Johnson’s Florist and Garden Center in DC. Image made with Google Maps.

Johnson’s Florist and Garden Center, an 84-year-old local business located in Cleveland Park, is closing. When American University, the garden center's landlords, increased the rent, operating the DC location allegedly became too expensive.

This upset residents so much they organized a protest in support of Johnson's on January 4 — which was subsequently canceled due to the cold.

“It is a bad sign when the city cannot keep non-chain businesses in a neighborhood,” said Commissioner Nancy MacWood (ANC 3C09) on the Cleveland Park listserv. “We risk becoming a city that has no local commercial character and lacks convenient stores and services that residents use often.” 

Some neighbors demanded that AU President Sylvia Burwell reverse Johnson's rent hike and fees so the business can continue to operate in DC. Johnson's Kensington and Olney locations will remain open.

Linda Argo, who handles external relations with the university, responded in an open letter, “We have made significant concessions over a long period of time that we would not have made for other commercial tenants. Moreover, we were unable to balance their needs for space and building access with the needs of other tenants, such as medical facilities that receive supplies to treat children and expectant families.” 

Johnson’s Florist and Garden Center in DC. Image made with Google Maps.

Here's what our contributors think about the whole affair:

Dan Reed notes,

"Garden centers are space-intensive, land-intensive, and labor-intensive, but are hard to make profitable, especially with competition from the big box stores. This isn’t just a problem in DC — Behnke’s in Maryland, which has been an area institution for decades, has already closed some of its locations and has nearly closed its Beltsville flagship multiple times.

Personally I’m super bummed (one of my best friends has worked there for nearly 10 years, and is the voice of Behnke’s radio ads) but I do think it’s inevitable.

Patrick Kennedy reminds us there are real people involved:

Regardless of who is telling the truth in the back-and-forth between the landlord and the tenant, the state of the retail on that side of the building doesn't lend credence to the idea that there's a higher and better probable use. From an urban design standpoint, the flower shop is the only thing with a lively streetfront presence on Van Ness.

A lot of people do patronize this store and have for decades. It's unique in the area chock full of fast-casual restaurants, and serves a population far beyond its immediate neighborhood. As a local business institution, I regret its departure and feel sorry for the employees and customers who will be at a loss. 

It's fair to find fault with the anti-development sensibilities of some of those who are lamenting the loss of the store, and also some of the "solutions" that have been floated to preserve a business like this — but I don't think it's worth dismissing the very reasonable regrets that people have about the loss of this retail use in general and this community institution in particular.

Pete Tomao says the area has other priorities too:

As someone who went to AU and lived in Tenleytown for four years, these same neighbors complaining about a business leaving have also worked tirelessly to block any new businesses from moving to the area — which I am not sure helped foster local commerce.

Sad to see institutions go, but I'd add there is a huge population up there that a garden center isn't going to serve. Depending what AU ends up doing with the space, it could end up better serving community needs than the garden center currently does. An affordable grocery store that isn't two miles from the Metro would be a start.

Matt Johnson points out,

You know what helps retail survive? Customers.

You know what provides more customers in a given area? Density.

Neighbors need to put their money where their mouth is, according to Payton Chung:

Gardening, like furniture and other home-related retail sectors, took a huge hit in 2008: one third of all local garden shops nationwide closed in the wake of the recession.

I get really annoyed when people complain about local retail in an abstract way, as if shopowners (or landlords) owe them and their neighbors a favor. NO! The basic economics of running a retail store are tremendously difficult — you have to get lots of customers through the doors every single day. It's not just the owners who keep the business going, it's also the countless other customers.

Local governments certainly have the power to regulate nuisance land uses, and certainly have the authority to establish community-serving facilities like parks and libraries. However, local governments do NOT have the authority to compel a private landowner to provide a community serving facility at the landowner's cost.

If the citizenry strongly feels that they need a garden shop at that location, they are free to petition the District to take the land by eminent domain and accept RFPs to operate a garden shop (similar to how the Lincoln Theatre is owned by DC but operated privately). Requiring that outcome via regulation is arbitrary and inefficient.

Rahul Sinha says,

Because land is finite, property ownership isn’t self-regarding. What I do with my t-shirt is entirely my business, but how I conduct myself in and on land I own is not; it has too many impacts on my community.

That doesn’t mean AU owes us a garden center; it may be that business model is simply untenable this close in. It does suggest that the rent charged by AU can be scrutinized by the community, though I’d prefer if it were a depersonalised regulation rather than an emotional moral panic.

Let’s encourage patron/employee economic stability and cultural density by bending the curve a bit on commercial volatility when it involves brick-and-mortar presence in our communities.