WASHINGTON — Five years ago, a short stretch of 14th Street, about a mile north of the White House, was awakening from a long retail slumber.
Pioneering merchants removed plywood and swept up broken glass that neglect and poverty allowed to linger since rioting in 1968 after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. More than 4,000 homes and 270 businesses along the thoroughfare were destroyed in the turmoil, which killed 12.
Now the neighborhood, a few blocks below the bustling U Street corridor, has plentiful signs of development — from the wine bar being built to the fashionable women frequenting boutiques congregated along a two-block stretch, although it still has boarded-up buildings and the occasional pawnshop and used car lot.
Stores are benefiting from new housing that has drawn young professionals seeking proximity to the city center, an urban aesthetic and places to shop in the neighborhood. Across Washington, residential development has helped transform dilapidated areas, creating opportunities for stores. In April, Mayor Adrian Fenty launched a $270,000 yearlong study to determine how Washington can capture the more than $1 billion that residents spend annually on goods and services outside city limits.
The first fashion retailer to test the waters was Pop, a light and funky second-story store decorated with polkadots and mirrors that carries casual looks from Free People, Tulle, Paul Frank, Penguin and Ben Sherman. Women's dresses range from $48 to $120, and T-shirts, $22 to $28.
When Pop's owner, Sheila Sharma, decided to follow her heart and leave behind life as a litigator, she didn't have far to go. Sharma opened the store in August 2003 across the street from where she lived.
"It was already a go-to place for the music scene, but there wasn't any shopping," she said.
The Black Cat, just down the street, is one of the city's musical hot spots, drawing people to the area at night to see touring bands like the Lemonheads or local acts such as Julie Ocean.
The street, which was once home to car dealerships, now also has a Zipcar parking lot and a doggy day care place. A Whole Foods is positioned nearby on P Street, which Sharma said makes people more comfortable."Some customers that have been coming in for five years live around the block," she said. "We get a ton of people [who live] in the neighborhood."
That many of the store's customers are also neighbors is one of the more promising realities.
"Over the past five years, there's been so much growth and it was so rapid," said Mike Pratt, principal at the Madison Retail Group, a real estate firm. "Already there are so many more residents who live there today than there were five years ago or 10 years ago, and I don't think retail has caught up with that growth."
The slowdown in the housing market will have a muted impact, he predicted.
In 2004, Pop was joined by Muléh, a furniture and fashion store that carries Vivienne Westwood Anglomania, Amo & Bretti and C&C California, among other brands. Prices range from $200 to $1,250.
The street proved to be a better option than Georgetown when Muléh was looking to relocate from nearby Bethesda, Md.
"It's too oversaturated, especially with chain stores," co-owner Vici Subiyanto said of the tony Georgetown shopping district. She hopes 14th Street develops into something resembling the Meatpacking District in Manhattan.
"The growth here is really slow because D.C. is not the most fashionable city in the world," Subiyanto said. "There's huge potential....I have a lot of clients who get what we do and they really support us. They love Washington and they're not going anywhere."
Last year, the boutique Redeem opened on 14th Street and was joined by Circle Boutique in the spring. Both stores are owned and operated by Washington-area natives who want to bring a rock 'n' roll vibe to the button-down capital. They are set to be joined soon by Universal Gear, a hip men's store adding mass to the fashion retail scene.
"I would love to see more apparel," said Lori Parkerson, owner of Redeem, which carries Bern 'n' Violet, a British brand, and Gentle Fawn out of Canada, among others. "I would love to see a shoe store. If you're not looking for Georgetown, this is the next logical thing."Next door, Rosana Vollmerhausen, co-owner of Circle Boutique, said, "People are looking to this area to find merchandise that's just a little bit different."
The three-year-old store relocated to 14th Street from the retail-rich, but fashion-poor, Dupont Circle. It has exposed ductwork and an airy feel.
"A lot of the brands we do carry are a little bit edgier," Vollmerhausen said. "You kind of have to follow fashion to know [the brands]."
Circle sells Lover, the girly yet rock 'n' roll Australian brand, as well as U.S. brands Borne and Valentine.
"This is not the type of shop where you can just be a salesperson," said Vollmerhausen. "We're friends with a lot of customers."
The stores might soon see additional traffic during the day as more people begin going to the neighborhood for work.
"Now we're seeing the advent of office [development], which is the last turn that says, 'This retail community has matured,'" said Wayne Dickson, managing partner specializing in retail at Blake Dickson Real Estate.
In some respects, the development of the short stretch of 14th Street is a return to the past.
"Fourteenth Street is a former, very large retail boulevard that you might find in Paris," said Dickson, recalling stories he heard as a child about the bustle on the street dating to 1920. "It was crowded all the time."
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