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.
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.
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