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DC moving with record speed to change 14th and U restaurant limits, accepts resident recommendations

The DC Zoning Commission is usually a very slow-moving body. Hearings can take months just to schedule, and rezonings can take years. But the machinery has sprung into rapid action to address the outrage over DCRA's recent determination that no more restaurants can open along 14th and U Streets in the ARTS overlay.

Image from Google Street View.

DCRA's ruling just enforces the current, yet arguably unfair zoning rule that limits restaurants and bars to 25% of the linear frontage of 14th and U in the entire, large ARTS overlay.

That extends along 14th from just north of N Street all the way to Florida Avenue, and U Street from 9th to 15th. That means that a concentration of restaurants on U around 10th affects the ability of a restaurant to open down around 14th and Rhode Island. That seems wrong.

Furthermore, a committee created by ANC 2F (which represents most of 14th south of U) recommended modifying the 25% limitation, saying, "it is now overkill to reserve 75% of the frontage on 14th and U streets for non-restaurant and bar uses."

The report recommended increasing the limit to 40-50%, but changing the standard for exceptions to no longer permit a "special exception" (which is easier to obtain) to exceed the limit. They also recommended computing the limit for each block rather than across the entire district, an approach I suggested on the blog and spoke to the committee about during their investigations.

After the MidCity Business Association raised the alarm, nearly every blog in DC covered the issue, area Councilmembers voiced their support for a change, DCRA put out press releases saying they wanted to change the rules, and the Office of Planning proposed an emergency text amendment, which the WBJ reported will have a hearing on April 26th.

That's probably the meeting to discuss the "setdown," where the Zoning Commission officially announces an issue and opens up the public comment. The Office of Planning just posted their setdown report for the amendment and recommended an abbreviated 30-day notice period for the subsequent hearing.

OP essentially recommends exactly what the ARTS overlay committee proposed. The new rule would allow up to 50% restaurant and bar uses, but measured for each "block face" rather than for the entire overlay. Any exceptions to this new standard would need to meet the much stricter variance test rather than the special exception requirements. The change would also clarify that restaurants above or below the ground floor do not count toward the limit.

According to the OP report, four block faces currently exceed the 50% limit: the east side of 14th between U and V (which includes Busboys and Poets), the north side of U between 13th and 14th, the south side of U between 11th and 12th (which is "currently entirely developed with popular eating establishments," such as Dukem Ethiopian), and the north side of U between 10th and 11th.

It's very meaningful that OP took the committee's recommendations nearly without change. Unlike many resident efforts in zoning, the committee took a very pragmatic approach to the ARTS overlay. They came up with sensible ideas for better achieving the goals of the zoning regulations and improving the area, not agreeing to unlimited development nor fighting any change at all.

This committee did a remarkable amount of work learning about the issues, studying the regulations, interviewing residents, business owners, and developers, and debating the issues. It's gratifying to see their hard work accepted by the Office of Planning. OP should similarly strive to incorporate as much of the committee's other recommendations into the larger zoning rewrite, to demonstrate that when residents put in the work to formulate detailed, thoughtful, and non-knee-jerk recommendations, the government will listen.

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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Why do you favor creating the new limitation on a block-by-block basis?

This seems fairly arbitrary, since if the block happens to be relatively short, then a restaurant like Busboys and Poets might not be able to open there at all. Or if the only available storefront on a block is, say, 25% of the frontage on a block, no eating establishment could ever open there if the rest of the block already had 25% coverage.

I am not sure I understand the benefit of enforcing the frontage limitation on a per-block basis rather than within some larger area. This will inevitably create problems that are just coincidental to the unique geography and the kinds of structures that happen to be present on a block. It might be fine for blocks with many old townhouses, but that's not how some blocks are configured.

by Jamie on Apr 16, 2010 12:19 pm • linkreport

I just hope that we can attract a diverse array of businesses to our neighborhoods.

Don't get me wrong -- restaurants and coffeehouses can be great additions to a community, and I'm thrilled about the huge array of dining options appearing along H St.

However, it's a bit absurd that although the residents of North Capitol Hill have literally dozens of options for bars, restaurants, wigs, and fried chicken, there's no place along that entire corridor where one could go to buy a hammer.

Our few extant options for everyday "essentials" are awful. Rite Aid is criminally overpriced, while Murry's is outright dystopian.

I can't speak specifically for the U St corridor, although I haven't noticed many businesses along that street that appear to cater to locals (which is presumably why the 25% limitation existed in the first place).

