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Hill East changes tune on commercial strip

Do you want "commercial" uses in your neighborhood? Proposals for corner stores or commercial zoning can yield some great enthusiasm or strong antipathy. Often, this seems to depend on whether their experiences with local businesses have been good or bad.

Pretzel Bakery. Photo by Brian Flahaven.

In one part of Capitol Hill, residents once wanted to rezone 15th Street SE to eliminate an existing commercial strip, but 10 years later, many feel much more affectionately about the neighborhood businesses that have opened, and might prefer to keep the commercial strip around.

ANC Commissioner Brian Flahaven explains the history of zoning debates around this commercial corridor:

For most of the past decade, residents' experience with retail along this corridor has been negative. In the early 2000s, residents complained about crime and loitering around the now defunct New Dragon restaurant. And some residents also voiced concern that developers were taking advantage of the commercial zoning to build tall residential-only buildings along the corridor (C-2-A allows buildings up to 50 feet high compared to 40 feet for R-4).

In 2003, ANC 6B supported a request made by several frustrated 15th Street residents to rezone 15th Street SE from the commercial C-2-A to the residential R-4.

Current zoning in Hill East. Image from the DC Zoning Map.

The Zoning Commission did not change the zoning, but DC's Comprehensive Plan started showing the area as residential, rather than commercial or mixed-use.

Comprehensive Plan's Future Land Use Map.

When the Office of Planning finishes the zoning update, it could be an opportunity to change the zoning. But do residents still want that? Flahaven thinks perhaps not:

This past year saw the opening of two popular food establishments along the corridor—The Pretzel Bakery and Crepes on the Corner. The Pretzel Bakery (340 15th Street SE) has been a huge hit. And while Crepes on the Corner (257 15th Street SE) unfortunately closed, most Hill East residents I've talked to enjoyed having a place to grab coffee and lunch in the neighborhood. Southeast Market (1500 Independence Ave SE) was also recently sold and renovated. All three of these establishments are or were positive additions to the neighborhood.

While 15th Street will never be a Barracks Row, I can certainly envision a future time when the corridor acts as a small neighborhood serving commercial zone located halfway between the heavier retail activity around Eastern Market and the future retail activity on Reservation 13. Rezoning 15th Street to R-4 would eliminate future opportunities for restaurants, cafes and shops along the corridor.

With a change in the retail mix, people can now see the commercial corridor as a positive contribution to the neighborhood rather than a blight. Attitudes about living near stores also are continuing to evolve, as more people who want to be within a short walk of shops and restaurants move into urban neighborhoods.

Hill East had a commercially-zoned area already, and since the effort to zone it out didn't succeed, that neighborhood still has the chance to welcome more beloved local markets and eateries. But in many neighborhoods, there aren't commercial corridors for new businesses to start in. Some, like Big Bear Coffee in Bloomingdale, end up occupying buildings that were once commercial but whose zoning is now residential, which sets them up for a big zoning fight when someone objects. More often, neighborhoods just don't get any stores.

The zoning update's corner store proposal will allow just a few of these—maybe too few. To some residents in the neighborhoods that could get them, the idea of commercial zoning conjures up images of problem shops, especially the ones that are mainly liquor stores and draw intoxicated customers. To others, it's the beloved local shop that adds to convenience and makes the neighborhood more appealing.

The corner store rules try to limit the actual impacts of commercial uses, such as trash (it can't be stored outdoors) or early morning or late night noise (stores can't be open outside 10 am-7 pm 7 am-10 pm). Any such set of rules, though, can't be perfect. If they keep out all of the businesses residents don't want, they'll also keep out many that they do.

Beyond the corner store rules, we also simply need to ensure there are enough neighborhood commercial corridors with real commercial zoning. There, businesses can open next to one another and benefit from each other attracting foot traffic. In Hill East, a commercial strip on 15th Street may become an asset to the neighborhood, and other neighborhoods need equivalents of their own.

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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Thankfully, the Big Bear Cafe upzoning fight from R-4 to C-2-A is over. The Big Bear property achieved it pursued zoning change up to C-2-A.

by Scott Roberts on Dec 26, 2012 2:37 pm • linkreport

More evidence on how zoning is used to do things it's not meant to do. In the china king example, how could have zoning prevented unsavory characters (in someone's view) from hanging out at a residence? If someone is breaking a law then call the police. Don't involved the planning dept. in your dispute with people you don't like otherwise you're infringing on people's ability to make a living for themselves in the future because of your dispute today. I'm glad some neighbors realized this before it was too late.

by drumz on Dec 26, 2012 3:04 pm • linkreport

Gotta love the comments on Brian Flahaven's blog. Only in DC would someone describe a 5-story building as a "tower."

