Oct 6, 2021 - Business

Downtown D.C. remains deserted

A view of an empty Connecticut Avenue NW south of Dupont Circle

South of Dupont Circle on Monday 2:50 p.m. Photo: Cuneyt Dil/Axios

Downtown Washington is still missing many of the workers and visitors who once squeezed into Metro trains, lined up outside sandwich shops and stayed at swanky new hotels.

  • On a recent jaunt, Cuneyt found eerily quiet parks from Dupont Circle to the newly renovated Franklin Park — and way more open parking spaces than he remembers two years ago.

Why it matters: More than 19 months into the pandemic, the foot traffic needed to reinvigorate downtown D.C. has yet to materialize, thanks to the Delta variant that has delayed the return of office workers and tourists.

  • According to surveys and data from DowntownDC BID and Kastle, only about 1 in 4 workers has returned to in-person work downtown, BID spokesperson Emily Mooney tells Axios.
  • And office occupancy downtown is between 80% and 85%, several percentage points lower than rates in Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland, says Neil Albert, head of the BID.
  • Hotel bookings in the downtown business district are only 49% of pre-pandemic levels, compared to 58% in the rest of the city.

The scene: That means far fewer patrons at lunchtime joints like Greek Deli on 19th Street NW.

  • “The business, of course, is not like it used to be, because people still work from home,” owner Kostas Fostieris told Axios inside his carryout.
  • He said his revenue is down about 25% compared to pre-pandemic sales, but is optimistic about improving conditions.
  • “I see a little bit of light in the tunnel,” said Fostieris, who has run the deli for over 32 years.

Meanwhile, it’s easier than ever to find an open table. “I mean, I can get a reservation in most restaurants, which is a sign that restaurants aren’t doing that great,” said Albert, noting that some establishments no longer even open for the full week.

By the numbers: Metro stations are deserted, and the numbers are stark.

  • Farragut North station, a key downtown stop on the Red Line, averaged 3,800 daily riders in August — a shocking contrast to the 21,200 riders it had in August 2019, Metro data shows.

All the activities that attract waves of visitors — tours, conventions, and large gatherings — have also yet to return in full.

  • Rob Pitingolo, a tour guide who owns Trip Hacks D.C., said his business is down 49% in revenue from 2019.

What we're watching: The pandemic is giving some momentum for the movement to convert vacant office buildings into apartments and other uses.

  • The International Downtown Association, headquartered in Farragut Square, is backing a bill in Congress that would give federal tax credits to developers converting excess office space into residential and mixed use.
  • David Downey, head of the International Downtown Association, told Axios that office buildings could be transformed to include housing, incubator hubs for entrepreneurs, coworking sites, and spaces for maker movement activities.

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