The 4,000-square-foot store once teemed with browsers, some fresh off a brunch mimosa (or two), perusing her sofas and scarfing down the chocolate chip cookies Windsor made from Safeway dough. The shuttered store still costs her $19,000 a month in rent and property fees — more than triple what she paid when she moved to the gentrifying neighborhood from Adams Morgan in 2008. And she doesn’t know when she will be allowed to reopen or who will want to come inside once she can.
“Every once and awhile, I look at the numbers, and it’s very anxiety inducing,” said Windsor, 60. “Even in normal times, it’s pretty tight.”
The coronavirus is threatening the survival of independently operated stores, resaurants, bars and other enterprises in cities with vibrant, walkable neighborhoods and soaring commerical rents. In the District alone, there are an estimated 38,000 small businesses, according to the D.C. Policy Center. Some were already being pushed out by corporate chains before the pandemic brought the nation’s economy to a halt.
“I hate to be bleak, but we’re certainly going to see independent small businesses go quickly,” said Amanda Ballantyne, the Seattle-based executive director of Main Street Alliance, an advocacy group for small businesses. “When the economy recovers, it won’t recover with the same level of diversity. We already have these dynamics in cities like Seattle, the Bay area and D.C., and the virus will only accelerate it — this loss of culture that residents came to know and love about their neighborhoods.”
In the District, thriving commercial corridors from U Street to H Street and from Connecticut Avenue to Maine Avenue could lose some of the businesses that fueled the city’s renaissance and made the surrounding residential communities so appealing.
Last month, the city passed emergency legislation barring evictions of small businesses during the crisis — a temporary reprieve — and offering $33 million in micro-grants to help small business owners cover rent, operating costs and employee wages. Another newly passed law allows commercial landlords to seek a 90-day deferment of their mortgage payments, while providing “proportional” rent reductions to their tenants.
But Tom Papadopoulous, a D.C. commercial real estate broker for the past 36 years, predicted that 20 percent of Washington’s restaurants and retail stores will permanently close.
Dante Ferrando, co-owner of the Black Cat, the renowned rock club that opened on 14th Street in 1993, said his venue faces the biggest existential threat in its 27-year history.
The Ferrandos founded Black Cat with investments from local musicians, including Dave Grohl, the Nirvana drummer and future Foo Fighter. The venue, which has hosted Fugazi, the Strokes, Sleater-Kinney and Arcade Fire, was at the vanguard of businesses that remade 14th Street, scarred by the 1968 race riots and rife with prostitutes, drug dealers and vacant buildings.
Although the family had the foresight to buy its building when it moved to its current space in 2001, Ferrando said he still has a mountain of bills — from insurance policies, various city fees and property taxes — that he must pay just to stay closed. The total monthly cost: about $20,000.
It’s imperative, he said, that commercial property owners be given a reprieve from having to pay their montly property taxes to the city while they or their tenants are shut down. Then, the city should require those property owners to pass the savings on to tenants. But D.C. officials have dismissed requests for property tax waivers, citing the city government’s need for the tax revenue to pay its bills.
“Even if I wanted to rent my space, who’s going to rent it?” Ferrando asked. “A pop-up store that sells masks?”
And he and his wife, co-owner Catherine Ferrando, don’t want to sell.
“If small businesses like ours close down on 14th Street, the area will slowly slide back to what it once was — empty buildings,” he said. “Developers will buy buildings and sit on them. But we are not desperate enough to sell. This is something that’s important to our city, 14th Street, and our music scene community.”
Liz Winchell doesn’t own the Cleveland Park building where she runs a 17-year-old pottery studio called All Fired Up. Her landlord said she wouldn’t have to pay her entire rent for May and June. But a full payment is expected later, she said she was told.
Winchell, who runs a second studio in Bethesda, prizes her Cleveland Park location. All Fired Up is right on the Metro’s Red Line, surrounded by apartment and condo buildings full of professional young people, and right across the street from a new Orangetheory fitness studio. The neighborhood is also a magnet for well-off families willing to shell out $26 to paint a cereal bowl or $25 for a wavy side dish. Before the pandemic, the place was crammed with weekend birthday parties. On Thursday nights, friends painted and caught up over their own cheese and wines.
