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As apartments and condos go up, downtown DC is becoming an after-work location

Downtown continues to evolve and grow. The latest change? People actually live downtown now--meaning big changes for retailers.

At the Downtown DC Business Improvement District’s State of Downtown forum Friday morning, where the BID and other downtown stakeholders convened to discuss the BID’s annual report, a panel confirmed what most D.C. residents already know: that downtown D.C. has quickly transformed from an employment center that shuts down after work to a 24-hour part of town.

What is surprising is how quickly the area has changed.

Most people know the story of how just about two decades ago—pre-Verizon Center—the area was devoid of people after 5 p.m. According to Michael McCarthy, chairman of the BID’s board of directors, there were 123 parking lots or vacant parcels in the BID in 1997; by March 2015, those vacant parcels have shrunk to 13.

But even as recently as five years ago, downtown looked a lot different. There was no CityCenterDC, no Capitol Crossing (which of course is still under construction), no giant Marriott Marquis hotel.

“I remember the ghost town,” said panelist Valarie Dollison, vice president store manager of the downtown Macy’s. Now demographics have changed so markedly that Macy’s is noticing. Lunch shoppers are fewer—perhaps because of higher office vacancy rates downtown—while the evening shopping rush has increased so much that the store will extend its hours to 9 p.m.

People are also changing their eating habits. The report contains the surprising factoid that by the end of the year, there will be an average of two sidewalk cafes on every block downtown.

Brian Kenner, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development for D.C., said that downtown’s challenges are different than they were even five years ago. “We’re not completely obsessed with getting the federal government” as an employer, he said. “The challenges were talking about are things like…how do we attract a diverse group of employers?”

He added that downtown still lacks for green space and parks—“people need places to congregate. “Then I’m hopeful,” he said, “that one day we’ll be able to have a conversation around schools downtown, which I think will be the next result of people saying ‘I want to stay down here.’”

Wendy Riegler, anchor of News4 at 5, who was one of the first people to move into CityCenter, said that she loves how downtown has become “a walking city….now my place is a destination.” But, she said, citing the cost of the remaining condos in CityCenter DC, “it’s a shame that only elites are going to be able to live down here…the one thing I would hope is that downtown doesn’t just become a playground.”

The panel offered few answers on that front, though Kenner did reaffirm Mayor Muriel Bowser’s commitment to affordable housing and noted that downtown generates a significant amount of revenue for the city, which could be used to build housing downtown or elsewhere.

Read more articles by Rachel Kaufman.

Rachel is the managing editor of Elevation D.C. She also covers tech, business and science for publications nationwide. She lives in Brookland.
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