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Some restaurant limitations aren't all bad

DCRA will stop issuing any permits for "restaurants, bars, diners, coffees shops and carry-outs" along the 14th and U commercial corridors because the area has reached the 25% maximum allowed by zoning.

Photo by squidpants.

Nobody wants to discourage investment in the city, especially in places that are historically underdeveloped. On the other hand, there are some good reasons why a percentage rule is a good one.

One of the most basic tenets of urbanism is to encourage a healthy mix of uses. While people normally think of "mixed use" as meaning the residential/commercial mix, it also applies to the type of commercial. Healthy city neighborhoods need a mix of commercial types just as much as they need a mix of land use types. If a neighborhood becomes overrun with too many of one type of storefront, that means there is less room for every other type.

If a commercial district leans too heavily on restaurants and bars, that means it probably doesn't have enough hardware stores, clothing stores, book stores, barber shops, or home goods stores to meet the day-to-day needs of neighborhood residents. And neighborhood commercial districts that force neighborhood residents to travel elsewhere for their basic needs aren't doing their job as neighborhood commercial districts.

This is something that private shopping malls have known a long time, and it's one of the advantages they have over urban neighborhoods that led to the mall's dominance in the latter part of the 20th Century. Ownership controls the exact mix of tenants in order to serve every need under one roof and reduce shopper's desire to ever leave or go anywhere else. Every good mall has one or two sports apparel stores, one or two formalwear stores, one or two jewelry stores, etc. And of course a food court.

But unless it's an older mall struggling to survive (and therefore not picky about who signs leases), there is never more than a couple of stores for any one niche. They want to hit every niche, so they can capture as many markets as possible. In the short term that means some potential tenants have to be turned away, but in the long term it makes the whole mall more healthy. It's a form of delayed gratification that the major commercial developers of the country are very good at.

Of course, we don't really want our neighborhoods to all look like shopping malls, lest they all look exactly the same. Been to one Lids and you've been to them all. But DC is generally a city that is overserved by restaurants and underserved by actual stores. And while it's okay for some neighborhoods to develop specialties (such as 14th Street emerging as a furniture district), it's in the city's long term best interests to have as diverse a collection of retail as possible.

Zoning has always been a blunt tool, and maybe the zoning for Mid City needs to be more sophisticated. It's entirely possible that 25% is the wrong ratio. But in discussing the matter we should remember that there are legitimately good reasons why livable neighborhoods don't want every storefront to be the same.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Update: Ryan Avent responds thoughtfully, suggesting that higher residential densities are a better way to encourage commercial diversity, and that as a regional specialty district for nightlife, U Street in particular increases investment in the whole city.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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25% definitely seems too low. Besides, the only other thing that is moving in is banks, and they don't add squat to an areas vitality at the rate they are appearing.

by NikolasM on Apr 8, 2010 2:30 pm • linkreport

So if this rule is enforced as it currently stands, here's what you'll have on U Street:

25 percent bars/restaurants
25 percent banks
25 percent CVS
25 percent empty storefronts


by anon on Apr 8, 2010 2:33 pm • linkreport

25% is nonsense. I've spent time in neighborhoods in Berlin that were more like 70% bars/restaurants (with ample sidewalk seating) and there were still plenty of boutiques, grocery stores, convenience stores, etc.

by Phil on Apr 8, 2010 2:41 pm • linkreport

Also, there is a big difference between the fancy expense-account restaurants that predominate downtown and U Street restaurants like Busboys and Poets or Saint-Ex. The latter add much more vitality to the neighborhood and street life.

by Phil on Apr 8, 2010 2:43 pm • linkreport

Ryan Avent put up a very thoughtful reaction to this that takes discussion to the next level of sophistication.

Everyone should read it.

by BeyondDC on Apr 8, 2010 2:44 pm • linkreport

Very thoughtful. It sounds like a neighborhood needs to be designated as stable, up and coming, needs development (or something) and have varying max percentages. Maybe start at 80% and as it succeeds it will either naturally go down as some restaurants close and are replaced by other types of stores to cater to all the people who now frequent the area or begin zoning it down as the area successfully stabilizes. No matter what 25% seems way too low.

by NikolasM on Apr 8, 2010 3:02 pm • linkreport

Thanks for posting this, I was wondering how everyone could be on the side of more bars/eateries. I don't mean that there shouldn't be more, but every since I came to DC I have bemoaned the lack of good full service hardware stores. The point is that U St should be more than bars and eateries, though the arbitrary 25% rule is probably not the best way to go about it.

by dano on Apr 8, 2010 3:07 pm • linkreport

This regulation also corrodes street life by discouraging bars and restaurants from having large facades.

