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Posts about Corner Stores

Retail


Take a closer look at these houses. They used to be stores.

For generations, DC had a healthy mix of stores and homes in every neighborhood. Only a fraction of that diversity is still there today because 60 years ago, the city's zoning laws changed to outlaw new retail from going up in residential areas. Some corner stores are still there, but most have turned into homes. In the photos below, check out former storefronts that are now somebody's living room window.


The entrance and windows in the front 9th and Q Street NW don't look like what's on most houses. That's because it used to be a restaurant. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

In 1958, DC's Zoning Commission designated a number of residential areas as R-4 or R-5 zones, meaning they were for row houses or apartment buildings, respectively. New retail space isn't permitted to open inside either type of zone.

The retail that was already there was grandfathered into the new law, meaning it's been allowed to stay (though if a store closes and remains vacant for three years, the location can no longer be commercial).

On the map below, which looks at the area north of East Capitol Street and south of H Street NE, the Zoning Commission's change limited new commercial buildings to the places in yellow:


Base image from Google Maps.

Below are a few examples of Capitol Hill buildings that used to house retail. We focused on that area because it's where we live, but as the photo above indicates, you can find buildings just like them all over the District.

1201 F Street NE


Photo by the authors.

Located at the intersection of 12th Street, F Street, and Maryland Avenue, this corner building once housed a grocery store owned by William G. Pond (you can read about that in Boyd's Directory of DC). The former bay window of the store is now the entrance to a home and the former store entrance facing the intersection is now a small window. The concrete steps leading to the original entrance are still visible on the right side of this photo.

711 E Street NE


Photo by the authors.

In 1910, Edward T. Noll built this one-story retail building and its twin at 713 E Street NE. The buildings have large, protruding bay windows and decorative overhangs, but are now both homes.

627 3rd Street NE


Photo by the authors.

Abutting an alley, this building has housed several grocery stores throughout its existence, including stores owned by Herman W. Menkin in 1909 (Boyd's Directory of DC, 1909), Myer and Rae Band from 1933 to 1969, and Cynthia Sewell as recently as 2011. The first-floor windows used to flank the entrance, with a sign overhead, but the entrance for the home is now on the right side of the building.

1000 Constitution Avenue NE


Photo by the author.

The corner of this building used to have an entrance facing the intersection, which has since been replaced by bricks. A door leading to what was once the entrance for the upstairs apartment is visible on the right side of the photo. In the early 1900's, Leon Skop ran a grocery store from this space.

The five buildings described above are among the many red pins in this incomplete map of former retail locations in or near the Capitol Hill Historic District. Photos and descriptions for each of these pins are available at our blog, DCFormerRetail.tumblr.com.


Red pins are homes that once included retail spaces. The pins are clustered in the Northwest corner of the map because the authors have not yet systematically catalogued former stores east of 14th Street NE and south of East Capitol Street. Base image from Google Maps.

In some places, corner stores are coming back!

After a laborious eight-year process, DC's Zoning Commission adopted a new zoning code that will take effect on September 6, 2016. For the first time since 1958, the code will permit new corner grocery stores by right.

Also, limited types of other corner stores will be allowed under a variance in seven of 34 types of residential zones. The areas zoned R-4 on Capitol Hill are included in this change.

Despite the well-documented benefits of street fronting stores—they provide an opportunity to meet neighbors, increase the number of eyes on the street, and create a pleasant place to complete your daily errands by foot—some DC residents opposed the 2016 zoning change out of fear that "corner stores would alter residential neighborhoods by bringing in a commercial use."

But the historical record demonstrates that commercial uses along today's residential streets would not be unusual in this part of the city. Indeed, without retail, the Capitol Hill Historic District is less true to its name than many residents might realize.

Zoning


DC's zoning update finally passes!

Seven and a half years ago, residents turned out to a pivotal hearing on reforming DC's zoning code. Last week, after a tumultuous and controversial three quarters of a decade, the changes they were pushing for won final approval. Please thank the people who made this happen!


Photo by muroo on Flickr.

