Chain Reaction

I like skyscrapers. And DC has no skyscrapers. It does, however, have what’s basically an enormous multi-block vacant lot in the middle of downtown where the old Convention Center used to be. And it’s right between my office and my apartment so I pass it every day, dreaming of the extremely tall buildings that could be put on the site. Instead, we’re going to get City Center DC a mixed-use collection of DC-sized buildings:

At any rate, I was interested to read about the retail plans for the project since if any good stores were to open there it would be a convenient spot for me to shop. I learned that “Thirty percent of retail space will be devoted to merchants with six or fewer stores in the United States.”

I get the sense that this kind of set-aside is a common element of plans for big projects like this that need government approval. But insofar as the objective is promote diverse retail options, it seems a little backwards to me. There are some national chains that right now don’t have any outlets in DC. For a Mac user such as myself, for example, the lack of an Apple Store is noteworthy. Similarly, there’s no K-Mart, Nordstrom, JC Penny, Ikea, or many other national chains. There’d be a big difference in terms of its impact on people’s lives of getting a DC outlet of a store like that than there would be in the opening of the District’s ninety-billionth Starbucks or Cosi. Under the circumstances, it seems to me that if you want a set-aside of some kind, what you want to do is have a set-aside for firms that don’t already have more than such-and-such a number of stores in the District. That’s how you prevent a dull retail monoculture. Just raising the barriers to chains in general just tends to push them outside the District line. That makes life for DC residents less convenient than it might be, and costs the city a certain amount of revenue. Ideally, we should be trying to turn the city into, among other things, a hub of commerce that draws people in from the surrounding area, not a place that pushes people out to peripheral malls.