On Aug. 14, 1942, the Washington Star announced the arrival of a new D.C. retail landmark, a “tastefully designed pioneer in the fast growing movement to make adequate shopping facilities available to Washingtonians in suburban sections.” Garfinckel’s, which had already established itself as the city’s premier downtown department store, was following the move of people and dollars to the suburbs, opening its first outpost on the District’s margins. In its advertising, the store promised “all the charm of old Williamsburg set down at the edge of a dark, cool forest. It’s way above the average as suburban stores go.”
The developer of the new store, the W.C. & A.N. Miller Development Co., had also been responsible, starting in the 1920s, for building much of the surrounding Spring Valley neighborhood. Just inside D.C.’s western boundary, Spring Valley did feel much like a suburb. It was spacious, it was new, and it was exclusive: Racial covenants prevented Spring Valley homeowners from selling their houses to blacks or Jews.
Fast forward 73 years. Spring Valley is no longer new and the racial covenants are gone, but it’s still exclusive. It has the city’s lowest property and violent crime rates, as of 2011, and one of the wealthiest citizenries: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average household income, measured from 2007 to 2011, was $379,276. Though D.C. is a majority-black city, the neighborhood is still just 4 percent black. (Data on the neighborhood’s Jewish population isn’t available.) In a telltale sign of its remove from the city’s mainstream, it was also the only precinct where a majority of voters opposed last year’s ballot initiative to legalize marijuana.
And developers are still seeking to add retail—on the same site, in fact, where the Miller company built the Garfinckel’s store. Last fall, Miller sold the Spring Valley Shopping Center on Massachusetts Avenue NW, anchored by the Crate & Barrel that took over the old Garfinckel’s space, to the Washington Real Estate Investment Trust. WRIT, as it’s known, recently announced plans to erect a two-story building on a portion of the parking lot between Crate & Barrel and Capital One Bank, with ground-floor retail topped by offices or additional retail.
Not so fast, said some neighbors: That parking lot is an historic landmark.
Read more A Lot to Lose: Can a Parking Lot Be an Historic Landmark?