The DC Zoning Commission voted unanimously on January 14 to adopt a brand-new zoning code. Planners hope the new code will make zoning rules simpler and easier to understand, though it's unquestionably still complex. It also incorporates some significant policy reforms:

  • Accessory apartments: It will be legal to rent out a basement or other part of a house in many areas where it wasn't legal before. Homeowners who want to rent out a garage or carriage house will still have to go through a hearing, but may not need a hearing, or if they need one, they will have an easier time getting approval. This will let DC add more housing in ways that have little impact on neighborhoods.
  • Parking minimums: New buildings, especially near Metro and frequent bus lines, will be able to build less parking in keeping with newer data on how many people actually drive. This will drive down the cost of construction and potentially make some lower-cost new housing possible where it wouldn't have succeeded before.
  • Corner stores: It will be possible (though not trivial) to open grocery stores in residential row house areas, subject to a lot of restrictions. There will also be a more difficult path to open other kinds of stores. This might give residents a new way to get food without having to drive a long distance.
  • Expanded downtown: The downtown DC area is much larger than just the part around Metro Center, and the zoning now reflects that, incorporating NoMa, the Capitol Riverfront, and other high density central areas in the Comprehensive Plan.
While it's taken a long time, and many details got watered down along the way, this is a really big deal and a significant step forward.

Thank you, planners!

Please thank the Office of Planning's development review leaders, Jennifer Steingasser and Joel Lawson, for their work in getting this over the finish line, and the DC Zoning Commission for approving the changes. OP held over 350 meetings over more than eight years. Most recently, the team sorted through hundreds of comments, compiled detailed responses to reassure commissioners that public input had been considered, and made many technical changes to respond to useful suggestions from that input.

The commission approved the plan despite unflagging opposition from a group of people who ceaselessly asked for more and more delays up to the end (despite having little substantive complaint with the changes) and, according to some reports, may still try to bring a lawsuit to block the zoning update. AAA Mid-Atlantic also put out a last-ditch fearmongering press release that WTOP's Nick Iannelli dutifully transcribed.


Opponents protest outside a 2013 hearing.

This vote doesn't mean the zoning code changes overnight. The new text will take effect September 6. Before that, OP still has work to do to help inform people about the change and ensure that the people in the Office of Zoning, who actually review and approve permit applications, are up to speed.

It's been a long road for all of us who've advocated for eight years, and even more for the people at OP who've held meetings, summarized feedback, made changes, and then rinsed and repeated over and over. Come celebrate this victory at our upcoming happy hour on January 28 in Adams Morgan, one area that will benefit from the new regulations. And please fill out the form below to give the government officials involved a quick thank you for their work.

Send your thanks

Please fill out the fields below. You can modify the subject line and email text; your letter will be most effective if you use your own words. Thanks!

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Zoning


This is your very last chance to weigh in on DC's epic 8-year zoning update (probably)

DC homeowners could soon have more freedom to rent out their basements and carriage houses, residential neighborhoods could get more corner groceries, and there might be less unneeded and unused parking in new buildings. That's if DC's Zoning Commission gives final sign-off to an update of the zoning code this fall. First, there's one last public comment period for residents to weigh in.

DC started revising its zoning way back in early 2008. A new Comprehensive Plan had just been approved, and it called for adjustments to the zoning code. Also, the code dated back to 1958, and while it had been amended along the way, it also had many outdated elements.

The Office of Planning convened public meetings to get resident input on what should change. Most of the changes are just reorganizing the code, ostensibly to be easier to use. Through those meetings, the planners also came up with some specific policy changes on a few topics.

What's changing?

One big change would let people rent out a basement or an external garage in zones where that's illegal today. While most row house zones allow a basement unit, and in many places "English basements" are common, that's not allowed in the lowest density row house zones and the zones with detached and semi-detached houses.

The zoning update would legalize such units, though with a number of restrictions: The owner still has to live in the house, there can't be more than a certain number of people, the door has to be below ground level or on the side to keep the house looking like a single-family house, and others.


Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.

A second topic is car parking. Outdated assumptions that assumed people would drive, which date from long before Metro even existed, required more parking than necessary in many buildings, driving up the costs of new housing. Numerous examples surfaced of buildings which had built parking as prescribed by zoning and then found many required spaces difficult to rent or sell, or garages even going mostly empty.