Glad to see that people seem to be in favor of keeping it commercial. It's just C-2-A, almost the lowest-density commercial zoning you can do in DC! Seems like this strip could grow into what 11th st NW is becoming up in Columbia Heights - some restaurants and other cool shops.

by MLD on Dec 26, 2012 4:00 pm • linkreport

Are the proposed hours definitely 10AM-7PM? I thought they had been expanded past that. If not, it's a missed opportunity--I'd imagine being open until 10PM would be much better in terms of capturing after-work traffic.

by Dan Miller on Dec 26, 2012 4:04 pm • linkreport

The 7:00 closing seems especially unsuited for Capitol Hill, where it's certainly not rare for staff to work past 7:00.

by Ben Ross on Dec 26, 2012 4:38 pm • linkreport

Oops, the proposal is that corner stores in residential zones can be open from 7 am-10 pm, not 10 am-7 pm as I originally posted. Sorry for the error; I've corrected the text.

by David Alpert on Dec 26, 2012 5:47 pm • linkreport

Whew. That wasn't the first time I had seen the 7 PM closing bouncing around, and store hours like that are basically useless outside of weekends, when I have the time to trek over to a larger store. The corner stores around my former home on the Hill were open until between 9 and 10 PM, and that was perfect when you've worked a long day and just want a frozen pizza (or a pint of Ben & Jerry's...depends on just how bad the day was) and some sleep.

by Ms. D on Dec 26, 2012 6:08 pm • linkreport

Good to see more commercial in Hill East, but I'd expect the area immediately around Potomac Ave metro to build out a little more first. There are still a few vacant or underutilized lots adjacent to Pennsylvania Ave SE.

by Nicoli on Dec 26, 2012 7:31 pm • linkreport

Mr Alpert: you are reporting only half of the story. That New Dragon "restaurant" was never a place to eat; it was a well-known drug front that took the neighbors about ten years to close. If *I* knew you could buy crack cocaine there, its real purpose was not a secret.

You did not describe, and thus discount, the huge effort to get this place closed. Nearby residents had to do everything they could, including getting a zoning change. The place was a cancer that affected the street life and property values for many blocks. In particular it put a damper on parents letting their children play a block away at Payne.

by goldfish on Dec 29, 2012 1:36 am • linkreport


It's a tradeoff. Zoning is an extremely long-term and blunt instrument. Using it to shut down a nuisance business can have long-term effects on the vitality of the area. There are other ways to shut these places down. The other point is that attitudes have changed - people see the value to these smaller commercial areas and so we should try to preserve them while getting rid of obvious nuisances.

by MLD on Dec 29, 2012 11:09 am • linkreport

I lived here in the days of New Dragon as well. I wasn't, and still am not, comfortable with the idea that focusing on New Dragon was the answer to the endemic drug/violence problem on that corner. But goldfish isn't necessarily wrong. As we move forward to welcoming retail and corner stores, and I hope we do, we should remember that there was a time in very recent memory that this commercial corridor was unsafe and examine the reasons why.

Personally, I think New Dragon was more a symptom of chronic neighborhood issues of unemployed men hanging out, using drugs, and shooting each other (and once a police officer). We had a similar issue on 17th and Independence but no one advocated getting rid of the house they all hung out at.

by Tim Krepp on Dec 29, 2012 11:22 am • linkreport

@MLD: There are other ways to shut these places down.

I was not involved with this; but I think your assessment of the situation is glib. The guys hanging out here were making good money, armed, lawyered, and not so easily chased away. Drastic measures were called for.

by goldfish on Dec 29, 2012 4:50 pm • linkreport

The fact is that area of 15th is NEVER going to be a "retail hub" - there just aren't enough people out and about - particularly during the week. Business need people beyond just Saturday and Sunday to succeed.

I grew up in New Orleans which seems to have more "odd" location business that become go-to places so I liked having a sit down, low key place to eat like the Crepes on the Corner. Obviously how a business is run and how it interacts with the community plays a large part in whether or not is one of those acceptable businesses.

It seems to me that changing the zoning when there are few things that are really affected may be cutting your nose off to spite your face.

by ET on Dec 30, 2012 2:33 pm • linkreport

I'm a relatively new resident to the Hill East neighborhood, so I can't speak to the problems associated with New Dragon, but I was a huge fan of Crepes on the Corner. While it was a bit pricey, I really appreciated having a place nearby to sit down for a light meal or coffee or grab a few quality grocery items. Based on its apparent popularity, I wasn't alone. Its really too bad that it closed (anyone know why?), but I am hopeful that something else will come in to replace it.