DC needs to strive to create walkable, liveable neighborhoods. Attracting businesses to dense, residential areas goes a long way toward achieving this goal.

by andrew on Apr 16, 2010 12:55 pm • linkreport

"It's a bit absurd ... that there's no place along that entire corridor where one could go to buy a hammer."

It's only absurd if there's a market for a place like that. How often do you need to buy a hammer? If you had to go outside your neighborhood to buy a hammer anyway, as most people do now, would you typically go to some other neighborhood hardware store, or Home Depot, which is just as far away?

Finally, if you had to buy something expensive like a power tool, would you pay an extra 50 bucks to get it from your neighborhood hardware store instead of buying it online or going to Home Depot?

You can't just legislate that certain types of business must exist in a given place. There needs to be a market for them. Like it or not, while a hardware store would be convenient, it's hard for one to survive just selling hammers and thumbtacks to the people who live nearby.

Local hardware stores, bookstores, and many other types of businesses that people supposedly "want" continue to close, not open, even in the highest-density neighborhoods in DC. Legislation will not change what is a sustainable business model in this day and age.

by Jamie on Apr 16, 2010 1:02 pm • linkreport

Why do rules like this always (or almost always) lump together restaurants and bars? They attract different groups of people, and have very different effects on the neighborhood. I'd love to have more restaurants in my neighborhood, but I'd also love to have fewer bars.

by Rob on Apr 16, 2010 1:11 pm • linkreport

What about letting the vacancies fill up and then once the block is full then putting a moratorium on new restaurants past that and so when one closes wait for that to be filled by something else?

by Canaan on Apr 16, 2010 1:36 pm • linkreport

The problem with any sort of zoning overlay restrictions is that you're never going to get a formula that is acceptable to everyone.

And I'm always amazed by the desire for "neighborhood hardware stores." It's the unicorn of development - everyone wants one, but few appear to actually use one. I believe I bought a hammer about 10 years ago from Home Depot. I still have it. Not sure why I'd need to buy another one from a local hardware store.

It's like the usual neighborhood demand for a bookstore. How many independent bookstores still exist in DC? I think Politics & Prose is probably one of the few remaining, and that's b/c they have a cafe and do a ton of crowd-attracting programs. If there was a demand, then more bookstores would open. Instead, Amazon has totally crushed that business model for independent retailers.

It sure would be nice to have more neighborhood hardware stores and bookstores. Unfortunately, few people actually visit such stores on a daily basis to make it a feasible business enterprise.

by Fritz on Apr 16, 2010 1:50 pm • linkreport

Another place like Politics & Prose, ironically, would not be allowed to open in an area that already was at capacity on the food-service quota.

Personally, I think the neighborhood hardware/shoe repair/bookstore/boutique thing is about as relevant as reminiscing about drive-in movie theaters.

Business models reflect what consumers demand. It's clear consumers don't demand these sorts of businesses - at least at the premiums they would be required to charge to stay afloat, compared to big-box or online shopping.

Drive-ins I'm sure have a very nostalgic place in the hearts of people who were teenagers in the 50's and 60's. For the rest of us, they are a novelty at best. My grandfather owned a little hardware store that served the whole town I grew up in. Of course, it was the only hardware store for 10 miles. Now there's a wal-mart and a home depot outside town, and the downtown that once had a hardware store, an office supply store, a boutique, and a shoe-repair store, is mostly populated with restaurants, cafes, and a couple galleries.

Is it better or worse? I dunno, a lot of people think it's better now. These places are a lot more interesting than hardware stores, and there are a lot more reasons to visit the downtown on a regular basis. I'm sure some people still reminisce about buying nails at the hardware store, though, but it's not coming back.

by Jamie on Apr 16, 2010 2:02 pm • linkreport

Seems like some combination of the block/area limit might be advisable. One block that's half restaurants is fine; the entire overlay area being half restaurants, maybe less so. There's no perfect number, but maybe something like 60% of any given block, subject to a limit of 40% of the entire area.

by Gavin on Apr 16, 2010 3:59 pm • linkreport

For reasons that Jamie already mentioned, the entire overlay concept makes no sense. You can legislate what would be successful business model. Because durable goods retail has such smaller margins than foodservices, fewer can be supported in a given place. Retail is totally "chained up" as Richard Layman calls it. Good mass transit like what we have with the Metro enables chain retail to serve a region rather than just a neighborhood. That's not changing.

The current realities of durable goods retail are very different than what the regulations allow.

by Cavan on Apr 16, 2010 4:11 pm • linkreport

"You can legislate" should be "You can't legislate..."

by Cavan on Apr 16, 2010 4:12 pm • linkreport

"because durable goods retail has such smaller margins than foodservices, fewer can be supported in a given place. "

Exactly. A neighborhood hardware store would be lucky to make $5 on a hammer. A bar or restaurant makes that on every single drink they sell.