The zoning board was also regularly granting exceptions to the parking rules, adding time and expense. The new minimums would give much more flexibility citywide and even more around Metro stations, high-frequency bus corridors, or streetcar lines.

Another change would make it easier for grocery stores to locate in residential zones, if they can occupy a corner building or one that was historically a commercial building, sell fresh food and at most a very small amount of liquor, and other restrictions.

Some neighborhoods have corner groceries in residential areas that have existed for a long time. But in neighborhoods without them, they can't start up; with this change, it's possible one could.


Photo by rockcreek on Flickr.

There are a lot more details, and you can learn a lot from the Office of Planning's summary blog posts explaining the rules on accessory apartments (like basements), car parking, and corner stores, as well as changes to alley lot rules, loading zones, downtown zoning, and industrial zones.

How you can speak up, one last time

The DC Zoning Commission will make the final decision on the new zoning code soon. The commission has heard testimony over many years at this point. It published the nearly-final new code in the DC Register in May for the last, legally-required official public comment period, and that comment period closes on September 25.

The commission probably won't make many changes, as it's already heard most of the arguments on each side, but you never know; with the recent "pop-up" rules, one commissioner, Park Service representative Peter May, who cast the swing vote, changed his mind after the final comment period, reversing a previous decision. Opponents of the zoning update are trying to generate public comments against the final draft.

If you want to weigh in, you can comment at a special page on the Zoning Commission website. Parking is in Subtitle C, General Rules, while accessory apartments and corner stores are in Subtitle U, Use Permissions. (If you followed earlier versions, they've moved out of the chapters on the various types of zones where the used to be into a new Subtitle U that consolidates all rules around uses in one place.)

Didn't I testify on this before? Maybe in 2009?

If you're been reading Greater Greater Washington or following DC planning, you might have participated in the zoning update process before. Maybe it was around 2009-2010, when the Zoning Commission had a first set of hearings on the broad policy questions. Or 2012, when the Office of Planning held public meetings in every ward on the proposal.

You might have participated in late 2013, when the Zoning Commission held its hearings on the actual text, or early 2014, when it held another set just because opponents said they hadn't had enough time to prepare. Or maybe you sent in comments in 2014, when Mayor Vince Gray asked for another six months to allow even more comment.

But this might be the last time. If the Zoning Commission takes "final action," then the zoning could could become effective... sometime soon. The commission has not said exactly when the new code actually would take effect, and there could be a grace period.

If the commission takes immediate action, then the code will become final about two years after the Office of Planning formally submitted it. That came after about 5½ years of OP deliberations on the code.

The original public process statement estimated 2-3 years for the whole process from start to finish; it has now been 7½. Most of the extra came because opponents of the changes continually complained to Zoning Commission Chairman Anthony Hood, DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and others, claiming the code was a "moving target."

Hood and others responded by asking for more public process, but opponents simply kept arguing that they hadn't been consulted enough, asking for even more and more process. When OP made changes in response to opponents' requests, the opponents then even took that opportunity to claim that since OP had made changes, the code was some kind of moving target and some part of the process should start over.


A group of people protest to ask for delays in the zoning update process. Photo by the author.

For context, the recent "pop-up" rules, which added more restrictive zoning rules for many of DC's row house areas, went from OP's presentation to the Zoning Commission to final implementation in a day less than one year. The commission also made that change effective immediately upon approval rather than having a "vesting" grace period.

You can encourage the Zoning Commission to not waste any more time by submitting comments on the comment form. We can hope this saga can complete before DC gets yet another new Comprehensive Plan, which OP plans to start on this fall.

Zoning


Finally, DC's zoning update steps forward

After a debate that has stretched for seven years, reforms for lower parking requirements near transit, basement apartments, and corner grocery stores are actually close to becoming reality in DC.


Photo by Lachlan Hardy on Flickr.

The DC Zoning Commission has been deliberating on the zoning update this week. The commissioners embraced most of the DC Office of Planning's proposals while even rejecting at least one of OP's recent steps backward.

Buildings near transit (including priority bus corridors) will be able to have half the parking that's otherwise required if they are willing to forego residential parking permits. Homeowners will be able to put accessory apartments inside their houses without a special hearing, but will have to go through one to use a carriage house. And corner grocery stores will be able to open in residential row house areas if they sell fresh food.

