Johnson’s Florist set to close amidst rising rent costs

Johnson’s Florist and Garden Center in Tenleytown is slated to close due to rising rent costs. (Zoe Morgan/The Current/January 2018)

Johnson’s Florist and Garden Centers in Tenleytown is set to close despite protests from local residents who object to American University (AU) increasing the property’s rent and fees.

The property at the corner of Van Ness and Wisconsin streets is owned by the university. Community members formed an ad hoc committee trying to keep Johnson’s in the space, launched a phone and email campaign, and led a protest outside the store on Jan. 7.

Mary Alice Levine, who helped form the ad hoc committee, told The Current the group is seeking a meeting with American University President Sylvia Burwell to discuss the issue. Levine said the group isn’t looking for a subsidy and that leaving the District wasn’t Johnson’s intention.

“We believe that AU has a responsibility to the community to make it easy for Johnson’s to stay,” Levine said. “Johnson’s is not a failing business. We’re not asking for help for a floundering enterprise. It’s very well trafficked, it’s beloved, it’s vital.”

The store’s general manager, John Williams, said the cost of occupying the space is the reason the store is closing, but said he was not able to confirm the name of the landlord or the specific cost increases. Williams said he is “very supportive” of the work that neighbors are doing to attempt to save the store.

The shop was originally scheduled to close Jan. 14, but Johnson’s sent an email to customers on Jan. 15 saying the store would stay open another week.

Jane Waldmann, the president of the Tenleytown Historical Society, said the university has a gag clause in the lease that stops the store’s management from releasing information. Waldmann said the school has been asked to release Johnson’s from the clause, but she has not heard any response.

“This closure is a direct result of the significant increase in rent and other related fees of occupancy imposed upon us by the building’s owner,” Johnson’s said in a Jan. 3 email to customers. “Despite months of earnest negotiation, we have been unable to arrive at a mutual understanding with our landlord.”

American University released a statement, signed by Assistant Vice President for External Relations and Auxiliary Services Linda Argo, saying they are saddened to lose the shop, but “changing demographics and purchasing habits” make it difficult for the store to be viable.

“With a deep understanding of their meaning to the community, American University has worked tirelessly to keep Johnson’s as a tenant, particularly over the last three years,” the statement said. “We have made significant concessions over a long period of time that we would not have made for other commercial tenants.”

The American University Community Liaison Committee is holding a special meeting Jan. 17 to discuss the issue. The committee is a consensus body that does not take votes and is made up of representatives from local community organizations and from the university.

“What we would like from AU is a better reason than has so far been published about why they feel it necessary to ask a rent that Johnson’s can’t pay,” Waldmann, a member of the community liaison committee, said.

The committee meeting is open to the public and will be held from 7 to 8 p.m. in rooms 2-3 of Mary Graydon Center on American University’s campus.

Waldmann and Levine both noted that American University has an arboretum on its campus. The university has also bought products from Johnson’s in the past, Levine said.

“It is ironic, in my view, that they would decide that whatever money they get from the space Johnson’s occupies, that the dollars are more important than providing the community with an opportunity to create green environments in their own properties,” Waldmann said.

The ad hoc group is continuing to try to secure a meeting with Burwell, and has started an online petition to keep the store open.

Johnson’s has two other locations, both in Maryland (Kensington and Olney), that are to remain open.

This story was updated on Jan. 17.