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Overlays, design standards, and zoning for neighborhood retail

Yesterday, I mentioned the ARTS overlay's restriction on restaurants. Only 25% of the street frontage, measured in linear feet, can be restaurants. The district (which includes commercial districts of U Street, 14th, P, and 7th near Florida) is already about 24% restaurants.

A retail space with multiple entrances, adaptible for smaller retailers. Photo by the Office of Planning.

On the one hand, there's merit in encouraging a mix of businesses (the purpose of the rule). However, restaurants are thriving there. Should we really prohibit any more? Plus, the ARTS overlay is very large. Why should a restaurant at 7th and Florida affect whether there can be one at 14th and S? If we are to have such a rule, it should apply over small distances.

Critics of Cleveland Park's similar overlay say that that limitation leads not to more diverse retail, but simply empty storefronts. There, at least, there isn't enough population to support more clothing boutiques or housewares. Defenders of the overlay argue that the real problem is poor enforcement in the past.

The new portion of the proposed 14th and S building includes four retail "bays", which could contain four doors to four separate stores. Inside, though, the architects are making the interior one large space. That gives flexibility to house one large store, four small ones, or something in between. And the Utopia project is similar, with two large retail spaces that could house single large stores or multiple stores.

It's sensible for architects to keep their options open, but it matters a lot to the neighborhood how many stores go in. The best walkable retail districts have many smaller stores, with closely-spaced entrances. One huge clothing retailer or Apple store or giant restaurant on 14th from S to Swann, even with a lot of glass, will create much less street activity than smaller ones.

As part of DC's zoning update, the Office of Planning has proposed setting caps on retailer size in certain retail districts where we want this. There's not yet any decision about which districts or what size caps are appropriate. The Zoning Commission should respond to OP's recommendations on December 8th, and most likely will adopt the concept.

The retail recommendations also include requirements for adaptability, ensuring that even if a ground floor will house just one large store or a law office today, smaller stores could use the space in the future. Design standards could require more closely-spaced entrances, limit the frontage taken up by large lobbies, and ensure active windows instead of the papered-over windows or blank walls common to large drugstores.

A recent Downtown zoning review meeting specifically discussed drugstores. In Vancouver's downtown, where drugstores are very profitable, the design standards actually require the drugstore to face the street with a series of "boutiques", each with its own entrance and containing a different type of product, like cosmetics, photo products, or cough medicine. We didn't have enough details at the meeting to know whether that specific rule would work in DC, but we needn't continue to suffer from huge, blank walls and poor retail diversity in our commercial corridors.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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This is why I'm so utterly opposed to Room and Board locating on 14th. Talk about a massive, monotonous storefront... And instead we could have had a 24 cafe with outdoor seating that engages the street.

Is that matter basically settled at this point? I really wish R&B would reconsider.

by SG on Nov 14, 2008 11:05 am • linkreport


I don't see what Room and Board has to do with storefronts. The question should relate to how that street frontage is designed and how the space might be subdivided in the future, not what retailer is behind the storefront.

I'm also a little disappointed to see Room and Board lumped in to the 'big box' morass. Maybe it's just my hometown longing for a Minnesota company, but Room and Board has a whopping total of 8 retail stores open right now in the entire country. This isn't exactly Best Buy. They make quality stuff. They're willing to pay money to take the space. The City Paper's blog had a great point that the developer wanted to get some local retail in there, but they just didn't have the money. This is a good outcome, not a bad one. I feel that's been lost in much of the discussion.

by Alex B. on Nov 14, 2008 11:15 am • linkreport

Alex, I heard from someone involved in the negotiations that the local developer had actually made a higher offer to purchase the building than R&B had.

by Lance on Nov 14, 2008 12:13 pm • linkreport


This was the article I was referring to. Granted, this is more or less the developer's word, but still - it's a perfectly plausible and reasonable scenario.

by Alex B. on Nov 14, 2008 12:48 pm • linkreport

Washington Business Journal has a nice update on the 14th and T project:^1732366

by dcvoterboy on Nov 14, 2008 12:57 pm • linkreport

Alex, Yeah I was going based on that article too (and the blogs) until I heard differently from someone with first-hand knowledge of the dealings. He told me with authority that Tryst had offered more for the spot (and the offer was to buy it and not rent it) than had R&B, and I believe him. There's still a lot of hearsay though regarding what is going on here, and because of that hearsay, I'm not convinced that this matter is a done deal yet.

by Lance on Nov 14, 2008 1:12 pm • linkreport

dcvoterboy, Yes, that article supports what I've being hearing. R&B going in to that spot isn't just a matter effecting the immediate neighbors as it was incorrectly handled by the Dupont ANC, but a matter affecting a wider swath crossing over ANC and Ward boundaries ... and is thus bringing in to play more folks than those originally included in the matter.