But since the city’s shutdown of nonessential businesses, Winchell’s revenue has tanked. She laid off two full-time and 10 part-time employees and has resorted to delivering pottery-and-paint kits to people’s homes.
She’s only netting a fraction of her normal revenue — 10 percent, she estimates. She recently received two Paycheck Protection Program loans through the Small Business Administration for the D.C. and Bethesda studios. But the terms require that 75 percent of the funds go toward paying staff, she said, and that she keep workers on her payroll for eight weeks if she wants the loans forgiven.
Most of her employees are fearful about working in the studio’s somewhat tight space, she said. And she really needs the money for rent, which costs about $5,000 a month in Cleveland Park.
“Rent. That’s what I go to bed at night thinking about and what I wake up thinking about,” she said. Her landlord, she said, has been polite, and she respects his position. “But the undertone is, ‘You’re you, I’m me, and I’ll cut this down a little bit, but money is owed.’ ”
Winchell’s landlord, Zachary Huke of Roma Restaurant Inc., did not return text messages and voice mails seeking comment.
In Adams Morgan, another independently owned institution also sits on the brink: Fleet Feet, the running store established in 1984 by Phillip and Jan Fenty and now run by the oldest of their three sons, Shawn Fenty, and his wife Kimberly.
Shawn’s younger brother, former D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, was recently appointed to serve on Bowser’s ReOpen D.C. Advisory Group.
Shawn is delivering shoes for customers — even taking orders from longtime clients who live in other cities — and has applied for various loans. But he said the store is making a sliver of his typical revenue, and it isn’t enough to make his rent.
He wishes the city would designate running stores as essential businesses, as it does with bike shops. Meanwhile, he has reached out to his landlord, Urban Investment Partners, for deferrals, but he has gotten only generic replies saying his rent is due. Steve Schwat, a principal at Urban Investment Partners, said he couldn’t specify which concessions he might make to commercial tenants without his bank’s approval.
“Our intent and hope is that we will work with them, such that they do ultimately pay all their rent and get caught up,” Schwat said. “But we’re not likely to issue concessions of free rent, certainly not without lender approval.”
Last year, Booker Parchment opened a new restaurant on Georgia Avenue NW in gentrifying Petworth. With brand new condo buildings a few blocks away, and another under construction across the street, Parchment figured the spot was just right for Mr. Braxton Bar and Kitchen. He agreed to pay about $50 per square foot in monthly rent — about $15 more than the neighborhood’s average, he said — so he could use the outdoor patio space. He figured he’d kill it during the warm weather months.
Now, he’s doing some takeout orders instead of serving New Zealand rack of lamb and hemp-crusted Atlantic salmon in his dining room. Gone are the Thursday nights featuring a neo-soul group. Gone, too, is the regular customer base he was building.
“I got so much energy from seeing familiar faces and individuals wanting us to succeed,” said Parchment, who has laid off 15 employees and has nine years remaining on his lease.
On 14th Street, Kate Damon can’t imagine her city without Miss Pixie’s. The designer used to duck into the furnishing store at least once a week, buying gifts for herself, friends or clients: tiny, odd-shaped mirrors or torquoise drinking glasses.
“There’s a lot of us in D.C. — artists, entrepreneurs, consultants, musicians — who feel like Pixie and her people are our office mates,” said Damon, 44, who lives in nearby Shaw. “I feel like they’re part of my team.”
Many of the businesses around Miss Pixie’s are closed, too. Save for the Trader Joe’s line, the sidewalks normally thick with shoppers or Soul Cyclers clad in skull-and-bones leggings are occupied by only the occasional masked drifter. No one pauses to admire Miss Pixie’s window display, which features offbeat tchtochkes and a $42 framed picture of a creepy doll with the words, “Bitch, Wash Your Hands.”
Windsor, who has been operating the business for 23 years, hopes she can find a way to survive the shutdown.
“I’m afraid if I and others like me go away, 14th Street would continue becoming very corporate,” she said. “I’m not like that. That’s part of my charm.”