Even worse, more expensive items that might bring in more money will be undercut enough by places like Depot or Target (or online) that they'd be lucky to ever sell them. Nobody is going to buy a one-time, high-value purchase for 25%-50% more than they can buy it online. It's worth waiting a couple days to get it, or driving to a big store, to save 50 bucks.

It's an impossible business model these days. Most people are familiar and comfortable with the idea that we buy less-frequently-purchased items, clothing possibly excepted, from bigger stores or online. There's no way a little guy can compete on price, and having "great service" is small consolation for the majority of situations where you know what you want.

Stronsnider's is an example of a local model than can work. They are more expensive than someplace like Home Depot, but they also provide a wide array of products and services that Depot does not.

But Strosnider's is practically a big box store, too. They aren't on your streetcorner, they're in downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring. You won't see them opening up in an 18 foot wide row house on U Street.

by Jamie on Apr 16, 2010 4:25 pm • linkreport

I like the characterization of the neighborhood hardwre store as the unicorn of develpment. However I disagree that there's no demand and/or they aren't supported. I base this on the success of the hardware store on P and 14th NW next to the Whole Foods. i happen to know the owner of that store wanted to start a business, researched what type of business the neighborhood lacked and decided upon hardware even though she previously knew very little about the hardware business.

Also, I have a hammer I inherited from my granfather. It may be older than he would be if he were still living. I often have need of nails, flanges, bandsaw blades, screws, hinges, hooks, etc. and its great to be able to walk or bike 5-10 minutes to a neighborhood store if I'm in the middle of a project and my last 1/8" drill bit breaks, or something. Its a pain to have to drive 30-40 minutes away even if its cheaper.

by Bianchi on Apr 16, 2010 4:28 pm • linkreport

"and its great to be able to walk or bike 5-10 minutes to a neighborhood store if I'm in the middle of a project and my last 1/8" drill bit breaks, or something"

I agree, it would be great, but how does someone pay the rent when most of what people are buying is 50 cent drill bits and hinges for a couple bucks?

Would you go there to buy a power tool? Lumber for a deck? 50 bags of mulch? 10 gallons of paint? All for 25-50% more money than you would pay at Home Depot?

In the old days, you didn't have a lot of options, but when all the high-dollar business is being siphoned off by the internet and big-box, it doesn't really work any more.

We all want the hardware store there to buy hinges and nails and saw blades, but unless we all agree to pay the premium for everything else too, they aren't going to make it.

How MUCH do you want that hardware store? Enough to pay them $500-$1000 extra a year by not shopping at Home Depot? I'm not sure most would agree.

by Jamie on Apr 16, 2010 4:38 pm • linkreport

I don't know. Go ask the owner/s of the hardware store on P at 14th next to the whole foods how its going, how they do it. There's also one at Wisc. and Tenley. There used to be one on 17th near R too. Maybe its still there. It used to get really busy. There are several you can ask "how they do it". I'm not a hardware shop owner so I don't know. I'm just very glad when i need something and I'm in the middle of a project I don't have to go 30-40 minutes away to get that dohickey. Sometimes its a big thingamajig. Not always as small as a bottle of glue. Oh I know. Strohsniders in Silver Spring. That has got to be a very profitable neighborhood hardware store (again, next door to a whole foods. Is that just a coincidence?)

by Bianchi on Apr 16, 2010 5:01 pm • linkreport

The Tenleytown ACE Hardware store is across the street from a Whole Foods.

Ergo, to be a successful hardware store in DC, you must be in the immediate vicinity of a Whole Foods.

by Fritz on Apr 16, 2010 5:13 pm • linkreport

Strosniders (I already mentioned them) isn't exactly a neighborhood hardware store. What "neighborhood" exactly would you call the giant malls where their Bethesda and Silver Spring locations are situated? I suspect you aren't interested in that kind of development in DC.

It's obviously not impossible, but the places you are talking about are located in the most expensive real-estate (meaning the residents might not mind the premium so much) and most densely populated areas in the entire city. They have also been around a long time.

The only hardware store I know of that's OPENED any time lately is pfeiffer's in Mt. P. And it doesn't look like things have been great for them lately, since they are pleading for customers.

Seriously, I would love such a place as much as anyone, but no matter how much you or anyone else things that they would shop there and they would do great, they just aren't opening.

