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What's in the zoning update: Corner stores

This is the first of a series of articles diving deeply into the details of an aspect of the zoning code. Today, we'll look at corner stores.

Right now, in residential zones, stores are illegal except for the few grandfathered in. The Office of Planning wants to allow a few of them in areas far from commercial corridors, subject to lots of restrictions to try to keep them from disrupting residents or overrunning the area.

Photo by rockcreek on Flickr.

With this, like many of the proposals, some people are steadfastly opposed to any stores encroaching into residential areas whatsoever. Others think that we shouldn't even have the restrictions. Personally, I think that the corner store proposal is a good idea, and OP could and should make it a little less restrictive than they propose.

Please come to one of the upcoming public meetings on the zoning code, Saturday in Southwest, Tuesday 12/11 in Penn Quarter, or Thursday 12/13 in Anacostia. A lot of people opposed to any change will be there; we need people there to support the proposal or, perhaps, push OP to move a little in the other direction.

Proposal allows corner stores in row house areas

The corner store proposal only applies to the moderate density row house zones, currently designated R-3 (example: Georgetown), R-4 (example: Capitol Hill) and R-5-A (example: Marshall Heights).

It does not change anything in detached house house zones (like Chevy Chase), attached house zones (like Queens Chapel), or the denser row house zones like Dupont Circle.

In the below map, the zones that could get corner stores appear in red, purple, and light blue.

Low and moderate density residential zones as of 2008.

List of restrictions aim to protect against impacts

Beyond limiting the proposal to a subset of zones, there is a further set of rules limiting corner stores to certain buildings, certain parts of neighborhoods, and certain types of stores. Here is the draft text, from the latest draft OP has released:

402.2 Arts Design and Creation, Food and Alcohol Service, Retail, and Service uses are permitted by-right [in the relevant zones] subject to the following conditions:

(a) There shall be no Mixed Use or Mixed Use Transit zones within five hundred feet (500 ft.) of the lot.

(b) There shall be no more than three other Arts Design and Creation, Retail, or Service uses and no more than one other Food and Alcohol Service use within five hundred feet (500 ft.) of the lot.

(c) If the lot is an interior or through lot, the building must have been built:

    1. Prior to [INSERT DATE HERE]; and
    2. For the purpose of a non-residential use, as established by permit records or other historical documents accepted by the Zoning Administrator.
(d) Except for the Arts Design and Creation uses listed below, the use shall not occupy or use any space above the ground story:
    1. Apartment accessory to an artist studio; and
    2. Artist live-work space.
(e) The use shall not exceed one thousand, two hundred square feet (1,200 sq.ft.) in total floor area.

(f) The use shall not operate between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m.

(g) The maximum number of employees, including the owner, on site at any time shall be three.

(h) Only one external sign may be displayed on the building's facade, provided that the sign is not illuminated and is flush-mounted.

(i) All storage of materials and garbage shall occur indoors.

(j) Any parking shall be fully screened from all adjacent properties, streets and alleys in a manner consistent with 802.1.

(k) For any Food and Alcohol Service use, there shall be no sale of liquor for on-site consumption.

Arts Design and Creation uses may also be allowed as accessory uses subject to the conditions of E 404.1.

In the zones now called R-5-A, the densest of the zones allowing corner stores, there are a few differences. Condition (c), which limits stores to actual corner buildings or buildings that were historically commercial, doesn't apply. The total size can be up to 2,000 square feet instead of 1,200.

Finally, it adds that:

The Board of Zoning Adjustment may waive up to three (3) of the conditions of this subsection by special exception, subject to Subtitle Y Chapter 8, provided that E 402.3(a) [no mixed-use zones within 500 feet] and (c) [nothing above the ground story except for arts] may not be waived.
OP listened to your previous feedback on restriction (f), the limit on hours, and pushed the allowable hours to 7 am to 10 pm. The initial proposal was for 8 am to 7 pm, and many of you said that this would make it impossible for many people who work to patronize any stores that might open.

This is a start, but possibly still too restrictive

OP is treading very lightly, because there is a lot of nervousness in some quarters about the proposal. Ironically, though, most of the pushback has come from people in single-family zones, like upper Northwest, where this won't change a thing.

A lot of people don't actually know what kind of zone they live in. I was speaking to one councilmember who thought this wasn't a good idea because the block where the member lives wouldn't be right for a corner store. However, upon further discussion, it turned out that the block was part of an R-2 zone, where this wouldn't apply.

In the actual row house zones, this could give people many new options for local retail. I worry, however, that it's so strict that we'll get almost no stores.

