The Uline Arena and Ice House building, Oct. 20, 2016
Wanda Lau The Uline Arena and Ice House building, Oct. 20, 2016

After sitting empty for nearly five decades, the historic Washington Coliseum, a sprawling brick masonry structure with a concrete barrel-vault roof in the NoMa neighborhood of Washington, D.C., has been transformed into a mixed-use development with REI as its first tenant. Constructed as Uline Arena in 1941, the 50,000-square-foot building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. Its ground level serves as the fifth flagship store for the outdoor gear retailer and co-operative, headquartered in Kent, Wash., and officially opened on Oct. 21.

About five years ago, REI began developing ways to broaden its appeal to people of different interests, expertise levels, and abilities and “inspire them to get outside,” says Elizabeth Dowd, REI’s divisional vice president of retail experience. It crafted new concepts for merchandise display, personalized in-store messaging, and experimented with a marketplace layout, testing them in its in-house product development lab in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood and in retail outlets around the country. The D.C. flagship culminates these ideas into one location.

Prior to selecting the Uline Arena site, REI with the Seattle office of CallisonRTKL and branding and design consultancy Hornall Anderson met with focus groups that included D.C. community leaders and REI co-op members to envision the flagship store. The spirit and history of the Washington Coliseum site, as well as its location in a growing neighborhood next to Metro subway station, appealed to REI.

The Uline Arena was built to host the Washington Lions ice hockey team; M.J. Ice Co.’s 1931 Ice House building also occupies the 4-acre site. Throughout the mid-20th century, the arena hosted basketball teams, the Washington Presidents ice hockey team, and concerts—including, famously, the U.S. debut of the Beatles in 1964. By 1994, the arena unceremoniously became a waste transfer station for Waste Management and, by the 2000s, a cavernous parking garage.

Uline Arena, April 2015
Flickr user Ted Eytan via a Creative Commons license Uline Arena, April 2015
Uline Arena development, in August 2016
Flickr user Ted Eytan via a Creative Commons license Uline Arena development, in August 2016

CallisonRTKL, the design architect and architect-of-record for the retail fit-out, also worked with REI on its New York flagship store, completed in 2011. Antunovich Associates was the core-and-shell architect for the project’s developer, Douglas Development, which announced its plan to redevelop the site in 2013.

CallisonRTKL began designing the fit-out in collaboration with REI’s retail-experience team in the late spring of 2014. Douglas Development and contractor Davis Construction began rehabilitating the structure in February 2015, and REI began tenant improvements this past May. The REI fit-out is targeting LEED Gold certification for Commercial Interiors by the U.S. Green Building Council, while Uline Arena’s rehabilitation is targeting LEED Gold certification for Core and Shell.

CallisonRTKL’s vice president of specialty retail, Alex Shapleigh, REI’s senior project manager Jared Pearce, and REI's Dowd gave ARCHITECT a tour of the project’s architectural and design highlights.

With the exception of the on-grade entrance and adjacent bike shop, the 50,000-square-foot arena floor was excavated 5 feet to achieve the volume REI requires of its locations to display large outdoor gear such as kayaks and canoes.
Wanda Lau With the exception of the on-grade entrance and adjacent bike shop, the 50,000-square-foot arena floor was excavated 5 feet to achieve the volume REI requires of its locations to display large outdoor gear such as kayaks and canoes.


The store provides intimate seating areas inside and outside to provide the “outdoor community a place to hang out,” REI's Elizabeth Dowd says, and to encourage “more ‘dreaming and scheming’ ” about their next excursions.
Wanda Lau The store provides intimate seating areas inside and outside to provide the “outdoor community a place to hang out,” REI's Elizabeth Dowd says, and to encourage “more ‘dreaming and scheming’ ” about their next excursions.


The store’s 50,000 products can overwhelm visitors so REI and CallisonRTKL broke up the floor with terraces and a mezzanine level. REI's Jared Pearce says the different platforms create “a sense of an amphitheater,” harking back to the concerts and sporting events held in the arena.
Wanda Lau The store’s 50,000 products can overwhelm visitors so REI and CallisonRTKL broke up the floor with terraces and a mezzanine level. REI's Jared Pearce says the different platforms create “a sense of an amphitheater,” harking back to the concerts and sporting events held in the arena.


Distinct marketplaces offer a more human-scale environment, such as the bike shop, inspired by the look and layout of a test kitchen.
Wanda Lau Distinct marketplaces offer a more human-scale environment, such as the bike shop, inspired by the look and layout of a test kitchen.


Shoe and boot shop on the mezzanine level
Wanda Lau Shoe and boot shop on the mezzanine level


The backpack shop offers a fit table and a shelf of gear for customers to test how much a pack can hold.
Wanda Lau The backpack shop offers a fit table and a shelf of gear for customers to test how much a pack can hold.


Custom rotatable display racks made of rebar allow visitors to see all sides of backpacks.
Wanda Lau Custom rotatable display racks made of rebar allow visitors to see all sides of backpacks.


