Shake Shack recently made the news when they announced they’d be opening a location in Dupont Circle, at the corner of 18th Street and Jefferson Place, NW.
Shake Shack has received many accolades for its food. But what makes Shake Shack’s original location in New York City so iconic is not its hamburgers and milk shakes, but its relationship with the park in which it’s located.
Shake Shack opened in Madison Square Park in 2004, in a small structure surrounded by trees, with casual seating scattered outside. The park, located in the highly urban Flatiron District, is 6.2 acres in size — about the size of Dupont Circle. Why can’t Shake Shack try to replicate that environment in DC? To me, the appeal of the restaurant lies more in the charming location than in its nostalgic menu.
What would it take to duplicate the success of a Shake Shack inside a park in DC? Where would a good location be?
The National Mall is certainly lacking for good food options.
There are a few existing refreshments kiosks on the Mall, roughly the same size as the original Shake Shack. None of them sell anything beyond heated-up burgers and hot dogs. The food is clearly designed for desperate tourists, and there is no reason for anyone to make a trip to the Mall for lunch or dinner with friends. (Nevertheless, the Mitsitam cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian has garnered good reviews, and the National Gallery of Art has a nice gelato bar in the concourse.)
Can you imagine if Shake Shack could replace one of the kiosks on the Mall? The one closest to the Castle would be my pick, and I can imagine customers going for a ride on the carousel before or after their meals. This location gets heavy tourist traffic, and I bet an exciting cafe would lure locals as well.
Constitution Gardens is severely underutilized, and the kiosk there is rarely visited, yet it has a beautiful setting by the artificial lake, with a view of the Washington Monument, and is steps from the reflecting pool. These facilities are controlled by the National Park Service, with a contracted vendor operating the facilities. Whatever method the Park Service uses to award contracts, this process needs to be re-evaluated in order to attract higher quality services.
Off the Mall, the trio of K Street parks could also use a commercial boost. Farragut Square, McPherson Square, and Franklin Square are all underutilized, and would benefit from a small structure. Realistically, only Franklin park would be large enough to not be overwhelmed by something the size of Shake Shack.
Reservation 59 and Dupont Circle
A better option is further north. Dupont Circle is the most vibrant park in the city, surrounded by an ideal mix of businesses, hotels, offices, residential, and more. The circle itself may not be the best location for a commercial structure, but just west of the circle in reservation 59 is the old Dupont Circle Comfort Station.
This building was built in 1930 at a cost of $7,841. Originally referred to as a “lodge,” it contained toilet facilities and accommodations for park police (then known as park watchmen), and was electrically lighted and heated.
In 1936, a memo within the Park Police complained that the comfort station “has become the favored nightly meeting place for all the homosexuals in the city. They are here in great numbers every night, filing in and out of the comfort station in a steady stream until it is closed at midnight.” In 1950, the District Commissioners requested the Park Service to close the comfort station in the hope that it would “reduce sex perversion.” By the late 80s, if not earlier, the building was abandoned and locked up.
In the late 90s, the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA) raised funds (about $100,000) to convert it into their community resource center. It is now used as office space for Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets, as well as the Metropolitan Police Department and DCCA. There is a small bathroom in the corner.
In the east end of the triangular park is the primary entrance to the old underground trolley station. In 1995 this led to the doomed food court dubbed Dupont Down Under, and a metal structure was added to promote the entrance. The project failed within a year, and eventually the metal structure was torn down. The stairs now are covered up and inaccessible, awaiting new development in the underground space. Nowadays you might see people lining up to board a bus to New York on the Massachusetts Ave side. The DC2NY bus makes 2 to 8 pickups per day there.
The old lodge deserves a more public use, being in such a perfect location. I would consider this the best potential spot for DC’s Shake Shack, or equivalent thereof. Could DCCA be reimbursed for their renovation efforts, and suitable spaces could be found for the hosted organizations? Could the small park be landscaped to provide outdoor tables? What would it take to make this happen?
We need to work harder to find the best uses for our public spaces. There should be some way to duplicate in D.C. the success that Shake Shack has had in Madison Square Park.