Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Go mama go! to close- What does that say about the future of 14th Street retail?

While 14thandyou was on a bit of hiatus over the past couple of weeks (thanks to all of you who sent warm thoughts and well-wishes), we received some unfortunate news: longtime 14th Street retail fixture Go mama go! would be closing its doors at some time in the spring. The store will remain open until the space's landlord is able to locate a replacement tenant.

According to a release provided by Go mama go's owner, Jonathan Chudnoff:

Go mama go!, the vibrant housewares, accessories and gift shop on 14th Street NW , will be closing its doors in the next few months, according to its owner, Jonathan Chudnoff. Chudnoff attributes the closing to the twin blows of the general economic decline and the death of the store’s founder, Noi Chudnoff, whose dynamic spirit, creativity and personality were key ingredients in the store’s early success.

This is sad news for a couple of reasons. First among them, it means the loss of a unique and pleasant retail fixture on 14th Street. Go mama go's colorful displays and product offerings were a true bright spot for the neighborhood. It is one of those stores that are simply pleasant to stroll through. Secondly, Go mama go! was one of the retail pioneers on 14th Street, opening in their current location in 2001 after a year of operations in a tent at Eastern Market. In addition to providing a boost to the burgeoning retail scene, Noi Chudnoff and her store were a force for positive change in the neighborhood, supporting numerous area charities, causes and organizations.

Beyond the loss of a popular retail establishment however, lies a perhaps greater problem for 14th Street and Logan Circle: can the neighborhood retain a mix of retail and other uses to go along with the exploding bar and restaurant scene?

The loss of Go mama go! is simply the latest domino to fall in what has become a worrying trend on 14th Street. G Fine Arts shuttered their doors last August, and in November indoor/outdoor plant supplier Garden District filed for bankruptcy and continues to hang on by a thread. Green Pets and Big Monkey Comics are looking for new homes. Several other businesses along the corridor--several of them quite prominent--are also feeling the pinch of a declining economy, high property tax rates and increasingly unaffordable commercial lease rates (I can't name any of them directly, but I can say that at least one of them is a well-known men's apparel chain). While restaurant openings have been plentiful during the past year, with more on the way, new retail openings--particularly of the independent variety--have been few and far between.

Over the summer, I served on a committee that examined the state of the 14th Street Arts District, and pondered what might be done to help stave off the decline of arts-related use venues along the corridor. I am increasingly coming to believe that we may quickly be reaching a point where our concern is not simply related to keeping arts uses along the corridor; rather, we may be looking at the potential loss of a number of locally owned retail establishments, while watching 14th Street/Logan becoming primarily a restaurant/bar/entertainment district.

The crux of the problem lies with both the city's property tax rate as well as the going commercial lease rates. What has occurred along 14th Street mimics that of many other urban neighborhoods nationwide: artists and entrepreneurs move into a neglected or under-served neighborhood in a city, due mainly to affordable commercial lease rates. As more businesses arrive, the neighborhood continues to attract attention both from residents and other commercial ventures. Restaurants, bars and lounges arrive, as do chain retailers and other deep-pocketed commercial ventures such as banks. As the neighborhood's desirability rises, the ability for small, locally owned establishments to remain declines. The neighborhood's pioneering businesses are forced to relocate or close, essentially victims of their own success.

At the same time, many commercial tenants are saddled with property tax bills that they simply find unaffordable. Certain landlords may absorb at least some of the property tax hit, but many cannot afford to do this for long. In the end, the lower-volume and/or locally owned establishments move out, finding themselves replaced by national chains and businesses that can afford the higher rates (namely, restaurants, bars and banks).

So what is to be done? Well, if history and a litany of other examples nationwide are any guide, the options are limited. The city can carve out exception to high property tax rates, or provide developmental incentives, for properties that contain a certain favored use (such as an arts use). Beyond that, what you see are market forces taking hold. Unless a local business owner is fortunate enough to develop a relationship with a landlord who is willing to take a sizable hit with regards to their commercial lease rate--and with escalating property taxes, many landlords are increasingly hesitant to do so--the business owner may find him or herself priced out of the very neighborhood he or she helped to build.

