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Parking-free, mixed-use building is right for Tenleytown

Douglas Development wants to rebuild Tenleytown's long-vacant Babe's Billiards into a mixed-use development with 60 residential units and ground floor retail space. Perhaps most significantly, Douglas wants to build no parking at all on the site.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

The once-popular neighborhood nightspot has been shuttered for several years, despite its location just a few hundred feet from the Tenleytown Metro station.

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E will hear about the proposal tomorrow night (Jan. 12) at St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church, 42nd and Fessenden Streets NW. It would help for smart growth supporters in the area to attend and encourage the ANC to support this worthy project.

The former Babe's sits on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Brandywine Street, near the top of a hill with downward slopes to the south and west, and Douglas's proposal promises to utilize this topography creatively.

Douglas Development's proposal would allow for a potential sit-down restaurant to have an outdoor seating area along Brandywine Street and for the sought-after retail tenants (no dry cleaners, fast-food restaurants, or banks) to have tall, airy ceilings as high as 16-18 feet.

Renderings by Douglas Development Corp.

Although the retail mix in Tenleytown is improving, this stretch of Wisconsin Avenue has long been associated with mattress stores, cheap fast food, dry cleaners and lots of banks (okay, maybe not the banks) that belies the affluence of upper Northwest and the proximity to the student population at American University.

A ground-floor restaurant would be an ideal tenant for the space and provide significant value to the community, but if the ANC or Zoning Commission requires parking, that won't be possible due to the topography.

Foregoing on-site parking will also help make the upstairs housing units more affordable. This is appropriate, as the cost of underground parking can cost as much as $40,000 per unit, a significant barrier to working-class people seeking to move to the Wisconsin Avenue corridor.

The site is also just a few hundred feet from the Metro station, is well-served by several bus routes, and is within walking distance of two grocery stores and other amenities.

Despite the fact that people who are willing to pay a premium to live directly next to a Metro station have fundamentally different travel patterns, with much lower car ownership and transit usage rates than the surrounding neighbors, Douglas Development is planning ahead for the few people who may own a car. The company proposes to aggressively pursue shared parking agreements with neighboring businesses with spaces that go unused every day.

Douglas could also help reduce driving demand further by providing amenities like car sharing spaces and dedicated bicycle parking. Supportive neighbors have recommended making both a part of the community benefits package.

While the predictable opponents of any change have opposed the Babe's development, city officials in Santa Monica, California, recently approved a very similar 56-unit mixed-use development without any off-street parking. This despite the fact that it will be at least a half decade until the light-rail Expo Line is extended to Santa Monica. The Babe's site already has Metro nearly at its doorstep.

If a mixed-use development can be built in car-centric Southern California without any off-street parking, years before a light rail connection will be provided to the neighborhood, DC's elected leaders and planning officials should have the courage to support a similar development in a walkable community, already well-served by transit.

I urge smart growth advocates to attend the ANC 3E meeting. The Babe's issue might not come up until later in the meeting (perhaps around 9:30pm), but if you come earlier, you can hear from the folks at Safeway who are planning to rebuild the store at 42nd and Ellicott Streets NW, along Wisconsin Avenue.

There are sure to be the usual opponents of any Wisconsin Avenue development in attendance, so the more proponents of a mixed-use development of the Babe's site in attendance, the better.

Steve Seelig is a long-time resident of Ward 3 interested in preserving its charms while expanding its reach along the transit-rich corridors to help make driving to more far-flung commercial districts a rarer occurrence.  


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Phew! At first I read the title as "free-parking", not "parking-free". 100% difference!

by MDE on Jan 11, 2012 12:17 pm • linkreport

On one hand, I want to believe that Doug Jemal is acting in accordance with good urbanist practices.

On the other, I know he's just being cheap.

(Seriously. How is this guy allowed to continue to build new developments when he doesn't pay taxes?)

by andrew on Jan 11, 2012 12:21 pm • linkreport

This is great. Tenleytown's first step into becoming a community, not a thoroughfare for MD residents driving towards downtown DC.