There's plenty of real estate just waiting for a hardware store or trinket shop all over DC. I don't see anyone lining up to open such a place, while food-service operations are being told to take their business elsewhere.

by Jamie on Apr 16, 2010 5:14 pm • linkreport

@Fritz-That's right! I forgot about that whole foods. That's the formula!

by Bianchi on Apr 16, 2010 5:20 pm • linkreport

@ Jamie, yeah I don't like the zoning that forces empty store fronts when a "tavern" could and would go there. But I do think the Strohsniders in SS is a neighborhood shop. I lived ~1.5 miles from it briefly and I used it a lot. there are several thousands of people immediately surrounding it. I think we call that neighborhood East Silver Spring (Thanks Dan Reed!) The last things i bought there before i moved from the 'hood was stainless steel stovetop burner covers and spackle.

Incidentally, one of my favorite "tourist" shops when I travel abroad but also to small towns in the US, is going into hardware stores. I've gotten some great souvenirs that way. Foreign/foreign-to-me gadgets, dohickeys and thingamajigs. Then I go back to the tavern.

by Bianchi on Apr 16, 2010 5:36 pm • linkreport

Don't get me wrong I love Strosniders - but "Silver Sprung" is not exactly U Street. The only thing remotely like it in DC is DCUSA. Actually I never really thought of that before... but if anyone thinks they hate DCUSA they should really go spend some time in that hideousness.

But Stronsnider's is part of a destination mall. It's not something that supports just the people who live right around there. I go to that store often. Before it opened, I went to the one in Bethesda. Where else can you get your propane actually filled instead of swapped? And who else cuts glass? They also have a great home-wares section.

But for boards and plumbing fittings and power tools I definitely go to Depot.

by Jamie on Apr 16, 2010 5:40 pm • linkreport

true, Strohsniders has a very limited/no lumber inventory and they don't cut wood. I once asked an old-timer employee what was up with that and he said some time ago there was some sort of suit a customer brought so they don't cut wood anymore. He was still angry about it.

@Jamie OT-did you ever go to Smoot? whatever happened to Smoot? It used to be on Kansas at Blair, NW?

by Bianchi on Apr 16, 2010 6:00 pm • linkreport

There is a place called Galliher & Hughiley at Kansas & Blair, that's a pretty decent lumberyard, if you don't need them to be open on the weekend or after 5 PM.

I don't know if it used to be a Smoot. I have been to Smoot in Alexandria before though. I feel like Smoot acquired/rebranded some other area lumberyards in the last 10 or 15 years.

by Jamie on Apr 16, 2010 6:03 pm • linkreport

Fragers has lumber; the only time I've needed it was while building a deck. The quality (dry, straight, unblemished) of their wood put the Brentwood Home Depot to shame.

by oboe on Apr 16, 2010 7:42 pm • linkreport

The four blocks that currently exceed the 50% limit: do any of those seem to be problematic? Why do we need a new regulation that prohibits other blocks like them? Couldn't we just repeal the restriction without replacing it with a new one?

by Josh B on Apr 16, 2010 11:45 pm • linkreport

@Bianchi: Now that I think about it, the Glover Park hardware store is also down the block from a Whole Foods.

I think we're on to something huge about the sustainability of local hardware stores vis-a-vis Whole Foods stores.

by Fritz on Apr 17, 2010 6:14 am • linkreport

And the Tenleytown Hardware is across the street from the Tenleytown Whole Foods.

by Andrew on Apr 17, 2010 8:54 am • linkreport

Is a frat brother of Fenty's looking to open a bar?

I doubt the "special exception" rather than variance to a zoning overlay was ever legal but no case ever challenged it and they were already given to everyone who requested them, including all proposed large projects.

The changes make no consideration of a way to stop long rows of sidewalks from being closed with pull-down doors during the daytime. That would have taken a little thought.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 17, 2010 9:11 am • linkreport

Tom: The text of the ARTS overlay specifically allows exemptions by special exception. The proposed amendment explicitly removes the restaurant limitation from the part of the overlay text that authorizes these special exceptions.

by David Alpert on Apr 17, 2010 9:33 am • linkreport

If the number of bars were not also doubled from the present number I would support the change to exempt clubs not on the first floor as they're not part of the shuttered sidewalk problem.

The way this change is written means the city doesn't want to stop 14th from becoming like the U Street blocks that already have 50%. Politically it means Fenty feels he has enough of a cushion to give up the thousand votes along 14th that will switch on this issue.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 17, 2010 9:36 am • linkreport

I would not be opposed to the change if it applied to restaurants, only. However, I would not like to see an increase in the number of allowed bars and clubs. Some of the longtime residents of this neighborhood don't want it to turn into another Adams Morgan. We need to find ways to encourage and support other forms of retail use so that there is a balance.

by DJ on Apr 17, 2010 10:42 am • linkreport

Abolishing the Arts Overlay would mean developers would no longer get the bonus FAR from including "arts" uses, which is defined to include bars/cafes.