The limit to corner buildings and historically commercial buildings leaves few options. Corners are better, but they're almost all occupied now. It might take a long time for more than vanishingly few corner buildings to come on the market, and for someone to want to open a store there.

The restriction that the store can't be near a mixed-use zone (now called a commercial zone) is intended to keep the stores from competing with existing local commercial condos corridors. That makes sense in most places, but often there are mixed-use zoned areas with no or little actual retail space.

Florida Avenue around LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale, for example, is "mixed-use zoned" along its length, but has very few commercial buildings. There's no way to even get an exception for these. Also, the zones now called "Special Purpose" (SP-1 and SP-2) will right be "mixed use" zones under the new rules, but there's a great variety of buildings in those zones (such as New Hampshire Avenue in Dupont), not necessarily commercial.

A better rule would simply count actual stores nearby, instead of counting land zoned that could possibly hold stores if it doesn't.

I would also suggest having the rules let the BZA waive up to 3 of the restrictions even in the R-3 and R-4 zones, and making all restrictions eligible. The special exception process lets neighbors object to changes, and so if a store wants to open near a mixed-use zone with no actual retail space, or in a non-corner building, the hearing provides an opportunity to oppose it.

Finally, this should apply to R-5-B zones as well. There isn't a lot of R-5-B that's not near commercial corridors, but no reason to exclude the areas that do exist.

What do you think?

Please post your thoughts in the comments and try to attend one of the upcoming meetings. These meetings are the best chance to get more positive changes into the document before it moves on to the Zoning Commission.

After OP hears from residents, they will revise the proposal in a more or less progressive direction. Then, they will submit text to the Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local body that has the final say on all zoning issues. The ZC is unlikely to make the proposal any more progressive than it is, but they might dial it back if they get too much opposition.

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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The Tom Coumaris Bat Signal has been activated!

A conservative approach seems like a good idea here; let people get used to a few examples and see that they aren't destroying the neighborhood before expanding options. Regardless, though, I think there will be some significant opposition from residents in the R-5-A zones EOTR, particularly those clustered in CM Barry's ward. Dirty Asian Shops(TM), coming to a rowhouse near you!

by Dizzy on Dec 4, 2012 1:04 pm • linkreport

small typo
"This is a start, but possibly still to restrictive"
it should read "too restrictive"

go ahead and delete this comment once the change is made

by MW on Dec 4, 2012 1:14 pm • linkreport

Fixed, thanks.

by David Alpert on Dec 4, 2012 1:16 pm • linkreport

The restriction that the store can't be near a mixed-use zone (now called a commercial zone) is intended to keep the stores from competing with existing local commercial condos. That makes sense in most places, but often there are mixed-use zoned areas with no or little actual retail space.

Why does that make sense? Seems like the point of that reg. is to protect incumbent business owners which is just simple rent seeking. Unless I'm missing something. If that's the only justification for the zoning I don't see why that should be allowed.

by drumz on Dec 4, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

I'd love functional corner stores. I would love to be able to run to the corner store to pick up OJ. I find having to schelp all the way to Safeway a real pain when all I need is a box of cereal.

by Birdie on Dec 4, 2012 1:59 pm • linkreport

Maybe the restriction on corner stores near mixed-use zones was also intended to make them strictly neighborhood-serving, rather than attracting unwanted (by neighborhood residents) additional traffic from elsewhere? Like, if there's already an existing mixed-use zone that people from outside the neighborhood travel to for shopping, a new corner store nearby might be an additional draw for those pesky not-from-the-neighborhood people?

That was my first thought, anyway, since that seems to be a big concern for a lot of folks in the heavily residential neighborhoods (based on what I hear them saying -- I live in an R-5-B zone by choice, so that's not where I'm coming from myself).

by iaom on Dec 4, 2012 2:02 pm • linkreport


I guess. But A. wouldn't that store have to be a special boutique? Who travels out of their way for a specific convenience store? and B. if you don't want people from out of your neighborhood to come into to yours then that's pretty unreasonable from the get-go. C. People already park in neighborhoods to go to stuff on a commercial street. What's the difference if the store is now in the residential area itself?

by drumz on Dec 4, 2012 2:14 pm • linkreport

I for one would like to see fewer corner stores on capitol hill, especially given that many of them sell singles to homeless people who then loiter around the neighborhood drunkenly disturbing people.

by MJ on Dec 4, 2012 2:16 pm • linkreport

I realize this will never happen, but the thing that strikes me as most ridiculous about our current system is the map itself. Look at that thing! It's way too complicated and arbitrary (why the hell is there an island of R-5 in the middle of Hillendale?)

