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Step by step to better streets and better shopping

Nikki Peele, a five-year Congress Heights resident, really wants to see more retail in her neighborhood

“Everyone knows at the end they would like to have a strong, diverse, unique neighborhood.”

Anacostia, the other neighborhood in the pilot initiative, also lacks strong retail options. The Skyland Town Center, southeast of Anacostia, was supposed to change that

With Skyland's future in question after anchor tenant Walmart threatened to pull out, neighborhood initiatives to bring vibrant retail to local streets are more important than ever

The District has a problem: D.C. just doesn't have good shopping.
 
It may seem like a minor inconvenience, but to Harriet Tregoning, the director of D.C.'s Office of Planning, it's a big deal for the city's growth.
 
So how can the streets and neighborhoods of D.C. get in the retail game? The Office of Planning decided to put together a step-by-step guide to making streets and neighborhoods appealing to retailers -- big and small, local and national.
 
"It seemed like a more systematic approach to looking at the issue was really necessary," Tregoning says.
 
Individuals and neighborhoods had worked with the Office of Planning to develop retail in their areas, but it wasn't enough. "People find it so easy to leave the District and shop at a place that might be 20 miles away," she says. "Then you also have the internet. A retailer has a very tough go of it."
 
The District has only a third of the retail per capita that you can find in the suburbs, Tregoning says. It's a statistic that just doesn't make sense in a city like Washington. "I almost feel like the sky's the limit for us because we are so grossly underretailed," Tregoning says.
 
The District contracted Streetsense, a Bethesda-based for-profit company that specializes in creating mixed-use communities. The Office of Planning asked Streetsense to figure out what D.C. streets needed to attract visitors -- and the retailers who were interested in them.
 
To achieve that goal, Streetsense looked at streets -- large and small -- that have successfully attracted a desirable mix of retail stores. "We came up with this methodology to basically study great streets around the world that we thought were aspirational streets," says Heather Arnold, director for research and analysis at Streetsense.
 
They also assigned those streets corollaries in D.C. For example, Boston's historic Charles Street shows how Georgetown could develop, the charming main street of Manayunk, Penn., is matched with Brookland, and Tokyo's Omotesando Dori could be a model for Columbia Heights or Gallery Place.
 
The variety of sources represents the developers' belief that, as the toolkits puts it, "a one-size fits all approach doesn't apply" to Washington's neighborhoods.
 
Out of hundreds of factors that they looked at on these streets, Streetsense whittled down to 39 factors that affected the retail environment. Out of those 39, researchers found eight that really mattered.
 
Some of their findings surprised even them. "We assumed that being in a historic district was going to be a negative," says Arnold, noting that historic districts often have buildings whose size can't accommodate modern retailers, or streets and sidewalks that can't accommodate modern traffic.
 
The eight steps to vibrant retail

The Vibrant Streets Retail Toolkit, developed by Streetsense for the District, details eight steps that, when followed in order, can make a street or neighborhood to become more attractive to retailers.
1: Managed
Before anything else, streets need people and organizations to oversee development, whether it's a Business Improvement District, a non-profit, or a majority-owner. It doesn't matter which. "Getting managed had more to do with getting yourselves on the same page," Arnold says.
2: Retail-appropriate
For a vibrant retail street, fewer than ten percent of the storefronts should be used for non-retail purposes, such as offices or churches. Long stretches without retail can break up the walkability and, as Tregoning says, "end a shopping trip."
3: Mixed
Develop a mix of retail that reflects the mix of ages, incomes and education levels in the surrounding community.
4: Safe
Crime levels need to be low, which can be helped along by better lighting and activities that encourage lots of people to be around.
5: Championed
Once a developer takes an interest in your street or a large public or private initiative is announced, you're on your way.
6: Anchored
Successful streets have a major civic or cultural feature that acts as the anchor of the retail.
7: Walkable
Wide sidewalks, outdoor cafes, shade trees and streetlights make your street more attractive to retailers.
8: Unified
Streets can gain a sense of unity if they're located in a historic district, if they start a unified branding strategy, or simply by making sure all storefronts are in good shape.
Instead, being in a historic district turned out to be a huge plus, because they had what Arnold calls "a unifying character that allowed people to identify it as a single place."
 
Soon, the researchers found that the eight factors began to rank themselves in an order: There was a natural progression of steps, and, like a child learning to walk, a street typically could not move on to the next one without completing the others first.
 
A path began to emerge, and the Vibrant Retail Streets Toolkit, an eight-step guide to thriving neighborhood retail, was released in April.
 
The steps include some obvious actions neighborhoods can take to appeal to retailers, such as making sure the area feels safe (Step 4), along with some that are less obvious.  For example, even before tackling the safety issues, the toolkit advises that a group of people or an organization takes an interest in managing the street (Step 1) and that the street have fewer than ten percent of storefronts used for office buildings or other things can break up the flow (Step 2). Further down the path, the more advanced steps advise streets to find a civil or cultural anchor (Step 6), be walkable (Step 7), and have a sense of unity (Step 8).
 
Other surprising, or not-so-surprising contributors to vibrant retail: the best streets in the nation had high walk scores and fewer-than-average cars in the neighborhood, underground utility lines (instead of overhead power wires), and wide sidewalks. The median household income in the surrounding neighborhood didn't matter so much, nor did the size of the retail strip. "A vibrant street could be a single store," says Arnold. "The point of a vibrant street is to serve as your neighborhood's core."
 
So far, fourteen neighborhoods have signed on to use the toolkit, including Adams Morgan, Central 14th Street, Rhode Island Avenue Northeast, Brightwood, Deanwood and others.
 
In a pilot initiative, the Office of Planning gathered community leaders and neighborhood advocates in Anacostia and Congress Heights for two sessions each. During that time, residents took a hard look at their neighborhoods, which steps they'd achieved and how many they had to go.
 
One of the attendees was Nikki Peele, who works on community development in Anacostia for reSPIN and works at ARCH Development Corporation, a neighborhood-based organization dedicated to revitalizing Anacostia. She also runs the blog Congress Heights on the Rise.
  
For her blog and her job, Peele has been to plenty of community meetings. But this one was different. "A lot of time we have community meetings and we talk very vaguely and the results of what we want to see," says Peele, who has live in Congress Heights for seven years. "Everyone knows at the end they would like to have a strong, diverse, unique neighborhood."
 
The toolkit forced the attendees to get into the nitty-gritty about the strengths and weaknesses of their neighborhoods. "Instead of just talking in generalizations you were actually able to have focused direct conversation," she says. "I found it to be beneficial because it was specific."
 
"I think what your average resident or business owner would think would be the path is not necessarily the path," says Peele. Luckily, the toolkit lays out not only the path, but also what neighborhoods have to do to move further.
 
And just as Harriet Tregoning found that what can help one neighborhood in D.C. can help them all, Peele recently decided to look beyond Congress Heights, to explore how the challenges her neighborhood faces can be found all over D.C. She's planning to leave Congress Heights for what she calls a "three to six month residency" in another D.C. neighborhood. "I just need to see a bigger part of the picture," she wrote in her announcement. "I need to see first-hand that Ward 8 struggles are DC struggles and vice versa."
 
Now everyone can be on the same page, moving forward. "We all want to get to the end of the story," Peele says.

Read more articles by Beth Marlowe.

Beth Marlowe has written for The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Bloomberg Television and other publications.  She's currently an editor at Washington Post Express. In her free time she enjoys house-hunting, food-trying and friend-having.
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