Modeled after a warming hut on a mountainside, the wood armature currently displays ski boots. Come the warmer season, this area will house canoes, kayaks, and paddles.
Wanda Lau Modeled after a warming hut on a mountainside, the wood armature currently displays ski boots. Come the warmer season, this area will house canoes, kayaks, and paddles.


Community rooms offer classrooms for REI and event space for local partners.
Wanda Lau Community rooms offer classrooms for REI and event space for local partners.


Uline Aena’s west elevation was originally solid masonry. Floor-to-ceiling windows now bring D.C.’s city pedestrian and public transit activity inside. The exposed footing of the original column (shown on the right) evinces the excavation of the space along with the layers of paint that covered the columns over time.
Wanda Lau Uline Aena’s west elevation was originally solid masonry. Floor-to-ceiling windows now bring D.C.’s city pedestrian and public transit activity inside. The exposed footing of the original column (shown on the right) evinces the excavation of the space along with the layers of paint that covered the columns over time.


To showcase merchandise in window frontage, REI created a steel fin-wall system with a slim profile.
Wanda Lau To showcase merchandise in window frontage, REI created a steel fin-wall system with a slim profile.


REI minimized the use of conventional interior finishes, such as drywall, opting instead for a “gear garage” look, says REI’s Elizabeth Dowd. T1-11 panels, cut and oriented to form a makeshift herringbone pattern, serve as the backdrop for the Patagonia shop.
Wanda Lau REI minimized the use of conventional interior finishes, such as drywall, opting instead for a “gear garage” look, says REI’s Elizabeth Dowd. T1-11 panels, cut and oriented to form a makeshift herringbone pattern, serve as the backdrop for the Patagonia shop.


Original seating from Uline Arena becomes a wall installation.To “honor the original court floor,” RTKL’s Alex Shapleigh says, wood panels used to cover the ice hockey rink during basketball games finish the east interior wall. The flooring was shrewdly stored off-site in a warehouse during the arena’s vacancy. Originally in 4x8 sheets, the panels were cut into 4-foot squares.
Wanda Lau Original seating from Uline Arena becomes a wall installation.To “honor the original court floor,” RTKL’s Alex Shapleigh says, wood panels used to cover the ice hockey rink during basketball games finish the east interior wall. The flooring was shrewdly stored off-site in a warehouse during the arena’s vacancy. Originally in 4x8 sheets, the panels were cut into 4-foot squares.


The corridor from the parking garage access to the stair is covered with posters honoring musicians and bands from D.C.’s go-go, punk, and bluegrass scenes, and curated in collaboration with Kip Lornell, an adjunct professor of music at George Washington University.
Wanda Lau The corridor from the parking garage access to the stair is covered with posters honoring musicians and bands from D.C.’s go-go, punk, and bluegrass scenes, and curated in collaboration with Kip Lornell, an adjunct professor of music at George Washington University.


A flowchart on how to poop in the outdoors forms a memorable mural in the restrooms. The mural was created by author and rock climber Brendan Leonard, and illustrated by D.C.-based mixologist Chantal Tseng and chalk-artist Patrick Owens.
Wanda Lau A flowchart on how to poop in the outdoors forms a memorable mural in the restrooms. The mural was created by author and rock climber Brendan Leonard, and illustrated by D.C.-based mixologist Chantal Tseng and chalk-artist Patrick Owens.


Handcrafted in-store messaging gives a personal touch to pricing and promotional information, which focus on local hikes and outdoor groups. Eastern white and red oak flooring was salvaged from dunnage.
Wanda Lau Handcrafted in-store messaging gives a personal touch to pricing and promotional information, which focus on local hikes and outdoor groups. Eastern white and red oak flooring was salvaged from dunnage.


The interior courtyard is the only space where visitors will experience the arena’s full height. Created from a triangular wedge between the arena and the Ice House, the courtyard was hard fought by the design team because, business-wise, it’s a non-selling area. An original flying buttress adds drama to the space while a mural by artist and rock climber Jeremy Collins with muralist Skye Walker celebrates the outdoors with an urban spin using spray paint on concrete. The design team didn’t want to “mimic the activity of where you’re going to go” with faux-realistic landscapes, Shapleigh says. “It’s already in our heads.” Today’s gear stores don’t need stylized “lifestyle photos” for marketing, Dowd says. “That’s what Instagram is for.”
Wanda Lau The interior courtyard is the only space where visitors will experience the arena’s full height. Created from a triangular wedge between the arena and the Ice House, the courtyard was hard fought by the design team because, business-wise, it’s a non-selling area. An original flying buttress adds drama to the space while a mural by artist and rock climber Jeremy Collins with muralist Skye Walker celebrates the outdoors with an urban spin using spray paint on concrete. The design team didn’t want to “mimic the activity of where you’re going to go” with faux-realistic landscapes, Shapleigh says. “It’s already in our heads.” Today’s gear stores don’t need stylized “lifestyle photos” for marketing, Dowd says. “That’s what Instagram is for.”