Incidentally, for those present at the last Dupont ANC meeting, did anyone else wonder why after all the criticism the ANC received in the last election for not being "open enough" it would choose to relegate public comments to "outside the doors/ after the presentation" with the excuse that "there's a lot on the agenda"?

Perhaps the problem is that there is too much on the agenda that doesn't belong there. For example, someone should tell the ANC that interpreting the Constitution isn't one of its duties. If it had stuck to dealing with issues which are its responsibility, it would have had plenty of time to hear public comment on the issues which it does have responsibility for ... such as advising the District agencies on matters of variances. Cutting the public out of this public meeting was really unacceptable. Any resulting resolution can't possibly fully take into account the constituents' views if the constituents haven't had a chance to give the commissioners there views based on the presentation. Saying "we know what our constituents want" is hardly a good substitute for actually hearing what their constituents want based on what those seeking the variance (or other matter) have laid out in their presentation. I left there thinking we'd heard all about our constitutional rights, but been given none of them.

It was a charade of democracy.

by Lance on Nov 14, 2008 1:27 pm • linkreport

The City Vista development in Mt Vernon Triangle which has the Safeway, 5th Street Hardware, Busboys and Poets still has just shy of 12000sf of retail space available. The remaining space is divided into 8 bays. Seven of the eight bays are on K Street beneath the Results gym. One bay is isolated (and presently used by the condo sales team) on 5th Street, 3 are clustered together and the final four are also in a cluster. All 8 of these bays have their own doors to the sidewalk. Future tenants may combine adjacent bays but the design allows for small spaces.

by FourthandEye on Nov 14, 2008 1:36 pm • linkreport

Anywhere there are empty storefronts on an otherwise healthy street, my first question is going to be how much is being asked for rent.

If you can't fill you space, lower your rent.

by BeyondDC on Nov 14, 2008 1:46 pm • linkreport

Here's the latest on Room and Board from the Washington Business Journal. The above link from dcvoterboy is the paid link. This is the free one.

Room and Board update. It basically sounds like the building over needed the cash now and couldn't wait for the diner proposal to get their cash together.

by inlogan on Nov 14, 2008 2:19 pm • linkreport

Ok for some reason whatever your website is doing to the links during the posting of a comment is removing the specific part of the URL that allows a story to be read for free on WBJ. Can you please fix this, David? There's a carrot and an additional number at the end of a link that allows the full story to be read. You can find the correct address on the main page of the Washington Business Journal. Your comment program strips this out when you hit Post Comment.

by inlogan on Nov 14, 2008 2:22 pm • linkreport

Lance, even if your source is reliable and a higher offer was made by the diner-comedy group, it does not mean that it was as viable an offer as the one that was ultimately accepted. From all reports, this looks like a done deal. So, why keep going on about it? The comment by a local furniture store owner in today's WBJ - that he's worried because Room and Board sells the same model lamp at sixty dollars less - is ludicrous. If someone wants that lamp, or other products for less, they simply buy it online.

by Amy on Nov 14, 2008 2:43 pm • linkreport

Amy, I wasn't commenting on the merits of local vs. national retailers. (I see and agree with your point that one can just go on line if need be ... and I am the last person who would oppose national retailers. I wish we had more in the District.) I was simply commenting that it may not be "a done deal" yet. I was talking to someone who's been asked by "someone higher than the ANC" to work with Tryst at getting in to the space. I wouldn't place any orders from R&B just yet ... Getting your orders might involve shipping charges from Chicago.

by Lance on Nov 14, 2008 3:36 pm • linkreport

Lance, the "someone higher than the ANC" - are you referring to Jim Graham? The negative campaign aimed at R+B is shameful.

by Devan on Nov 14, 2008 6:38 pm • linkreport

Devan, I think R&B is peripheral to the whole issue. I.e., There isn't a campaign for or against it ... in my opinion. The matter has to do with the Tryst proposal. Period. I think it's more a matter that not all the stakeholders were involved in the initial negotiations ... but they are now. Personally, if R&B ends up not getting the spot, I hope they end up somewhere else in the District as I hear they are a very good store.