The irony of this is that many retail establishments depend upon a certain critical mass in terms of the commercial vibrancy of a neighborhood before they can achieve success. Unless you are catering primarily to neighborhood residents, it's difficult to attract shoppers to your boutique establishment unless there are a number of shops and restaurants to attract them.

Ultimately, what you are left with is a neighborhood with an increasing number of higher-end bars, restaurants, lounges, banks and chain retailers (hello, Room and Board) and fewer of the boutique, locally owned establishments and arts-related businesses such as Go mama go! that attracted many to the neighborhood in the first place. To be sure, this is not an entirely bad thing: Logan's status as a premiere DC dining destination is not necessarily a negative to the residents of the neighborhood who now have an abundance of food and drink choices to select from, for instance. But we are unquestionably losing a bit of our neighborhood's character. And that, along with the loss of a beloved local business, is something worth mourning.


Alex B. said...

I appreciate the thought on the issues of retail mix and taxation - but at the same time, you didn't address one of the most obvious reasons for the store to close (listed right in the proprietor's statement) - the recession.

It's always good to look at these policy issues, but at the same time, a store selling the kinds of items that Go Mama Go was selling is exactly the kind of store you'd expect to struggle in a recession, when people cut discretionary spending.

Anonymous said...

To me the question is why DC retail skews so heavily toward bar/restaurant compared to other cities. Somehow San Francisco (to cite one example) manages to have vibrant small retail within neighborhoods, even though their rents and real estate prices are (if anything) higher than DC's.

I've suggested before that the demographics of DC (dominated by young, transient 20- and 30- somethings, rather than long-term middle-aged residents), tends to skew our retail market toward entertainment rather than high-end retail.

In any case it's a real problem in my mind. I keep hoping the "next" neighborhood (Petworth? Brookland?) will avoid this trap, but it may be inevitable. If the issue is demographic, the long-term solution is to improve the quality of the schools, so that we attract more stable middle-class families. Those folks are more likely to spend their money on home furnishings, toys, and clothes than going to bars and restaurants every night.

- JM

Mr. Other Upper NW said...

I did mention that a declning economy was at least partially to blame--and to be sure, that is playing an immediate role. But many of these issues were being created before the economy went completely sour. When you get down to it, most boutique stores sell items that could be categorized as "discretionary spending" 14th Street is a bit of a unique situation right now--commercial rates are skyrocketing at the same time a bad economy is putting many establishments out of business.

Eric F. said...

Restaurants also suffer from steep declines in discretionary spending, yet they appear to be doing better.

The city could establish a system certifying locally-owned small, retail businesses and then providing tax abatement to the property owners. For instance, the city could offer a discount tax rate for each square foot of space devoted to the business. Or the city could cap that assessment increase for the square-footage occupied by the certified business to the rate of inflation.

A more heavy-handed measure would be to adjust the zoning code to say that x% of storefront space along the corridor must be devoted to these certified businesses.

Anonymous said...

In your view, what kind of retail does well in an area like ours?

Lauren said...

Interesting post. While I do see how a diverse, vibrant retail district morphing into a neighborhood dominated by bars and restaurants is somewhat lamentable, I'm not sure if I consider it a serious enough problem to warrant government intervention in the form of subsidies or tax breaks. The galleries and boutiques will probably move to H St and then when that gets too expensive maybe Anacostia. So it goes - it's just kinda the way the market and neighborhood evolution works.

I would say that I think the 14th St neighborhood should look to Cleveland Park for a lesson in the downside of too much opposition to restaurants - from what I understand, there are lots of places closing up there and just staying vacant because the neighborhood doesn't want more restaurants.

Chris in Eckington said...

Comparing DC to San Francisco is not very usefull, since San Francisco has a population density almost twice that of DC.

Cleveland Park has a liquor moritorium, which has (in part) contributed to its increased vacancy rate. As you mention, as long as landlords demand high rents, the only uses that can afford them are liquor serving, banks, and national chains.

Anonymous said...

The real issues are greedy property owners and high rents...all over the city. Small business like Go Mama Go and many others are in need of local support. Soon enough, McDonalds, CVS, Target, Starbucks, Churches & Cemeteries will be all we have.

Anonymous said...