This is a major milestone in the grueling zoning regulations revision process that began in 2007 just after the DC Council adopted the 2006 Comprehensive Plan. Opponents of the update repeatedly asked the commission and the Office of Planning and for more outreach, more meetings, and more delay. In response, officials stretched out the process and added dozens of meetings, fact sheets, and hearings throughout the city. But the process now has an end in sight.

If you're interested in the wonky details, below are many of the specifics about what is changing in DC's zoning.

What happened with accessory apartments

Tuesday night, the commission debated whether to allow accessory apartments in owner-occupied homes in low-density areas. Currently, higher-density residential zones allow two or more units in a single building (like a rowhouse), but low density zones (including some row house areas like Georgetown) allow only one unit except for an antiquated domestic worker provision.

While Chairman Anthony Hood tried to only permit accessory apartments if the owner goes through a special exception hearing, the rest of the commissioners voted to allow homeowners to have one accessory unit inside their home as a matter of right.

However, when it came to garages or carriage houses, the commission didn't question the recent OP revision to only allow accessory units there after a special exception hearing. They adopted that rule with no discussion.

The commissioners did ease restrictions on the lot size and home size required to qualify for an accessory unit. They removed a minimum lot size rule altogether and shrank the required house size from a large 2,000 square feet to a more modest 1,200 square feet in R-2 and R-3 zones. They also removed a combined six-person cap on the total number of people in the primary residence and accessory apartment; instead, they will simply limit the number of people in the accessory apartment to three.

What happened with corner stores

The Zoning Commission approved a proposal to make some corner stores legal in medium-density residential zones for the first time since the city adopted its 1958 zoning code. Commissioner Marcie Cohen argued that corner stores were an important way to help seniors have easy access to daily needs.

However, through the years, the list of rules for what stores are allowable got longer and longer. What the Zoning Commission finally approved was only allowing small grocery stores as a matter of right if they devote a certain area devoted to perishable foods like dairy, fresh produce, fresh meats, and food that must be prepared at home. Beer and wine sales can't exceed 15% of the floor area and requires a special exception hearing.

While these stringent rules will mean that few new corner grocery stores will sprout up, it is likely to inspire a few small entrepreneurs to open up small groceries. Beyond the small grocery stores that would qualify as matter of right, the rule would also allow other types of stores if they go through a special exception process with the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

What's happening with parking

The commission agreed to reduce required parking by 50% for developments near transit (½ mile from Metro or ¼ mile from streetcar or bus priority corridor). In doing so, the Zoning Commission rebuffed the Office of Planning's recent proposal to exclude bus priority corridors from the list of transit services that would qualify.

The commission also inserted one significant change that hadn't been part of the earlier proposals: Developments that take advantage of the 50% reduction would also be ineligible for residential parking permits (RPP).

Current housing developments tend to contain one space for each two or three units voluntarily. The new rule will require just under three for developments away from transti (technically, one per three units after the first four). Cutting that in half means a minimum of one per six units near transit, clearly below market demand.

In effect, therefore, most developments will still park above the minimum, and allows the market to decide what is appropriate rather than forcing most buildings to build more. At easily $50,000 per parking space, this is an important way to make housing less expensive to build.

The commission did adopt OP's suggestion to exclude the West End neighborhood from the Downtown zone that requires no parking, but seemed to support for removing requirements from downtown. However, Chairman Anthony Hood expressed skepticism toward any proposal that removed parking mandates entirely. The commission will consider the downtown zones tonight.

Commissioners also agreed to require one space for each single family home but waive that if no alley access is available. This is a fair compromise that will protect continuous sidewalks and not force curb cuts and driveways on a rowhouse block.

If a property owner feels it's impractical to provide the required parking, it will also be easier to get an exception. The owner will now only need a "special exception" rather than the much more stringent "variance" standard that applies today. Either way, however, asking for a reduction requires a trip to the Board of Zoning Adjustment, which costs time and money.

The new special exception rule will allow the board to reduce parking requirements by considering the lack of demand, proximity to transit, or, in a provision added by Commissioner Marcie Cohen, the affordability of the housing. Any special exception would also require a Transportation Demand Management Plan, or traffic and parking demand reduction plan, which DDOT would need to approve.