by Lance on Nov 14, 2008 7:12 pm • linkreport

Lance, your 'opinion' aside, the fact is that a negative campaign to try to get Room and Board to walk from the deal is underway, thanks to the group who did not get the building. Organizing to bombard Room and Board executives with emails telling them they're not wanted is part of the campaign. They also appealed to Jim Graham to stop the deal. Perhaps you can tell us - if the Tryst proposal wasn't accepted in the first place, why do you think it would go through now?

by Devan on Nov 15, 2008 9:36 am • linkreport

Devan, It sounds like you know far more about what is going on behind the scenes than I do. I didn't even realize there was any sort of "campaign" underway ... though now that I've read your posting, I can see how there might be. I guess I hadn't put all the pieces together. Why do I think it would go through now ... ? I don't necessarily. Do you?

Personally, I'd much rather see a Tryst go in that location as that cooridor is supposed to be developing as an Arts destination and a diner/comedy club fits in much better with that plan than does a furniture warehouse. I'm also a bit concerned about all the 18-wheeler traffic that a furniture warehouse would generate for our neighborhood streets ... especially, since other furniture warehouses would be sure to follow once this precedent was set. But the ANC chair has assured me he can handle such traffic concerns.

by Lance on Nov 15, 2008 9:53 am • linkreport

Lance, my info is from blog posts. And there have been plenty of posts that show the effort to stop the furniture store from coming to the location. I read that the location is intended for use as a showroom or store, not a warehouse. Distribution/delivery centers are typically located elsewhere. Do you have info that shows otherwise? Maybe you have a source who knows about their delivery operation?

by Devan on Nov 15, 2008 11:30 am • linkreport


I don't know anything more about R&B than what I've read on here. Are you saying they operate as a showroom ... like Vastu ... where you go in and see what you want to buy, and then order it and pay to get it delivered from a warehouse to your home? Or will they be selling directly out of their 14th Street location. I'd assumed the latter because someone on another blog had posted that this place is going to employ 30 individuals. That's a lot of people for just a showroom ... even if you count part-timers.

by Lance on Nov 15, 2008 12:08 pm • linkreport


I did some googling and found a job posting in Monster.Com that Room and Board posted looking for:

Delivery Market Manager (Distribution Manager)

Room & Board is a progressive national retailer of contemporary home furnishings. We take a unique approach to business by offering well designed home furnishings and accessories. We are focused on providing the best possible experience and inspiration for our customer.

With anticipation of opening a new store Washington DC, we are looking for a Delivery Market Manager to manage our Washington DC Delivery Center with market sales estimated to generate $30 million and a team of 30+ staff members.

What is the "Washington DC Delivery Center" and where in Washington DC do they plan to locate it? It's very likely that it won't be co-located with the showroom. But these are the kind of questions we need to ask. Usually when there is a national retailer of this size interested in coming in to the District, you have the District government involved in trying to get it in here. I.e., They don't usually just 'show up on their own'. Does anyone know who in DC has been working with Room & Board to bring them in?

by Lance on Nov 16, 2008 10:40 am • linkreport

inlogan: I've fixed the carat problem. The URL recognizer wasn't considering the part after the carat a legal part of the URL, so it was getting left out when the URLs were getting cleaned for printing. As you can see, your original link is correct now.

by David Alpert on Nov 16, 2008 10:25 pm • linkreport

It sounds like the Tryst deal would have run up against the 25% restaurant restriction (although, maybe it would have been small enough to fit into the 1% that is apparently left). So maybe the discussion is a little misplaced? I think it makes more sense to think about the overall rules/regulations/restrictions than any one proposal, and regardless of anything happening at any one location, I think it makes sense to up the 25% restriction. The area as a whole certainly doesn't feel "overloaded" with restaurants now (though there are a number of them). And more outdoor seating would be nice.

by U Street Res on Nov 17, 2008 11:39 am • linkreport

U Street, Good observation about that lack of sufficient outdoor seating in the area. The sidewalk on U Street is too narrow for any outdoor seating, but 14th is wide enough, especially if it can be combined with "around the corner down the side street" seating as would have been the case at this location. Ironically, some of these best corner locations often end up going to uses where no seating is required (e.g., banks). If we're going to restrict the percentage of curblane that can be used for restaurants, then we should similarly "reserve" the corner properties for them.

by Lance on Nov 17, 2008 6:10 pm • linkreport

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