Downtown DC is Deserted

Soho Cafe
Where is everyone?

The Axios article is correct. Downtown DC is deserted. I live at the edge of downtown, and spend a lot of time walking and biking through it.

Recently, I went to lunch at Soho Cafe at 13th and K St NW. Pre-covid, it was one of my favorite lunch spots – I have a thing for steamtray Chinese food.

Normally, it’s a buzz of activity, in which you elbow your way up to the buffet, fill a tray with food, wait in line to pay and then try to find a place to sit. Sometimes, I even had to share a table with someone else.

Yet, when I walked into Soho yesterday, one of the cafe workers was taking a nap in a chair. There were no customers, no line and I had my pick of tables.

Looking around the cafe, I thought to myself: this place won’t make it.

DC is Back?

DC is not back, despite the social media campaigns. It’s not DC’s fault, though. Spooked by Delta, the federal government is still working remotely. The thousands of feds which commuted back and forth to downtown offices have not returned.

The return of DC’s indoor mask mandate killed off meetings and conventions, too. Visitors are often surprised at the strictness of the mask mandate, which applies to everything, including hotels, nightclubs, restaurants and museums. Meeting planners have moved their events across the river to mask-free Virginia.

Some places reopened too soon. Swing’s Coffee, for example. It doesn’t open until 8 AM and even then it doesn’t seem to have enough business to support itself, with the nearby World Bank still working remotely. I meet a group of biking friends there on Fridays and we make up most of their business.

A block away is Peet’s Coffee. I love this spot, since it’s on a corner with lots of windows and a view of the Old Executive Office Building. In the morning, sometimes I see the Vice President’s motorcade go by. Pre-covid, there’d always be a line. Now, no line. It reopened months ago and I’ve never seen it busy.

There used to be multiple Peet’s locations downtown – 15th and M, 17th and L, 11th and E. Only the location near the White House remains.

I never thought I’d see Starbucks close locations but many of them closed as well. And the sandwich places downtown have mostly disappeared.

Hoteling is the Future

I work as a government contractor. Pre-covid, we did hoteling. No one had an office. Instead, when you went into headquarters, you picked out a place to sit like you would an airplane seat. I’d spend the day in a stuffy room at a long table with several dozen other people (hello super spreader event).

Luckily, I only had to go in 1-2 days a week. This arrangement had enabled the government to consolidate office space, saving millions in the process.

My agency was going to have an optional return to the office starting in October. Delta shelved those plans. Covid caused many agencies to rethink who even needed to be in the office. At the minimum, many agencies are going to hoteling models, where people work in the office for a couple days and at home for the rest of the time.

Other businesses have followed the government’s lead. Not everyone needs to be in the office all the time. And if they’re not there, why rent all that space?

But as a friend reminded me, the cars are back. The people who are coming downtown are driving, feeling safer in their own vehicles than Metro.

Van Ness Metro Station
High ceilings, high drama

Which is a shame, because Metro is beautiful. If everyone goes back to the office in force, not everyone is going to be able to drive without complete gridlock.

Ironically, DC has more traffic on the weekends. People may not feel comfortable going to the office but everyone knows you can’t get covid in a bar, right? Between the Ubers delivering people to U Street clubs and the Ubers delivering Chik-fil-A to lazy apartment dwellers, DC approaches traffic meltdown on Friday and Saturday night.

This is the End

So, how does this end?

Federal commuters will eventually return, but in much smaller numbers. Most people will work remotely at least part of the time. With fewer people working downtown, many businesses will not make it. Offices will be consolidated leaving an opportunity for the city to remake this space – into housing perhaps?

Not everyone can drive everywhere so we will need Metro to survive, as well as vibrant car alternatives like protected bike lanes and pedestrian-only streets (like the recent Open Streets Georgia Avenue).

And Uber needs to be destroyed, before this parasitic company swamps DC with cars delivering chicken sandwiches.

I’m optimistic. Cities are unique places with an energy that cannot be duplicated. The pandemic has taught us that virtual is no substitute for the real thing.

No one wants to do another Zoom meeting but have lunch in a cafe, browse a bookstore, grab a latte with a friend – yes. People want that.

And those are things you do in a city.

Author: Joe Flood

Joe Flood is a writer, photographer and web person from Washington, DC. The author of several novels, Joe won the City Paper Fiction Competition in 2020. In his free time, he enjoys wandering about the city taking photos.

2 thoughts on “Downtown DC is Deserted”

  1. Is DC also experiencing a labor shortage? Central Oregon contractors and restaurants are desperate to hire anyone with a pulse at a much higher rate than you might think.

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