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Johnson’s Florist and Garden Center in Tenleytown to close, cites raised rent

February 9, 2018 GMT

After 83 years in business, Johnson’s Florist and Garden Center will close its Tenleytown location Sunday despite its neighbors begging the landlord, American University, to allow the longtime shop to continue operating there.

American University has rented the commercial space that Johnson’s occupies at Van Ness Street and Wisconsin Avenue NW for the last decade.

On Jan. 3, the shop which employs about 50 people and sells a wide variety of items including house plants and floral arrangements posted a notice saying the university had increased the rent, forcing it to close.

“They increased the rent by about 30 percent,” Johnson’s general manager, John Williams, told The Washington Times.

Tenleytown neighbors formed an ad hoc committee to help Johnson’s remain open and requested meetings with AU President Sylvia M. Burwell. On Wednesday night, the committee met with university representatives in what turned into tense, back-and-forth exchanges. Ms. Burwell did not attend the meeting.

The verbal exchanges often spun in circles due to a non-disclosure agreement in Johnson’s lease. This was especially clear when Charles Smith, the university’s commercial property manager, said the shop had released information online about its rental negotiations “that wasn’t true.”

“It was our understanding that you raised the rent,” said one resident.

“I’m not going to get into the specifics,” Mr. Smith replied.

When neighbors asked whether the space has been promised to a new tenant, university representatives were prevented from answering in full detail.

“We have not secured a new tenant,” Mr. Smith said. “There are multiple interested parties.”

Mr. Williams said the non-disclosure agreement complicated how Johnson’s announced the decision to close.

“We struggled with, ‘Do we announce this sooner so that the neighbors could support us?’ But we were really afraid that AU would stop the negotiations,” he told The Times, adding that company’s president decided to make the announcement after the holidays.

In a Jan. 3 statement, Linda Argo, American University’s assistant vice president for external relation, said the school is sorry to lose the shop but the District’s “changing demographics and purchasing habits” made Johnson’s unprofitable.

Ms. Argo described the shop as “a neighborhood fixture” and “part of the community fabric,” saying in her statement “We have made significant concessions over a long period of time that we would not have made for other commercial tenants.”

But Tenleytown resident Nabeeha Kazi called the university’s decision to let Johnson’s go a “tone-deaf” business move.

“Mayor [Muriel] Bowser has recognized that the hallmark of resilient cities is walkability, engagement with community, creating opportunities for our children to engage with small businesses and learn and be inspired by them,” said Ms. Kazi, who heads the nonprofit global development organization Humanitas Global.

Mr. Williams said that Johnson’s plan is to vacate the Wisconsin Avenue space by Jan. 30. Its locations in Kensington and Olney, Maryland, will remain open.