Of course, the backlash will come from those who want to maintain their "sleepy little town" feel, completely oblivious to the highway Wisconsin NW has become.

by cmc on Jan 11, 2012 12:25 pm • linkreport

This will be a good test to see if "good urbanism" can prevail over the sensibilities that have guided development in the District since the 1950's.

It is probably a combination of Jemal cheapness and good urbanism, but the end result is the same.

Let's see how the community responds.

by William on Jan 11, 2012 12:31 pm • linkreport

Mr. Jemal has done good for DC (at timeas when no one else was) and done well. Who cares why he wants to do the right thing as long as he's doing it?

by Crickey7 on Jan 11, 2012 12:35 pm • linkreport

I've heard that a common NIMBY complaint is that denser development begets more competition for on-street parking. If a builder chooses to provide no on-site parking that concern is sure to be heightened.

Would it be possible for the city to offer a prohibition for residents of the building from obtaining residential zone parking permits? In return the residents would be given a break on their property taxes (much like how the city currently credits condo owners for private garbage collection).

The credit for no residential zone parking should be the true economic value - not the token fee that current residents pay.

by JeffB on Jan 11, 2012 12:38 pm • linkreport

@Steve Seelig,

Foregoing on-site parking will also help make the upstairs housing units more affordable. This is appropriate, as the cost of underground parking can cost as much as $40,000 per unit, a significant barrier to working-class people seeking to move to the Wisconsin Avenue corridor.

I'm not sure what your definition of working-class people is but I don't think that, given the area and proximity to the Metro, there's much reason to believe the new housing units would be affordable for a household under $150K annual income without extra parking.

by Fitz on Jan 11, 2012 12:42 pm • linkreport

@JeffB Won't they already be getting a break because their housing value is less due to not having parking?

by William on Jan 11, 2012 1:03 pm • linkreport

Making used of currently unused adjacent spaces is a great idea. It would be an even better idea to have those agreements in place before going before the ANC or Zoning Commission.

by Adam L on Jan 11, 2012 1:08 pm • linkreport

Oh - good point. I overlooked that. In general when it comes to reducing car usage I prefer policies that disincentivize driving. So maybe just raise the residential parking permits to a realistic sum?

by JeffB on Jan 11, 2012 1:29 pm • linkreport

Good urbanism is supposed to be cheaper. Smaller lots reduce land costs, party walls reduce heating bills, smaller units mean less stuff (of course, you could just buy $3000 couches from West Elm, but still!), and so on. Jemal may be cheap, but at least it's for a good cause. (I am curious how much parking would add to the cost of these units. While I want more mixed-income housing in this part of the city, I'm not sure if taking out parking by itself can accomplish that.)

by dan reed! on Jan 11, 2012 1:39 pm • linkreport

A good plan. Thank you for the write-up. I hope it can break ground.

by Cavan on Jan 11, 2012 2:22 pm • linkreport

I don't think "cheap" is the right word. Frugal might be better. Cheap is buying something inexpensive solely because its inexpensive, frugal is buying something inexpensive because it's a better value. If Jemal could make more money with the parking in, he'd do that. But he doesn't think he can.

Being business friendly means letting business people make decisions that are in their best interest as long as they aren't harmful to the community. And I can't think of a compelling reason why we should force him to build parking.

by David C on Jan 11, 2012 2:59 pm • linkreport

@JeffB: So maybe just raise the residential parking permits to a realistic sum? Yes, that's probably the theoretically optimal approach. But given the broad base of DC residents who will oppose pricing increases on the parking permits they pay for, your initial idea is a far better one. Although perhaps there is room for a blended approach -- i.e. keep the low, flat fee in place but add a new, market-rate fee for residents of buildings constructed without parking.