As a result, you get places like the Gibson whose street-facing presence is literally one door with no sign, and the outdoor seating that would otherwise be on the street is moved to a rear patio.

And the Gibson is right off of 14th and U! It's a good bar but it's also an example of stupid regulations enforcing terrible urbanism.

by Phil on Apr 8, 2010 3:10 pm • linkreport

Just when the neighborhood was getting somewhere -- they try and shut it down. I sense the hand of existing bar owners or over-zealous homeowners in this. Or maybe both!

by aaa on Apr 8, 2010 3:18 pm • linkreport

>This regulation also corrodes street life by discouraging bars and restaurants from having large facades.

But that could also be a good thing. More storefronts per block adds to visual diversity. Consider Georgetown (lots of stores per block) versus Ballston (only 1 or 2) - which is the better environment in which to walk?

This is one of the reasons why so much contemporary development feels fake. Having something new to look at every 25 feet in an important part of the urban experience. When one thing takes up a whole block, it doesn't seem right because there's not enough to look at.

by BeyondDC on Apr 8, 2010 3:30 pm • linkreport

Reposting my thoughts from comments on other blog posts:

A couple of points:

1. The purpose of this overlay isnÂ’t so much to prevent bars and restaurants from causing a nuisance, but to prevent them from crowding out other kinds of retail uses.

2. Given the above goal, there are questions as to what the best means of achieving that goal is. IÂ’d argue that zoning isnÂ’t the best tool, since zoning deals with physical changes to the environment, and the question about the type of business youÂ’d like to see on a street is not well served by a zoning regulation.

3. A better approach to encouraging non-restaurant retail spaces in an area like this would be property tax incentives. Zoning can be a rather blunt instrument to begin with, and even more so when applied to tasks that do not fit the scope of the regulation.

4. In essence, zoning regulates capital improvements and the physical environment. The question of what kind of businesses exist on a corridor is an operational question. Zoning is not the best tool to regulate that environment, regardless of your opinion on whether regulation is needed or not.

by Alex B. on Apr 8, 2010 3:42 pm • linkreport

but every since I came to DC I have bemoaned the lack of good full service hardware stores.

This has little to do with zoning and much more to do with Home Depot and Lowes changing the nature of the hardware/DIY business from one of small, limited-stock hardware stores supplemented by specific contractor-type lumber shops, etc. to what we see today. It's not like there are lots of hardware stores in other cities either.

by ah on Apr 8, 2010 4:22 pm • linkreport

"But that could also be a good thing. More storefronts per block adds to visual diversity. Consider Georgetown (lots of stores per block) versus Ballston (only 1 or 2) - which is the better environment in which to walk?"

Well, there is a difference between an establishment that is literally just a door and a massive half-block long storefront. Besides, I think that a large outdoor restaurant seating area provides more vitality and visual diversity per square inch than almost any other use.

by Phil on Apr 8, 2010 4:55 pm • linkreport

So, we need an micro-interventionist zoning policy on restaurants in the overlay district, because without that level of regulation it will "feel fake"? :facepalm:

I also never will understand the fetishization of local hardware stores. When I moved here, I went to Home Depot to get supplies to paint my apartment. I realized I hadn't bought enough brushes, so I popped around the corner to Glover Park Hardware to pick up an extra-- and paid 2.5 times the Home Depot price. THIS is why the hardware store is dying-- nobody goes there for major purchases, because the dreaded big boxes have far better pricing.

How about, like, letting people open businesses based on their expectations about who will be interested in shopping there?

by Josh B on Apr 8, 2010 5:01 pm • linkreport

How about, like, letting people open businesses based on their expectations about who will be interested in shopping there?

Amen ...

by Lance on Apr 8, 2010 6:10 pm • linkreport

What you just described is not the reason why small hardware stores are dying, it's why they're managing to make a comeback. You paid 2.5 the price for a brush because it was a lot more convenient than schlepping to HD and waiting in line.