Buildings can also share parking or put parking off-site to meet the parking requirements. If a project proposes building more than twice the minimum required for a building where the minimum is 20 spaces or more, the developer will have to add amenities like more bike parking, trees, car sharing spaces, electric car charging stations, or green roofs.

The commission will deliberate on the last few items tonight. After that, officials will create a new draft of the zoning code for one more round of public comment.

History


Today's problems were visible decades ago, but zoning has blocked solutions ever since

No one could have foreseen that DC's zoning could push middle-class residents out of the District and force people to drive even to get milk, right? Actually, planners in 1970 warned of exactly of these dangers.

44 years ago, when Richard Nixon was president, the same consultants that noted outdated ideas at the root of DC's then-outdated zoning code foresaw other problems looming for the city.


Image from DDOT DC on Flickr.

The first Walter Washington admini­stration hired planning firm Barton-Aschman to examine the zoning code after the MLK assassination riots, urban renewal, the Metro, and freeway revolts. Planners greatly rethought their approaches after these seismic events.

Not all of Barton-Aschman's comments were negative, but they criticized the technocratic, autocentric attitude that underlay the 1958 zoning code. They found fault with the 1958 code's absolute separation of commercial and residential uses, which underlies the ban on corner stores.

They noted that the then-planned Metro system justified higher densities downtown and less reliance on automobiles. Finally, they anticipated that zoning restrictions made it hard to build enough housing for a growing city.

Barton-Aschman foresaw the problem with restricting housing supply

Studies for the 1958 code by its main author, a consultant named Harold Lewis, predicted that 870,000 people could live in DC under his zoning regimen. But that assumed large families and urban renewal instead of historic districts. The 1970 report says:

It is possible that zoning makes it difficult to develop new family-type housing units in the district, while also inhibiting the development of high-rise apartments which may be more attractive to single persons and families without children. ... If zoning helps deter population growth, is it contributing to an imbalanced society in the District?
They noted that these restrictions would push out the middle class, "leaving predominantly the rich and the poor of both races." They wrote that this is not a local fluke, but one that is recognizable nationwide:
The Douglas Commission has pointed out that existing codes and ordinances of major cities across the country deter the development of low-cost housing by private industry. Land is too expensive, parcels are to small, height and floor area ratios are too low, and density patterns are too restrictive to encourage modern, attractive, and livable low cost residential projects.
Aggressive downzoning, ostensibly to preserve urban character, exacerbated these problems during the 1980s. The report raised this concern, warning, "Local residents might stretch the zoning process to become exclusionary." The specter of explicit segregation was fresh in the public's memory, so they worried that the code might be abused to the same end.

Barton-Aschman realized that Metro changed everything

Barton-Aschman's 1970 report was blunt about how Metro would change the city:

Perhaps the metro system alone is a sufficiently important factor to justify a complete review of policies assumed in the 1956 Zoning Plan and reflected in the existing Zoning Regulations.
Lewis, meanwhile, saw his plan as an alternative to a mass transit system. At a public hearing on July 28th, 1956, he justified his plan:
Washington has, of course, a free choice as to which means of transportation it wishes to dominate the central city, ... no new transit system can possibly start operation for several years at the earliest, and it is therefore obvious that the [1958] zoning must be based on solid present trends and solid present fact.
Those trends? Declining transit ridership and the extensive network of highways that were soon to snake their way through Washington's neighborhoods.

In his published report, as well as the 20 public meetings held to discuss the plan, Lewis saw those highways as serving a second function, separating residential and commercial uses.

He saw the inner beltway as a great "dam" that would forever keep a shrunken downtown from bleeding into into residential neighborhoods—at least the ones that survived highway construction. Secondary arterials like Wisconsin Avenue in NW and Pennsylvania Avenue in SE would divide the city into residential cells, free of commerce.


Harold Lewis and NCPC imagined a Washington of nodes an neighborhoods.

Lewis tried to eradicate all corner stores

Lewis also saw corner stores as a blight, and proposed relocating all commercial activity to well-parked shopping centers, like the one in Spring Valley today. Residents could then drive down one of the major thoroughfares to the store.

