Friendship Heights commercial district struggling to stay afloat

Area used to be a hub for AU student life

Friendship Heights commercial district struggling to stay afloat

Many Friendship Heights Metro Area businesses are closing or have shut down. 

Just one metro stop away from Tenleytown, the Friendship Heights commercial district used to be a hub for American University student life. But recent financial struggles in and around Mazza Gallerie and Chevy Chase Pavilion have prompted pleas for redevelopment. 

“The stores that remain are almost exclusively for the very wealthy or uber rich,” senior Eamon Vahidi said. “It's very inaccessible to a neighborhood that has a lot of students and families; it's not really the right demographic.” 

Friendship Heights, which connects D.C. and Montgomery County, has competed for years with newer developments such as CityCenterDC near Chinatown and DC USA in Columbia Heights. The economic crisis prompted by the coronavirus pandemic only heightened the financial struggles of the area. 

Two of the major retailers that touched down in Friendship Heights during its original development, Lord and Taylor and Neiman Marcus, have announced liquidation sales and foreclosure going into effect this fall. 

Developers in the 1970s predicted that Mazza Gallerie would serve as D.C.’s version of Fifth Avenue, The Washington Post reported. But, a year after opening, the 60-store shopping mall struggled to fill space. The building, which has been sold four times since its opening in 1977, was sold this August in a foreclosure auction for $38 million. 

“This is like a 20-year degradation of the area, and now we’re here wondering what happened,” said Nolan Rodman, who owns Rodman’s, a specialty grocery store and pharmacy located in the area since 1955. “It's insane, there needs to be investment and building and new blood and life. Right now, there's only been people exiting.” 

Rodman attributes some of his store’s success to the fact that it’s family-owned. 

“A lot of retail establishments [in the area] have not adapted over time to a changing environment,” Rodman said. “If I wanted us to change my store completely tomorrow, I would decide with my dad to do it and we would do it. It’s not like we have this bureaucratic thing we need to go through.” 

However, Rodman, similar to others, believes the commercial district still has the potential to prosper.

With household incomes ranging from $170,000 to $200,000 a year, Friendship Heights is home to some of the District’s wealthiest residents. The commercial district sits in the middle of million-dollar, single-family home neighborhoods. 

“[These businesses’] clientele is of a particular market and it doesn't necessarily fit all the people who might be utilizing that area,” said Brett Gilbert, an associate professor in Kogod. “So [land owners] would definitely do well to essentially try to bring in businesses that can tailor to people who are at a lower socioeconomic level."

Students believe the commercial district’s proximity to campus certainly allows for the space to be utilized by the AU community.  

“I think there’s a chance to really create new living spaces, open up more places for AU kids to go, and increase equity and access,” Vahidi said.

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