I wonder if a "heat map" type system would work better. So rather than have rigid lines where one block is X and the next Y, it would be a spectrum with standards gradually changed from block to block.

by TM on Dec 4, 2012 2:32 pm • linkreport

The irony is that many people in Ward 3 are complaining bitterly about this proposal, yet one of the greatest "third spaces" in the District is the Broadbranch Market in the Ward 3 portion of Chevy Chase, DC.

by Andrew on Dec 4, 2012 2:39 pm • linkreport

What the 'corner store' and ancillary business zoning modifications really are, is the expansion of commercial zones into adjacent residential zones. The reasons for it are multiple, but chief among them is that the established commercial areas like in Adams Morgan, Woodley Park, Cleveland Park, even Chevy Chase DC are changing. They are becoming more retail and restaurant 'destinations', meaning that they draw patrons from a much wider area. As areas redevelop and rents rise, the traditional neighborbood serving retail uses are being squeezed out. Either they can be protected, as some areas have tried to do with zoning overlays, or they can be pushed off the traditional commercial strips into adjacent residential areas. While the good news as a result is that some neighborhood-serving retail will remain, the externalities of commercial businesses such as trash, deliveries, rats, etc. get pushed closer to homes.

by Alf on Dec 4, 2012 2:46 pm • linkreport

1) Why are the row houses and apartment buildings opposite Walter Reed R-5-B instead of A? Is is because there is already a nice amount of commercial real estate within a short walk?

2) How do rules like these affect planning for new developments like whatever will happen in the end to the Walter Reed campus?

by gooch on Dec 4, 2012 2:55 pm • linkreport

Andrew +1; the two corner markets on the 400 block of E. Capitol aren't quite as great as Broad Branch Market but are still useful examples.

Anyway, the corner store argument vis-a-vis the zoning update is really a chimera. The way the real estate market and the retail sector economy works, the likelihood of this happening from the ground up now is almost impossible. The cost of land in DC is too high for the typical revenue/s.f. that these stores are likely to generate.

Broad Branch can do it because the area is relatively dense and with high household income, and the store sells higher priced products, including high value prepared foods (they might even do catering) than are typical of "corner markets".

by Richard Layman on Dec 4, 2012 3:00 pm • linkreport

I for one would like to see fewer corner stores on capitol hill, especially given that many of them sell singles to homeless people who then loiter around the neighborhood drunkenly disturbing people.

On my end of capitol hill, at least, singles are banned. It's been pretty effective, although annoying when you want to buy one Guinness for an Irish lamb stew recipe.

by lou on Dec 4, 2012 3:06 pm • linkreport

Georgetown is not a good example as Georgetown has recently gotten itself exempted from the "corner store" provision. And last night Harriet T. was repeatedly asked if, as she contends, Dupont Circle would have almost no place where a "corner store" could open, why Dupont Circle cannot also get an exemption written in. (Of course once it's in, the 500' rule could be more easily lowered).

There is a desperate need, totally unrecognized by OP, for some remedy on commercial portions of mostly residential blocks. The part of a commercial square that faces not the commercial street but the residential street on the square's side should be lower zoned- perhaps an SP zone. Along 14th we have mostly R-3 residential side street blocks but the portions of the block face that face the residential blocks have the same high zoning as 14th, putting new high commercial uses totally on the residential side
streets and next to R-3 houses on the side blocks. That doesn't work well.

And yes, corner stores are worlds different in the east of the city and the west. But the provision applies to many other commercial uses than just retail.

by Tom Coumaris on Dec 4, 2012 4:10 pm • linkreport

Corner stores are a great idea, but how can they compete with the WalMarts and Costcos that are coming into DC?

by ceefer66 on Dec 4, 2012 4:26 pm • linkreport

Theres on here in capital riverfront, Ceefer. I sometimes get coffee there, or a sandwich. They also carry gourmet type products, which I guess are purchased by car free residents of the neighborhood.

The new Harris Teeter two blocks away is probably a much bigger threat to them than walmart or costco.

by MStreetDenizen on Dec 4, 2012 4:38 pm • linkreport

Corner stores are a hallmark of a civilized society. It is a problem that DC was never able to accept them as part of the urban landscape.

by JustMe on Dec 4, 2012 4:44 pm • linkreport

DC did accept them. But in the many years of the old zoning code, coincident with the decline of the city, many failed. This is an example though of problems with the approach to the rewrite and not developing a casebook of examples (for this, adus, etc.) to show existing examples of this in DC, photos etc., case studies, to demonstrate that it isn't outlandish.

