Because of DC’s unique status as the nation’s capital, residential development ebbed and flowed depending on a number of factors. One major factor included the need for federal jobs, which expanded greatly during times of war, and stagnated during national economic depressions. At all times, however, residents needed retail spaces in order to meet their daily needs. The downtown commercial district was not always convenient, and the increasing dependency on cars for transportation created heavy traffic in already congested areas of the city. Residential developers knew they had to come up with a solution, and one that would control commercial growth in the quiet, middle-class suburbs.
Suburban residents wanted design-forward and aesthetically pleasing commercial buildings. Developers responded with modern designs. Additionally, they could experiment with larger spaces because land costs were lower and there was more acreage to work with in these areas. Throughout the 1930s to 1970s, suburban movement exploded, with larger projects filling up the once-rural communities of Maryland and Northern Virginia.
Shopping centers, indoor shopping malls, branch stores, and other retailers added to the suburban landscape (with developers adding to the mix by purchasing land and creating specific zoning requirements), bringing shoppers’ favorite stores – such as Woodies, Hecht’s, Lord & Taylor, and Garfinkel’s – within close proximity to the new residential subdivisions. Beginning in the 1950s, indoor shopping malls like the Parkington Shopping Center (now Ballston Quarter) opened their doors to suburban shoppers, with others like Wheaton Plaza joining soon after in 1960. As people moved outside the city, retailers moved with them to maintain profits from the lost urban customer base.
Within and beyond DC’s borders, local retailers expanded their empires to maintain the customer base they’d lost with urban departure. However, this meant less customers flocked to the main attraction: flagship stores. Additionally, building new branch stores cost millions of dollars, with not every store yielding success. Suburban expansion still had major financial risk depending on where developers saw potential and where residents wanted to put down roots.
This major shift in population did change the landscape that retailers operated in greatly and contributed to the eventual downfall of downtown, urban-based flagship stores. While multiple factors combined to change the environment, department stores and retailers moving to the suburbs acted as a litmus test for future trends to come.
This site is a stop on the "Finding Style in DC: Navigating DC’s Shopping Scene" tour.