The real issue is not greedy property owners. It's demand. GoMamaGo was certainly a nice store, but it would still be in business if people were knocking down the doors to buy their stuff. People don't want it. People want bars and restaurants. It's a shame for those of us who prefer locally owned retail, but unfortunately our dollars can't compete with those out there who'd rather spend their dough at high end retail chains and restaurants. Sure, the city could provide tax breaks to these businesses, which might help, but would be doing so at the expense of lots of sales taxes as well.

Anonymous said...

I don't support a ban on restaurants but the state of retail is bad enough here that something should be done by the city to mitigate the negative effects of high taxes and high rents on retialers. A city of 600K can only support bars and restaurants? It's kind of pathetic when you look at the state of U St., Adams Morgan and now 14th St.

Enron Bob said...

Its all good. Just pop over to PrinceofPetworth. The good folks there will tell you that DC is immune to macroeconomic trends. Property values will increase perpetually, and there are more people clamouring to live, work and do business in DC than there are opportunities to live, work and do business in DC.

Those millions of square feet of empty office and condo space in and around DC? Don't worry, its all priced at rates higher than any place else in the country, including New York City. Just because the national commercial real estate market is getting savaged by the economic downturn, it doesn't mean that DC will even notice!

Be positive!

Elizabeth said...

I agree with many of the points in the article and in the comments. It's lamentable that we lose locally owned businesses such as Go mama go!, but it's also the nature of development and, in part, due to demand.

What I'd like to add is that I think options exist for stores just like Go mama go! to sell beyond their walls. What about opening a web-store to expand your customer base? Is this a viable option? Nana, the clothing store on U between 15th and 16h, used to have a web-store, but they stopped selling this way. I'm curious what went wrong... this would seem to me a good way to get at this issue.

Anonymous said...

The most important factor in this store is being completely overlooked: Noi, the founder and creative lifeforce of go mama go passed away unexpectedly two years ago. She was the buyer, marketer and energy of the store. After her passing, Jonathan tried to run the business but he is, to be honest, nothing like her. With her gone, the store retained very little of the reason people went there. The fun was gone and sales dropped off. Jonathan blames the recession and taxes, but I haven't talked to a single person who hasn't mentioned the loss of Noi as their reason for shopping less at the store. This isn't an indicator of the future of 14th St retail. It's simply one store losing its founder.

Unknown said...

Anon - I never fail to mention the loss of Noi as a factor, along with the economic downturn, in how the store is doing. She had the magic that neither I nor anyone else can duplicate. All of the factors listed in the original post and the comments just worked together to make a diffcult situation worse than it would have been with only one factor at work. High rent, taxes, fewer customers and, above all others, no Noi. We ain't dead yet, though. There will be a new art exhibit in February (reception Feb. 5) and big discounts on everything through February and March until we close. Oh, almost forgot - Subway is checking the space out. Let's all welcome Jared to 14th Street. Jonathan

ArchitectDesign™ said...

Go Mama Go really lost its drive. After the founder passed away last year, the store began to look shabby, not carry anything new or unusual and looked a bit like a bargain bin store. This is a seperate issue than the taxes / bar & chains that you bring up -but I thought it fair to mention.

Anonymous said...

If Subway leases the space, can we all go burn down Wayne Dickson's house?

Unknown said...

Just to be fair, Subway is only one of at least half a dozen prospects who've checked the space. Most were restaurants. One is a group of local busines owners known to you all who have a really cool retail idea. Pull up a chair and watch the fun. Don't blame Wayne for what is ultimately the building owners' decision. Jonathan

Anonymous said...

Welcome to retail gentrification!!!
We all loved residential gentrification when it allowed us to buy our places cheap and then cash in. Never mind the folks who were there during the tough years and the neighborhod character. Change has to come right!

Mr. Other Upper NW said...

I'm wondering what "character" you are referring to. Those who lived in the neighborhood during the 70s and 80s--and yes, I do know some--would likely question what "character" the neighborhood had when it was primarily a derelict area known for drug dealing and prostitution. U Street and certain areas north and east had a recognizeable and sustained A-A culture, but I don't know that anyone's mourning the loss of the character of Logan from 20-30 years ago.

jackblack said...

wayne dixon...the tide turning against him once my neighbor always and forever a blowhard and an asshat.