Rather than prematurely ban them anywhere, they should require a special exception process. I don't like the idea of neighborhoods being able to say "no" without any review whatsoever.

by Richard Layman on Dec 4, 2012 4:54 pm • linkreport

@ ceefer66:
"Corner stores are a great idea, but how can they compete with the WalMarts and Costcos that are coming into DC?"

For the same reason that the 7-11 next to my building, and another just a couple of blocks away, do just fine in spite of a Giant, Safeway, and Whole Foods all less than a 5 minute drive (or 10 minute walk) from each. We go to the convenience stores because, well, they are convenient.

I think a store with the basics, a bit of personality, and a good sandwich counter can survive in almost any neighborhood of at least row-house sort of density.

by gooch on Dec 4, 2012 5:58 pm • linkreport

gooch +1,
Isn't this like the live work stuff in the suburbs? I don't see what the apprehension about having some smaller stores sprinkled around. The ones that work will bring exactly the thing that neighborhoods crave, a "third place" where the shop owner becomes invested in the community. How else would a mom and pop compete with the bigger stores? They used to be all over.

by Thayer-D on Dec 5, 2012 3:51 am • linkreport

Having lived in Oxford, UK with corner stores at the end of my block (and other neighborhood amenities spread through the community), I applaud the effort but the zoning is too restrictive, especially concerning the hours of operation. From personal experience, the times when I really needed to visit the corner stores for items were not between 7a and 10p!

by Thad on Dec 5, 2012 10:48 am • linkreport

Having recently moved to DC from Brooklyn, NY, I'm amazed that residents would reject corner stores all. Local, small retail is what energizes the streets, builds real community pride and establishes a sense of place. If anything it would decrease car traffic by not having to drive to pick up a snack on the way home. I'm not a planner or an expert on zoning, but I know what makes a wonderful neighborhood, and DC needs more of those...

by AJG on Dec 5, 2012 12:46 pm • linkreport

I love all the corner stores we have on Capitol Hill and would love to see more in other neighborhoods. However, the proposed rules do seem too restrictive. For example, if I buy a 2-story building on a corner in one of the designated areas, I would like for it be legal for the owner of the business or building to live above it. The way I interpret it now it appears that is not allowed. I know of a corner store now where the adult kids who help run the store live upstairs. This was great during the big snow storm because the store stayed open. Why is DC so adverse to live/work space?

by LF on Dec 5, 2012 2:09 pm • linkreport

I grew up in Detroit, and too around corner stores. Those that have them are a huge part of the local neighborhood. I cannot begin to tell you how many times my mom sent me to the corner store to pick up a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, some eggs, and yes (to my youthful horror) -- femine products.
I also provides a reason to get out of the house, to walk a block or two and not have to drive a car a couple miles to a supermarket just because you need to pick up a bag of sugar.

by Ray B on Dec 5, 2012 4:36 pm • linkreport

Marion Barry aside, there are neighborhoods where corner stores sell bongs, papers for rolling joints and other drug related items. There are corner stores where crowds stand outside to sell drugs. There are corner stores who seem to sell a lot of single use items that litter the surrounding blocks. There may be legitimate reasons for concerns about this legislation. Hopefully, these concerns can be addressed in a way that bodes well for all neighborhoods.

by CRJeff on Dec 5, 2012 4:40 pm • linkreport

Having recently moved to DC from Brooklyn, NY, I'm amazed that residents would reject corner stores all.

Welcome to DC. Residents' concerns, spoken and unspoken, tend to revolve around the following issues:

(a) they wanted a residential neighborhood, and their vision for that is that their DC neighborhood should be a mirror image of the residential character of their wealthier peers out in Potomac

(b) As CRJeff said, when they think "corner store", they think liquor store and place for drug dealers to loiter

(c) Owning a store and engaging in commerce is considered to be suspicious and sketchy, regarded as the business of someone invading their neighborhood and seeking to "take money from the community" or generally "put on airs" to raise himself above the various 9-5 government employees who just want a residential suburban neighborhood to return to at the end of their day.

Some of this has its origins in DC's overall persona as a small southern town.

by JustMe on Dec 5, 2012 4:58 pm • linkreport


There are stores in nice neighborhoods that sell drug paraphernalia, with little to no detriment to the surrounding area. It has more to do with the surrounding population than what the store sells.

by Shane on Dec 6, 2012 1:15 pm • linkreport

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