.m. -- on Saturday night because of daylight saving. No fair! And there may a slew of stranded people in the middle of the night. Please get the word out!!!

Posted by: Van Ness | March 7, 2008 1:42 PM

DC USA - isn't that a storage company?

Posted by: Anonymous | March 7, 2008 2:01 PM

The police say no problems, the Columbia Heights mailing have quite a few discussions of robberies on the the metro escalator over the last few days. I'm sure this will change over time, but be careful out there.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 8, 2008 2:10 PM

I'm thrilled by DC USA, but there have been problems -- I've lived in Columbia Heights for six years, and was mugged on the escalator at the Metro stop, my first personal violent crime experience. The police are responding superbly, but I have been told that there have been a spate of such incidents as armed thieves target shoppers.

Posted by: Peter | March 9, 2008 12:05 AM

I'm thrilled by DC USA, but there have been problems -- I've lived in Columbia Heights for six years, and was mugged on the escalator at the Metro stop, my first personal violent crime experience. The police are responding superbly, but I have been told that there have been a spate of such incidents as armed thieves target shoppers.

Posted by: Peter | March 9, 2008 12:18 AM

I went to the Target this weekend. Walked up from my apartment near U Street and took the bus back. It was fantastic. I had no problems and even with crowds like a rock concert, the checkout lines were moving along and the staff were friendly and competent. Bye-bye Potomac Yards!

Posted by: u st | March 10, 2008 9:23 AM

We definitely need more restaurants in the area. Ruby Tuesday, a Tapas restaurant and the 2 mentioned in Raw's article are the only 4. There are opportunities in the area with such a high density of population.

Posted by: Andy Williams | March 10, 2008 9:45 AM

I was so excited about this new Target opening within walking distance of my apartment, and my first experience shopping there this weekend was even better than I expected. Despite the crowds, the checkout lines moved quickly (Safeway needs to take some notes). The most surprising aspect was the incredibly diversity of the shoppers. It really is going to be a magnet for all DC residents.

Posted by: A-lo | March 10, 2008 12:06 PM

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