Although Lewis had to introduce a Special Purpose (SP) mixed-use zone after the first round of comments, he still tried to force noncompliant uses like corner stores to close. The Zoning Advisory Commission decided that the enabling legislation didn't permit that. They agreed that separating uses was theoretically sound, but not politically feasible. Therefore, this attitude persists in the code's minutiae.


Recommended employment centers, from the Lewis report.

We don't know whether the authors at Barton-Aschmann would support the text of the proposed new zoning code as it was set down last September 9th. But we do know that they saw a lot wrong with the text we have now. We've known about those problems for decades; scouring the flawed assumptions and integrating the ad-hoc fixes is unavoidable to create a code for the 21st century.

Retail


Flyer says "say no to corner stores," but makes a convincing case for them

Some residents have received this flyer, which urges them to "SAY NO! TO CORNER STORES" in the DC Zoning Update. But on closer inspection, it's hard to tell how the flyer is arguing against corner stores.

Almost all of the text (and the photo) come directly from the DC Office of Planning's fact sheet which lays out the case for corner stores: more potential access to healthy food, ability to shop nearby without a long drive, and rules to ensure the stores don't harm neighbors.

Rather than argue against these, the flyer just repeats the same rationale, with a few comments sprinkled in like "DO YOU BELIEVE THIS?" and "YOU DECIDE."

Is this for real? Or, as David Garber mused, "genius marketing *for* corner stores and the DC Zoning Update"?

Mark Bjorge pointed out, "It's a Rorschach test. Answers will depend on where one lives." What he means is that in many neighborhoods, the basic word "corner store" conjures up images of a run-down store that just sells junk food and liquor and cigarettes and the like from behind metal gates or thick plexiglass, and with folks hanging out in front up to no good.

I've spoken to people from some neighborhoods who immediately thought of that the moment they heard about the proposal. In fact, the address on the flyer is from a section of Petworth where some corner stores have looked like that. Within that context, reading the OP fact sheet one might well have exactly this reaction of disbelief.

Perhaps this is another example like this exchange from a year ago where zoning update opponent Linda Schmitt posted a photograph of an alley accessory dwelling. To her, it perfectly illustrated what residents should fear. But to me and many others, the well-maintained, attractive, clean little brick building was instead an ideal example of why accessory dwellings sounded great.

In neighborhoods with higher-quality stores, the idea of bringing in a small grocery within walking distance sounds great. Residents of the Navy Yard neighborhood can enjoy Cornercopia, the store pictured in the OP fact sheet and the flyer, which embodies what people want in such a store. Those who feel confident that looser restrictions on zoning might bring in a desirable amenity instead of blight, therefore, are excited about zoning opening the door to such an asset.

To help ensure that new stores are only positive and not negative, OP has dialed back the corner store proposal so that now any store, except a grocery, will need a public hearing and a "special exception." It is also fair for people to demand that DC enforce the rules that limit the amount of trash and noise a store could generate.

If you think that corner stores aren't automatically a bad thing for every neighborhood, you've got one last chance to let the Zoning Commission know. There are three more public hearings on the zoning update this week.

Zoning


Is a walkable neighborhood out of reach for you?

Are you getting priced out of being able to live in the kind of neighborhood you want? Do you wish your neighborhood had more local stores and other amenities in walking distance? Please tell your story below.


Photo by Oliver Sholder Photography on Flickr.

At recent hearings on planning and zoning issues, we've been hearing from a lot of activists who say that everything is just perfect now, so nothing should ever change.

Next week, DC's Zoning Commission will hear testimony on parts of the zoning update including accessory apartments (which would let a homeowner rent out a basement or garage) and corner stores. There will be a lot of people testifying there, too, that their neighborhoods are perfect just the way they are, and zoning needs to block any new people or stores.

But everything is not perfect and we can't simply ignore the skyrocketing costs of housing for people across the income spectrum.

This idea that we should freeze neighborhoods in amber ignores the huge numbers of people who can't afford a place to live in a walkable place near transit, especially not one with enough room to grow a family. Or they can afford an old house in a cheaper neighborhood, but that contributes to displacing long-time residents of those other neighborhoods. And they see not just gentrification's benefits, like safer streets and new shops, but also its harm from higher costs.