DJ is certainly right that allowing more restaurant licenses (as opposed to tavern and nightclub licenses) on 14th would be fine. 14th has broad sidewalks which are perfect for sidewalk cafes. OTOH a sudden influx of nightclubs would endanger the large-scale quality mixed residential developments planned. 14th is developing very nicely now into another Connecticut Avenue and IMHO it's wrong to switch now to promoting it as another 18th or U streets.

David, the zoning regs set out a list of what can be special exceptions and says only those listed items can be special exceptions in DC and there's disagreement whether overlays can change that. Anyway this proposal would allow over 5 times the number of liquor licenses presently on 14th.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 17, 2010 12:22 pm • linkreport

Tom, Based on your comments, you seem to know the area and the realities, political and otherwise. Stepping away from the theoretical and really getting a sense of what's happening along this considerable length of pavement could help both planners and commenters. The long stretch of 14th consists of many blocks with varied real estate (hence opportunities and limitations), character, and existing businesses. The configuration of the buildings on some blocks make it impossible to divide the frontage 50/50. And, some blocks are shuttered during the day, some at night. Logan & 14th & U seem like completely different neighborhoods, and publicized polls show that Logan wants more operators, while 14th & U is saturated. So why lump them together? While the group proposing the changes may be well intentioned, allowing 5 times the number of liquor licenses seems poor planning. And, what's the emergency?

by Gwen on Apr 20, 2010 8:39 am • linkreport

Gwen, The Arts Overlay was intended to promote the areas that were still rundown as a future artistic center. To that end big bonuses in new building size were given to owners who included "arts" uses. The controversial part was "cafes" were included as an arts use with a a definition that included most liquor licenses with a limitation of 25% liquor licenses for the area. Since U had traditionally been concentrated with liquor licenses, it was assumed U would take most of the liquor licenses. This was no surprise.

The part of the new proposal allowing up to 50% liquor licenses on each block face of 14th is the real surprise. That may work for U but not 14th. As DJ mentioned if Zoning were to allow that just for restaurants on 14th there wouldn't be as much problem. The large size of some buildings on 14th poses real problems with tavern or nightclub licenses. We had a terrible, devastating problem when Kalabash was open where the Source Theater is now and the Black Cat's daytime shuttering is unfortunate. A new Kalabash opening would devastate the area for a couple blocks around it for development. And it's the quality large scale mixed residential/commercial that is the gold mine for the area and DC that we've been waiting on.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 20, 2010 10:27 am • linkreport

The block by block restrictions sound worse to me, even with a higher limit. Dave, I like your transportation analysis, but you're out of your depth here. Why are you so sure you know the right number of restaurants to have on a block?

Some blocks in Clarendon are probably 70-80% restaurants. If you cut the number of restaurants and bars there it would be a disaster and would kill the vibe. How do you know that the restrictions you favor are not choking the life out of the neighborhoods you are trying to improve?

I think it would be helpful to run a series of posts where you highlight vibrant neighborhoods that have used these types of restrictions or not. What is the ratio of restaurants in Bethesda? What about Old Town? Parts of DC outside the ARTs Overlay district?

These types of regulations are costly in economic terms, they may be worth it, but if you want to impose those costs you have a high burden to carry and you haven't carried it yet.

by db on Apr 21, 2010 9:03 am • linkreport


What do you think would be a good balance?

Other parts of the overlay and areas on the borders are still empty or boarded up and need more businesses. Wouldn't some limits at 14th & U help to distribute the influx of more eating and drinking establishments? (Just north of the overlay on 14th, the new Nehamia Shopping Center could be a good location; and east on Florida; and down 9th.)

by Gwen on Apr 25, 2010 8:57 am • linkreport

Gwen: If they're determined to not separate restaurant licenses from tavern and nightclub licenses in the %, it still doesn't explain why they aren't just changing to 25% of each block face or different percentages for U than for the other streets.

If it has to be done with total liquor licenses, my choice would be to allow block faces on U to go up to 50%, exempt new ones on U from the total, and raise the total to maybe 30% to allow some new ones on 14th and 9th.(The large proposed developments on 14th already have special exceptions.)

Jumpimg 14th Street block faces to 50% from the present under 10% is ridiculous and potentially a disaster.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 25, 2010 10:31 am • linkreport

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