Lull in Luxury


High-End Friendship Heights Confronts Unfriendly Economy

A little over a year ago in the heart of Chevy Chase, a new shopping-living center called Wisconsin Place beckoned customers with bold, blue signage splashed on the side of one of its newly constructed buildings: “BLOOMINGDALE’S NOW OPEN,” it declared.

Today, that sign remains along with a few others fastened to metal construction fencing announcing the opening of two other stores. Bloomies has indeed opened, and a serene courtyard now entices shoppers to give themselves and their credit cards a break, but nearby there is still yellow construction tape blocking off areas to pedestrians and dirt paths where paved walkways should be ready for eager shoppers.

Chevy Chase — the area that straddles Maryland and Washington, D.C. — and the smaller neighborhood of Friendship Heights that it encompasses is a microcosm of the fluctuating retail market across the country, as some retail businesses find ways to beat the economic hardships, while others flounder.

Residents are both hopeful and anxious that seemingly never-ending construction projects will finally debut soon, adding to the cache of their upscale enclave and giving it an economic boost. Meanwhile, traffic still whizzes by on the strip of Wisconsin Avenue punctuated by luxury shops that make up what’s been dubbed Washington’s own Rodeo Drive. Some days, crowds gather to snatch up expensive goodies on sale, while others times the only visible life seems to be the mannequins in the storefront windows — a sign of the mixed outlook for retail shopping, even for wealthy consumers.

Friendship Heights has long been considered a luxury shopping and living destination conveniently accessible on the Metro’s red line. For years, the New York-based department store Saks Fifth Avenue was the area’s finest purveyor of upscale clothing and furnishings along the Wisconsin Avenue shopping corridor. Saks was joined there by Cartier, Tiffany & Co. and Neiman Marcus, part of the big Mazza Gallerie across the street.

But in the past five years or so, there has been an explosion of high-end stores competing for the Washington dollar: Christian Dior, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, Gucci, Bulgari, Max Mara, Cartier and Barney’s Co-op — all roped along a single glitzy block dubbed The Collection at Chevy Chase.

The Collection debuted about three years ago as a glittering testament to the region’s growing riches, which have since been at least partly sapped by the current economic slowdown. The Collection though made it in before the downturn — leaving other major construction projects feeling the effects of the tighter times.

Chevy Chase’s latest entrepreneurial venture, Wisconsin Place, seeks to combine the area’s luxury living with its luxury shopping — that is, if Wisconsin Place is ever completed. Construction began in August 2004 on the 1.1 million-square-foot development project, which is the only mixed-usage development in the Washington area that centers on a major national department store. Wisconsin Place is slated to combine residential and office space with retail property, anchored by Bloomingdale’s and a Whole Foods Market, with an array of luxury boutiques as well as more midlevel-priced stores such as Talbots — in contrast to the pricey Collection offerings.

In February, the Wisconsin Place Web site prominently stated that pre-leasing was already available on the eight-acre site bounded by Wisconsin Avenue, Friendship Boulevard, Western Avenue and Willard Avenue.

The 432 rental apartments at Wisconsin Place — a partnership of New England Development, Archstone and Boston Properties — will include studio, one- and two-bedroom units, as well as a selection of penthouses. On-site amenities include a full-service concierge, 24-hour front desk attendant, a private exercise facility, a resident library and a fully equipped business center.

The project’s Web site gives the following description of the lifestyle that awaits at the Place: “Walk one way, and you’re at world-class restaurants and shopping; walk another and you’re on a winding jogging trail; a few more steps and you’re at the on-site Metro — and all that the District has to offer just minutes away. A mountain bike, a designer wardrobe and penchant for great food. Your life. Your choice. All at your doorstep.”

But that doorstep doesn’t have too many welcome mats out — yet. According to Corinne Rabung, spokesperson for Wisconsin Place co-owner Archstone, there are a few occupied apartments on the first three floors of the residential building. David Gilmore, a senior vice president at New England Development, another co-owner, stated that the project is on track and that developers are “nearing the end of a long road” that’s taken more than four years. He noted that although not all of the apartments are completed, the initial structure for each is in place and that more than a dozen apartments have already been leased.

