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Should corner stores require a hearing?

The ANC for southern Capitol Hill, ANC 6B, formally endorsed almost all provisions of DC's zoning update proposal, including removing many parking minimums, but it also wants to require a special exception to add a corner store in a residential area.

Photo by jacdupree on Flickr.

From their letter,

ANC 6B recommends changing the test to a special exception for certain commercial uses in residential areas in any building, including so-called "corner stores", if they meet the certain conditions set forth in OP's proposal.
A special exception for corner stores is far less onerous than the variance it requires today, but still is a significant burden to a small business owner. If the Zoning Commission does choose to require a special exception for any new store in a residential area, however, then we don't also need the long list of restrictions OP created to limit corner stores and their impacts.

Corner stores are very hard to open today

Today, it is almost impossible to put a store in a residential area, even in a location that historically had one, but the store closed. That means neighborhoods that once had walkable retail have lost the opportunity.

Someone can get a variance, but there is a very high legal bar that the owner essentially has to prove they can't use the property without it; since the building works fine as a residence, that's not possible. So even if neighbors are eager for a store, there isn't a path to get one.

One approach would be to allow a special exception, where the owner still has to go through a time-consuming and costly legal process, but the standard is lower. That gives residents a say, which is what many people want to see happen. Still, the process can be a burden; Aaron Wiener's story on the Anacostia Playhouse shows how waiting for a zoning hearing can block something even if people support it and the zoning board is almost sure to approve it.

The Office of Planning took a different approach. They instead said, if people are really concerned that a store will bring trash, noise, and smells, let's just set strict limits to avoid the impacts, but if someone can open a store with minimal effect on neighbors, then allow them to move forward without the time and expense of a hearing.

OP ended up placing so many limits on the stores, though, that it's possible we will see almost no corner stores. In particular, the stores now have to be in actual corner buildings, or buildings originally built as commercial; they also can't be within 500 feet of a commercial corridor to avoid competing with the commercial space.

The proposal also only applies in medium density house zones, but not detached house neighborhoods or higher-density apartment neighborhoods. All told, that leaves very few eligible spots for stores.

Here is Harriet Tregoning explaining the reasons for the corner store proposal at the recent DC Council oversight hearing:

An alternative: special exception, but more broadly

The Zoning Commission (ZC) ought to accept OP's proposal or even loosen the set of restrictions. However, if that board decides they aren't comfortable with any matter-of-right stores and wants to require a special exception, then potential retailers should be able to ask for a special exception to some of the restrictions as well.

In other words, if we believe that it necessary to have a zoning hearing that gives residents a chance to weigh in, and that forum can balance residents' desire for the store against the potential impacts, then we should trust the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) to have the leeway to decide how many square feet is too much, or how close to other stores is too close, or whether the store can include something on the second floor of a building.

OP devised a set of restrictions they thought would ensure stores had minimal impact. They suggested allowing stores as of right in only these extremely narrow circumstances. If ANCs or the ZC don't like this approach, fine, but then we don't really need this extreme set of restrictions.

Instead, make these general criteria the BZA should consider, but give the BZA freedom to allow a corner store even when it doesn't meet all of these criteria. Instead of a rule limiting the stores to corner buildings and historically commercial ones, let the BZA consider the impact on neighbors, understanding that a corner building may be less likely to affect neighbors.

Instead of forbidding stores within 500 feet of commercial corridors, let the BZA decide if the store is going to sap nearby commercial space. Sometimes there's commercial zoning nearby but few or no actual stores, not because the properties are vacant but because they're filled with other things. The BZA could have the power to decide whether a store is going to detract from a commercial strip, or not.

ANC 6B seems open to loosening some of the restrictions:

During ANC 6B's deliberations on this issue, there was discussion about the restriction in OP's proposal that a proposed use not be within 500 feet of a commercial zone and whether a different or more flexible standard might be worth considering. ANC 6B also discussed whether to recommend that "purpose built structures" should be matter-of-right rather than require a special exception. ANC 6B will investigate these questions and may propose further comments and recommendations at a later stage of the consideration of these zoning changes.
Basically, there are two approaches. One is to make zoning define what is and isn't allowable and let people plan their houses and stores around that without having to ask some board for permission each time. Under that approach, it's important to have clear and specific zoning rules to allow what you want but don't allow what you don't want.