Note also that without changing the structure of the residential parking permit fee from its current form (i.e. a single, citywide flat rate) to a neighborhood or zone-based market rate, the costs of an increase to the fee will fall disproportionately on lower-income residents in areas of the city with fewer nearby amenities and fewer public transportation options.

by Arl Fan on Jan 11, 2012 3:27 pm • linkreport

You can't seriously believe that Jemal is going to house the working class and deliver a sitdown restaurant at that site. He's had a for lease sign up for years there in a space that would work already for a sitdown restaurant and no takers.

by skeptical on Jan 11, 2012 4:13 pm • linkreport

In Arlington, a building like this (amount of parking less than the zoning based requirement) would be approved under a site plan and would therefore be ineligible for on street parking permits.

Why doesn't DC do this?

by Michael Perkins on Jan 11, 2012 4:41 pm • linkreport

Why doesn't DC do this?

They do, sometimes.

I don't see why, however. It's a blatant giveaway to existing residents, reinforcing the false idea that a public parking space on public property is somehow part of their rights.

by Alex B. on Jan 11, 2012 5:04 pm • linkreport

Alex, I think residents of Upper Northwest would absolutely tell you, without any hemming or hawing, they have a superior right to the parking (a) on their street and (b) in less crowded neighborhoods, the spaces in front of their house. And they'd work to vote out any public official who disagreed openly with them.

by Crickey7 on Jan 12, 2012 9:25 am • linkreport

Im not sure I want to venture into a moral disquisition on the ethical rights of existing residents beyond their formal legal rights - I think its more than zero, and less than those residents believe.

Allowing them a better deal on parking permits than the new development gets seems like a great way to achieve a pareto optimal solution - one where the major external cost of new development to existing residents is compensated or avoided, while new development is able to proceed apace. It seems far better than endless squabbling.

If DC wants to get caught up in long battles to prove, for ideological purposes, how limited their property rights actually are, Im quite sure Arlington will be happy to proceed with densification taking advantage of the overflowing demand.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 12, 2012 9:29 am • linkreport

If Doug J plans to build a residential building with no parking on the theory that all the residents will take Metro then he needs to put his money where his mouth it: enter into a covenant that the PUD will not be eligible for residential perking permit stickers. Other PUDs in DC have done that, to lessen the impact of more vehicles on already-crowded streets, and Arlington has a similar policy. This will ensure that a "parking free" project doesn't really become a "free parking" burden on local streets.

by Bert on Jan 12, 2012 1:38 pm • linkreport

@ Perkins, Bertie

Wells/Cheh proposed a law that would allow the Mayor to designate new buildings such as this Tenleytown one as ineligible for residential parking permits.

Councilmembers Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) proposed legislation that would allow the mayor to designate buildings whose residents would not be eligible for residential parking permits. The request would have to made by the building's owner, and no residents can be living in the building when the designation is granted. The idea has been tossed around as a way to encourage new residents to live car-free lives, and serves as something of a reversal of age-old regulations requiring a certain number of parking spots for every new residential and commercial development.

by Falls Church on Jan 12, 2012 1:59 pm • linkreport

More importantly, who wants to live (or dine) adjacent to the animal hospital? The smell on the block is awful!!!

by DoggieSit on Jan 13, 2012 12:46 pm • linkreport

I'll issue a $50 bet that if Jemal gets to plan approved, he will N.E.V.E.R. undertake the project. He will, first and foremost, avoid the higher property tax rate associated with undeveloped properties (although he seems to not pay either the lower or higher rate regardless. He will sell eventually sell the property -- reaping a considerable premium for securing these plan approvals -- to another developer. If a project with a substantial number of housing units is ultimately built on this site, it will either contain parking or include an agreement securing parking at a nearby location. The end result SHOULD then be viewed as both a victory and defeat by proponents and opponents alike. The ANC and DC agencies will look foolish.

by Tom M on Jan 13, 2012 2:13 pm • linkreport

@Tom M

Jemal NEVER sells. Thats how he keeps getting in these tax situations

by f on Jan 13, 2012 5:30 pm • linkreport

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