The development of Wisconsin Place was split up into two phases, with the first including the completion of Bloomingdale’s (on the site of the old Hecht’s department store), as well as a portion of the boutique retail shops and part of a new parking garage. The next phase will include completion of the residences, the office tower and the additional restaurants and shops, along with public parks and a 20,000-square-foot public community and recreation center that will be operated by the Montgomery County.

The community center will open in June, according to Gilmore. He said there will be a delay in the Whole Foods debut, but he also pointed out that the parking garage has already opened and retail stores such as Eileen Fisher and MAC Cosmetics will become tenants late this spring.

They’ll be joining the three other finished stores open to shoppers: Bloomingdale’s, Talbots and Cole Haan. The latter is a luxury leather goods store that’s been open since August 2008 and could not be more inviting. Light and spacious with blonde wood floors, plush settees and energetic music percolating in the air, Cole Haan is the epitome of spring shopping. With no “sale” signs in view and only a small amount of winter merchandise relegated to a back corner, a busy young staff attended to three customers in the store.

Ryan Montgomery, store manager, described business as “fairly good,” noting that customers seemed eager to shop for the new spring merchandise. Sumptuous tote and handbags in fresh colors, part of the leather basket-weaving Geni Collection, stood prominently at the front of the store. Montgomery said business was better on that particular day than earlier in the week, but added that he was “not worried” about a decline in sales because it was part of a wider, hopefully temporary economic trend. Montgomery had no idea when Wisconsin Place might be completed.

Next door to Cole Haan, there was a markedly different scene in the more affordable but struggling Talbots women’s specialty retailer. With floor space about four times the size of Cole Haan, the spacious store was peppered with sale signs of 70 percent off on about three-fourths of its racks. A salesperson assured us that “winter is gone” and that “this merchandise could all be worn now.”

Despite the potential for such huge savings, however, there were few shoppers the day we visited. It may be a sign of the company’s larger problems, as it recently announced the closure of 20 stores around the country, along with 0 million in cost cuts and the elimination of 370 corporate jobs and some hourly store positions. “We are planning very conservatively for fiscal 2009 and at this time expect little to no improvement in the economic climate for the first half of the year,” Chief Executive Officer Trudy F. Sullivan recently said.

Still, not all shopping destinations are taking a hit as they try to capitalize on the economic crisis to lure penny-pinching customers — even the well-heeled ones. In Wisconsin Place’s new Bloomingdale’s, the Clinique cosmetics counter was buzzing with activity thanks to a promotional giveaway that included a free cosmetic bag of products with a purchase of at least . In contrast, no activity could be found at neighboring counters, including top-of-the-line La Prairie, whose 1.7 ounce Cellular Nurturing Cream sells for 0.

The Wisconsin Place Bloomingdale’s occupies a large, modern space that features the same swanky design as its SoHo location in New York City. Video monitors and sleek displays complement the abundance of winter merchandise on sale, on top of a promotion awarding an additional 15 percent off for holders of Bloomingdale’s cards. Still, many of the departments looked bare, and almost everywhere, sale signs beckoned.

It’s a reflection of the turbulence in the retail market, even in what is still a relatively strong economic region — but one that’s not escaping the crisis unscathed. At Max Mara, no one could be found examining the upscale Italian duds, for instance, but walk through the adjoining door to the store’s M Café and there was plenty of business for pizzas and cappuccino.

The lull in the luxury shopping scene though doesn’t come as a surprise in light of national forecasts. In January, the National Retail Federation forecast a sales decline for the upcoming year — the first time since the group began its annual retail sales prediction in 1995. That forecast excluded restaurants but noted that the luxury and home categories would be hardest hit this year as people focused on food and other consumables.

And the top five retail outlets in the United States listed by the federation — Walmart, Home Depot, CVS, Kroger and Costco — don’t exactly dot Wisconsin Avenue in between Tiffany and Saks.

Still, the prestige and progress of Chevy Chase is undeniable, though it may have lost some its luster recently. After all, Barney’s New York Co-op only has 18 stores across the country — and it selected the Washington area to be home to two of them.

And although the traffic is lighter on our own “Rodeo Drive” in Chevy Chase, it’s been a long road to get the region to where it is today, and there’s no going back, even if luxury takes a pit stop for now.

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.