Smaller hardware stores that are successful figure out their niche in the neighborhood, rather than trying to compete with HD/Lowes for every single item. I don't patronize my neighborhood hardware store that much, but I know what it has and what it hasn't, and for a lot of things it is a great time-saver. They seem to be doing well, so I guess I'm not the only one that thinks so.

by spookiness on Apr 8, 2010 6:14 pm • linkreport

Woodley Park also has an overlay that limits restaurants to 25%. Lately there has been a lot of discussion, mostly from property owners having trouble finding tenants for their vacant space. We are having a panel discussion about it on Wednesday, April 14th, at 7:30 pm at Stanford in Washington (2661 Connecticut Ave). It is sponsored by the Woodley Park Community Association and the Woodley Park ANC reps. And you don't have to live in Woodley Park to attend!

by Anne-Marie on Apr 8, 2010 10:05 pm • linkreport

The only ones who really benefit by such a limitation are the existing restaurants/bars who end up with less competition. A similar situation exists when you have a liquor license moratorium (especially the never ending types ... where 'moratorium' loses it's meaning.) And the real losers are of course the consumers who don't get the benefit of true competition for their dollars.

If there's real demand in a neighborhood for a hardware store or a grocery store or any other type of store or business, the laws of supply and demand will ensure that one is there. And if it can't make it on it's own, why should we the consumer (and the landowner whose property gets artificially devalued) be the ones to pay the price to ensure someone else's idea of 'what should be' gets enacted? It's just patently unfair.

by Lance on Apr 8, 2010 11:40 pm • linkreport

@spookiness-- Yes, I bought one expensive brush at the hardware store. However, I did not buy several brushes there, nor did I buy rollers, roller trays, tarps, or paint.

The hardware store is essentially in the business of selling incidental items to consumers whose trips are small enough they don't merit going to the big box. This is a high-margin business, but it generates few dollars in sales per resident-- a lot fewer than in times when people viewed neighborhood hardware stores as the principal place to buy hardware. So, fewer stores are demanded per capita.

by Josh B on Apr 8, 2010 11:59 pm • linkreport

This is a case of trying to use the wrong tool to address what some think is an over saturation of “bars and clubs” in the area, by people that want an ABC moratorium.

Applying the 25% zoning limit was attempted in late 2008, and it raised red flags regarding the negative impacts, and that led to a very comprehensive community process to analyze the impacts and to put forward recommendations about the effectiveness of the cap in providing diversity of options.

The recommendations that were completed in September 2009, included expanding the limit to 45-50%, and to limit the number of banks that take up prime ground floor retail locations as well as numerous examples of how the enforcement will damage local investment.

I challenge you to find a neighborhood in the city that has more of a mix of different types of businesses; we have theatres, boutiques, services, restaurants, clubs, non-profits, grocery stores, hardware store, drugstores, fast food, gyms, travel agents, museums, shoe stores, hair saloons, barber shops, shoe repair, etc. They range from regional destinations such as BenÂ’s, 9:30 Club and Studio Theatre, to neighborhood services.

However, instead of focusing on trying to address the specific issues that affect the quality of life; noise, trash, peace and quiet that are the real concerns, we are now going to spend our limited community time and resources examining zoning exception requests.

Scott Pomeroy

by Scott Pomeroy on Apr 9, 2010 6:15 am • linkreport

The 25% rule doesn't take into account that many of the restaurants are not open for business for lunch. The 14th and U area lacks eating establishments which are open at lunch time. In fact, daytime 14th and U is pretty different from late night 14th and U.

by Steve on Apr 9, 2010 8:49 am • linkreport

A valid goal is to prevent overabundance of nightclubs that are shuttered in the daytime. Otherwise an area can become a dead zone in the daytime as nightclubs are the most profitable use of unrenovated buildings. The Black Cat is a fine place but it's long row of garage-doored facades hurts the daytime streetscape.

I like the linear-foot method as opposed to a flat moritorium but it should have some application per business. A new bar open in the daytime or which only uses a small street entrance should be exempt. Bars are good uses for basements and second floors.

Unfortunately the market will eventually prevail against bars though as large developers are loath to have them in their new developments.

Recent proposed large developments have already gotten exemption from the 25% rule for their proposed buildings so that they can have valid restaurants.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 9, 2010 9:32 am • linkreport

It's odd because even though I am a student majoring in urban planning and interested enough in this stuff to visit this site on a regular basis, I still don't know how I feel about this.

Zoning should be for things that represent the greater good even though they have a negative externality in the form of market distortion.

But when its not hurting anything the natural system of letting economics set the pace should be allowed.

In this case the kind of businesses represent the kind of consumers, and the freedom for entrepreneurs. To me that's what cities have always been about, and its what makes urban areas interesting.