Thanks for covering this issue. I am also hopeful about the new zoning provision allowing for corner stores in residential neighborhoods- I think it would be a real benefit to many neighborhoods. I realize that people are concerned about attracting crime, but I agree with MLD that in many cases rezoning isn't the best option.

by Hill East Rez on Dec 30, 2012 2:54 pm • linkreport

Changing the zoning is not a drastic measure, it is an unrelated measure. Yes, the New Dragon was a problem, but changing the zoning addresses neither the symptoms of the problem nor the root cause.

by Alex B. on Dec 31, 2012 11:14 am • linkreport

Alex B: I get the distinct feeling that you were not walking by these threatening, ugly characters very often. A daily encounter will quickly change one's view of what is expedient.

Remember that 12 years ago, these business were not the inviting, beautific yuppy places that are there today; they were run-down, laden with trash and surrounded with rusted chain link fences. This is far away from the major arteries, and these places were never going to amount to the serviceable and welcoming row of shops that existed on 8th St. (that has since become tony).

So on top of these problems there were the ne'er-do-wells hanging out, selling drugs and generally making this area uninhabitable, directly across the street from an elementary school. Let me repeat: uninhabitable. It had been this way for years. Given the situation, a zoning change probably was the only way to chase these guys out.

by goldfish on Dec 31, 2012 11:47 am • linkreport


And then what? Some empty storefronts that may have eventually been torn down and turned into houses? Vacant buildings may have been preferable but it certainly isn't a quality replacement. So like Alex said, changing the zoning may have stopped that instance but didn't actually do anything to solve the problem on either end.

What could have been done if it was simply a house?

by drumz on Dec 31, 2012 11:51 am • linkreport

I very much doubt that changing the zoning would chase away a business like the New Dragon. You change the zoning and existing uses are grandfathered in to the law.

We see this right now with the zoning update, where we want to now allow corner stores in places like Capitol Hill. The Hill still has some corner stores that have been grandfathered in to the law since the original zoning code outlawed them in 1958. Fifty four years later, they're still here.

I don't doubt the neighbors felt like the had to 'do something,' but that doesn't mean that any action they take will actually work to solve e problem.

Zoning is a limited tool. If you cannot understand the limits of that tool, you will at best not accomplish your goal. At worst, you will actively harm an otherwise robust urban, mixed use environment. It is the urban policy equivalent of bloodletting.

Short of the urban renewal schemes of just bulldozing everything, I don't know what else could be more harmful.

by Alex B. on Dec 31, 2012 1:23 pm • linkreport

Short of the urban renewal schemes of just bulldozing everything, I don't know what else could be more harmful.

Hmm, since that is exactly the direction things were heading, a zoning change may have helped. I keep on thinking about cancer and the surgery to remove it: you cut out the cancer and get the nearby tissue that may have been contaminated; otherwise the patient dies. I am sure you are aware of the good neighborhoods and vast tracts that were turned into vacant lots by drugs and crime. When the nearby residents that are law-abiding good people feel endangered and their efforts to fix this are frustrated, they move out and the area is completely turned over to drug dealers.

Yes zoning changes grandfather in the existing businesses, but at least in that situation when the owner of a Lucky Dragon-type front is finally chased away or is killed, the platform is lost and the dealers have to move on. Come to think of it, I wonder if that is the reason these zoning rules prohibiting corner stores were put in place to begin with.

Regarding drug and crack houses: basically this leads to razing, unless something can be done to evict and keep these people away. Again, a corrupt or neglectful owner is not an easy thing to deal with.

by goldfish on Dec 31, 2012 1:57 pm • linkreport

Yes, the crack epidemic was a huge problem, and many of the vestiges of that epidemic remain.

Zoning is not the solution to that problem. It never was. It is not even a solution to the symptoms at hand.

Nonetheless, the New Dragon is gone. Thus, that shouldn't be used as a reason to re-zone, yes? Likewise, the fact that the New Dragon is gone without changing the zoning suggests that doing so would not have solved the problem, yes?

by Alex B. on Dec 31, 2012 2:05 pm • linkreport

Alex B: Zoning can and should be modified as the situation changes; it has never intended to be immutable.

When faced with this kind of potentially fatal problem, every legal tool should be made available to fight it, and probably more need to be invented -- including zoning. Regarding the current area, I think we are lucky that it was close to a frontier of improvement that overcame it. In lots of other neighborhoods not so close to where well-to-do people live, such a place would dragged a whole area down.

by goldfish on Dec 31, 2012 2:21 pm • linkreport

One time when I didn't have a Philips head screwdriver I figured out a way to use a flat head. Didn't mean that is was preferable.

Now an extreme situation like a drug den? May be all you have, though you still the law of unintended consequences.

Now in most situations that are brought up here like outdoor seating and bar hours zoning is an inappropriate way to regulate behavior. But so often it's the first resort rather than a last.

by Drumz on Dec 31, 2012 6:11 pm • linkreport

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