The other approach is to pass the ball to a group of people who make a case-by-case decision including resident input on a case by case basis. In this situation, you don't need a lot of detailed rules, just guidelines, because the board can use its discretion.

There's no reason to do have both a very tight set of rules and also require a hearing even to open a store that meets all of those tests. Either go with OP's proposal as is, or replace it wholesale with a rule that you can create a corner store in a residential area under a broader set of circumstances, but need a public hearing and a special exception to do it.

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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It may be worth examining why it is currently hard for these to open even when they existed previously.

by selxic on Mar 22, 2013 11:24 am • linkreport

selxic: If one exists, it's grandfathered in under the zoning. If it existed previously and then closes for I think 3 years, the grandfathering goes away and it's not legal for it to re-open.

by David Alpert on Mar 22, 2013 11:39 am • linkreport

David, you do not understand.... DC is a small community, a traditional community. We do not need this sort of vulgar exchange of goods and services here, for us, we small town people. We have our own traditions here. Traditions where people live in peace and quiet, unperturbed by the presence of commercial activity egged on by those focused on the base activity of wealth accumulation and labor, which we relegate to districts where such behavior can be isolated and controlled, rather than going on in full view of our delicate ladies and children.

by JustMe on Mar 22, 2013 12:14 pm • linkreport

Dave, congratulations, you are quickly learning how to sound like a lawyer.

But yes, have a hearing and do a facts and circumstances test rather than a rigid rule.

And remove the grandfathering. If a store approved under the new process closes, it loses the right to open another store.

by charlie on Mar 22, 2013 12:23 pm • linkreport

People should (more or less) always have the right to operate commerce from a property they own, even out of a SFH in a low-density area.

by onelasttime on Mar 22, 2013 1:15 pm • linkreport

I live in CapHill, and think the dwindling number of corner stores is a tragedy. But... Is this actually a thing? Are there people trying to open corner stores who are prevented from doing so?

Seems to me that whenever a corner store is shuttered and converted to residential, that property is never going to be a corner store again..

by oboe on Mar 22, 2013 2:18 pm • linkreport

I have to agree with oboe. There are lots of places where the stores went away for a reason---people didn't shop at them. Many get by on lottery tickets, cigs, soda, and liquor. Even the boutiqueish places in Georgetown on P Street struggle. Although 7-11 has started opening new stores after decades of closures, convenience stores generally have declined just about everywhere. Some might get converted to restaurants, but those pose other issues for neighborhoods.

by Rich on Mar 22, 2013 5:07 pm • linkreport

I LOVED my corner stores on the Hill, and I miss them dearly. They really made life much more convenient.

As far as whether to use zoning or a hearing, I fall slightly on the side of a hearing with fewer restrictions. I'd love to see some corner stores open up here as the neighborhood progresses, but the stringent restrictions that the zoning update promulgates means that there would be little opportunity to do so. While a hearing puts a barrier to entry in place, for some neighborhoods like mine, it's a more-jumpable hurdle than the proposed zoning rules. Older neighborhoods have buildings that were once used as neighborhood stores and can meet the proposed zoning requirements. 1940's and slightly later neighborhoods like mine really don't. I dunno, maybe there's a balance to be struck, where neighborhoods that would pass the zoning test get them through the zoning rules and others through a hearing without those rules. Then, in a place like Capitol Hill, there are stringent rules that allow by-right stores that respect the neighborhood and in newer neighborhoods these stores are an option without getting a full-out variance.

Overall, though, if we *have* to have one rule, I prefer a special exception hearing with the rules turned into guidance. The problem with this is that the results may not match the intention. You may find no corner stores approved in neighborhoods where they would be allowed, useful, and well-patronized, and stores not getting the review they need in neighborhoods hungry for development. Even though I WANT these in my neighborhood, I still think that quality of life needs to be considered. Living on a corner, I could well end up living across the street from a corner store. If it were well-planned and executed, like my lovely stores on the Hill that fed my need for frozen pizza and beer after a long day or an onion when I had a space cadet moment while doing my holiday meal shopping, I wouldn't mind one fact I'd love the convenience. But if it catered to and accommodated the lowest-common-denominator, it would be a disaster of trash, noise, and malfeasance. Like I said, overall, a hearing provides the greatest flexibility to consider all this, but my crystal ball is broken, and I can't tell whether that flexibility would be put to its highest and best use without some test cases.

by Ms. D on Mar 22, 2013 8:52 pm • linkreport

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