Micro-managed shopping malls and privatizing public spaces while publicizing private rights is what the suburbs are for, right?

by TXSteve on Apr 9, 2010 3:33 pm • linkreport

what DC needs, bar and restaurant wise, is to be more like phildelphia, baltimore, boston, and new york, and have small bars and restaurants (corner taverns) in more neighborhoods.

if eckington, trinidad, rosedale, bloomingdale, anacostia, fairlawn, and similar relatively dense neighborhoods had more neighborhood corner taverns like this one in baltimore:

View Larger Map

maybe we could take some of the "bar crowding" and spread it around town, keeping one neighborhood from having to have all of the liquor licenses concentrated in one place.

by IMGoph on Apr 9, 2010 5:24 pm • linkreport


We should aspire to be like Wisconsin:

I swear there are towns there where the corner bars seem to outnumber the actual streetcorners...

by Alex B. on Apr 9, 2010 5:29 pm • linkreport

it would sure work for me, alex. the problem is that DC has such ridiculous blue laws because of the conservative nature of the town, and because so many old ladies come out to protest new bars because their husbands and sons have fallen victim to the bottle, so they believe it's their job to be modern-day carrie nations and protect us from the demon rum.

by IMGoph on Apr 9, 2010 5:36 pm • linkreport

Corner bars that hold 80-100 are welcome. It is different when a 300-500 occupancy liquor license with entertainment endorsement is proposed on your block. Especially if your block is not already a nightlife destination...

by Jason on Apr 9, 2010 6:02 pm • linkreport

jason: no one is recommending that here. look at that building in baltimore that i linked to above. it's a rowhouse. i'm not even talking about places that can hold 80, i'm talking about places that can hold 25.

a place that could hold 500 would require demolition and wholesale change of the neighborhood. i just wish that we had more small corner places. i am not, never have, and won't advocate for dropping a buffalo billiards into the middle of a residential block.

by IMGoph on Apr 9, 2010 6:05 pm • linkreport

Yeah, most true corner bars are the equivalent of a house's living room. You've got seating for 10-15 at the bar itself and maybe 3-5 tables.

by Alex B. on Apr 9, 2010 6:25 pm • linkreport

I'm glad this rule is being enforced... and yes Alex, Wisconsin has a huge zoning issue... the culture there is much different and drinking is a big deal, such that most towns have a bar on ever street corner, sometimes even more than there are churches! (seriously!)
U-Street is a great area but because there are so many bars and eateries, I have no other reason to go there, and since I'm losing interest in the night-club-drunkfest scene, I almost have no interest to go to U-St at all, even during the day there is very little reason to go there. If more bars and eating establishments are crammed into the area, it may force residents to decide to move out... and once those apartments ABOVE the bars and clubs empty, what do you think will happen to the bars and clubs?
That's why I live on Columbia Road and I like it much more, there is a good balance of shops, grocery stores, banks, dry cleaners, yes bars too, diners, and all kinds of other businesses--a far more diverse and appealing combination then U-St.
I think this limit will force developers to expand into other parts of the city--a good idea! Why not create new vibrant hot spots instead of squeezing every last ounce of decency out of the ones we have now? To me, U-St is on the verge of ruin... so let's try not to push it over eh?

by Matt on Apr 12, 2010 9:11 am • linkreport

Well, the point about corner bars is that instead of having one 500-capacity place that dominates an area, you could have twenty 25-seat bars spread out across the neighborhood. The corner bar is just as viable of a 'third place' as the corner coffee shop.

And yes, Wisconsin has a unique drinking culture. I've lived there, I can vouch for it first-hand. But it's more of a community life that happens to involve beer rather than some cult devoted to drinking. They're not just bars for drinking, either - they are local restaurants. And, as IMGoph's comment notes, these kinds of corner bars pop up in places like Baltimore, too.

Now, I don't know what the economics of operating those kinds of corner establishments are, but it's also clear that the current state of zoning and liquor laws don't give them much of a chance.

by Alex B. on Apr 12, 2010 9:52 am • linkreport

Well we did have a ton of small neighborhood bars in DC for many years but because of lax enforcement (unlike other cities) and drug problems they were nuisances. One across the street from me had 5 killings in a two year period about 25 years ago and it and others around 14th were drug centers. None were ever closed because of crime or drugs but eventually by the economics of gentrification.

Each city has different circumstances and unfortunately in DC we have peculiar ones involving violence and drugs that make corner bars in certain areas not so romantic. If you were to ask people in drug areas if they would like more corner bars they'd probably look at you like you were from another planet, that's how different the experience here is.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 12, 2010 10:30 am • linkreport

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