by Marlene Berlin
A gift shop owner who lives in Van Ness thinks the area would make a good home for her small business as well.
Paola Bernacchi’s shop, Palo Borracho, is currently in Petworth. But the store where she is subletting is not renewing its lease. She got in touch with Mary Beth Ray, ANC commissioner and chair of ANC 3F’s Van Ness Vision Committee, in hopes of finding a new location at Van Ness.
Forest Hills Connection’s Van Ness retail survey found that residents and workers alike want unique boutiques. This category included many specific requests for a gift shop. So as potential customers go, Van Ness could very well be a good match for Ms. Bernacchi. She and her mother sell DC-themed merchandise at the store and online – “truly unique gifts that can’t be found anywhere else” – and the two of them make many of the items themselves.
The real challenge is finding affordable space. Bernacchi is particularly interested in a ground-floor space at 4200 Connecticut (the UDC law school) and the retail space to be built across the street at Saul Centers’ Park Van Ness. She needs between 300 and 1,200
1,200 and 3,000 square feet and can pay $1500/month rent, maybe a bit more. But Zach Friedless of Saul Centers tells the Vision Committee that Connecticut Avenue frontage retail space at Van Ness is going for about $45 per square foot, per year. For a 1,200-square-foot store, that works out to $4500 dollars/month.
Bernacchi was dismayed by the rate, which is prohibitive to many small business owners. And that’s not the only hurdle they face. The Vision Committee has learned that most property owners do not want to rent to small businesses, who are seen as a risky bet. The landlords want a steady income stream from established businesses, and this usually means chains. Van Ness has had its share: Burger King, Quiznos, Subway, Potbelly, and until recently, Office Depot and Pier 1. Architect Travis Price, who is a member of the Vision Committee, adds that over 90% of the shopping we do in the U.S. is at or through chains. Think about it. Where do you spend most of your money?
Where does that leave Bernacchi and Van Ness residents who would like small unique shops along the corridor? Is this pie in the sky or is there a way to get such establishments at Van Ness? Mark Furstenburg is banking on Van Ness with his new bakery, Bread Furst, now projected to open in April. But he is a known quantity and successful serial entrepreneur.
And what can we do now to support what we have? We have a few local restaurants, Acacia, Italian Pizza Kitchen, Tesoro, Chalin’s, and Epicurean. Do we eat at these restaurants? If we want local, we need to support local.
Let’s hold onto that wish and dream some more at a charrette the Vision Committee is hosting on Saturday, March 8th, from 9 a.m. to noon, at WAMU. The focus of this creative exercise will be the Connecticut Avenue and Windom Street hub, which include the parklet leading to Soapstone Creek on the east end of Windom and the UDC Performing Arts Center, amphitheater and tennis courts to the west. Fannie Mae, Calvert Woodley, WAMU and Potbelly sit on each of the corners. Put it on your calendar. There will be more information about registering as the time draws near.
And as for a potential small gift shop at Van Ness, does anyone have any creative ideas for Ms. Bernacchi in finding an affordable space?