Either DC plans a way to keep up with its housing demand (which still outstrips the new units getting built), or it sees the city become out of reach for many people, from young professionals starting their careers to fixed-income retirees and legions of lower-income residents.

Adding housing doesn't have to mean skyscrapers or 6-story density everywhere or anything in particular, but it does mean finding places to put the 122,000 new units DC needs (and the same for walkable places in other inner jurisdictions like Montgomery and Arlington) somewhere, rather than sticking our heads in the sand and thinking that if we don't change a thing, then our current housing problems won't get any worse.

What about you? Are you finding that housing prices keep you from being able to live where you would like to? Or do you wish that you could have more corner stores or other retail walking distance from your home?

I'd like to collect stories about what residents and prospective residents want, beyond just the same voices that show up at hearing after hearing. A lot of you can't go to all of these hearings because you have day jobs, families, and/or things to do. But your experiences matter as well.

Please fill out the form below. I will forward your stories to NCPC and the Zoning Commission. It asks for your real name and address, because these decision-makers want to know the real people sending the opinions. In addition, the text you write will get posted to this article as a comment, but it won't include your real name or your address.

And it's still not too late to sign up to speak at the zoning update hearings next Wednesday on accessory apartments and Thursday on corner stores.

Thanks!

This survey has ended, but you can still participate in the discussion on this issue by posting a comment on this article.

Zoning


Sign up right now to testify on DC's zoning update

After 5 long years, DC's process to update its decades-old zoning code is almost done. But DC won't make important progress on reducing parking minimums, allowing accessory dwellings and corner stores, and more without your help.

The Zoning Commission just released dates for its public hearings on the zoning update. They will span 9 nights in November, with a different topic for each night. Residents will speak in the order they sign up, so please sign up right now—the sooner you do, the earlier you will get to say your piece and then go home!

The most important night is Tuesday, November 12, when the Zoning Commission will hear input on proposed changes to parking minimums.

If you missed the scores of Greater Greater Washington articles on the update, the proposal calls for significantly reducing parking minimums in areas with good transit service and in higher-density residential zones. Originally, the Office of Planning considered eliminating parking requirements altogether near transit. While the new proposal has been watered down, it's still a huge step forward in building a more sustainable city.

Several other nights are very important as well. The hearings for corner stores and accessory dwellings are Wednesday, November 6 and Thursday, November 7 (with Wednesday covering the detached house zones up through low-density row houses like Georgetown, and Thursday being for other row house and apartment zones, like Capitol Hill and Petworth).

Thursday, November 14 is the hearing on downtown's zoning, including a proposal to eliminate parking minimums there.

Show your support

The most important thing supporters of the update can do at this point in the process is sign up to speak in person at one of the November hearings. Individuals not representing an organization have 3 minutes to speak. It really makes a difference to the Zoning Commission to see city residents moved to come out in support of a proposal, and no doubt, opponents will attend in great numbers as well.

If you aren't sure yet what you will say, don't worry. We are going to have a lot of articles on these topics in the coming weeks, and other resources to help you. But you don't need to be a policy expert. Some of the most effective testimony to the Zoning Commission is for people simply to talk about their own lives and neighborhoods.

While there are instructions for signing up to speak on the Office of Zoning news page, the Coalition for Smarter Growth reached out the the Zoning Commission to verify signup procedures and found out the person in charge of them is currently on vacation. We encourage supporters of the zoning update to use our form to submit your signup emails to make sure they go to the right place and help us better organize people at the hearings.

To sign up to testify, click the following links:

If you would like to speak in support of the zoning update at one of the upcoming hearings, you should sign up right away. It only will take a moment now, but the sooner you sign up, the earlier in the evening you will get to speak.

Retail


DC planning office also backs down on corner stores

Parking isn't the only part of DC's zoning update that got cut back this month. In the latest drafts, DC planners have also limited plans to allow corner stores in residential areas.


Photo by MIT-Libraries on Flickr.

Originally, they considered permitting retail, service, grocery, and arts businesses as matter of right in corner buildings, subject to lots and lots of conditions. Instead, only grocery stores might be able to locate as a matter of right, while other businesses can apply for a special exception and have a hearing.

This responds to resident concerns about stores' impacts. While it might impede corner stores, the old rules were so restrictive that almost no corner stores could have opened anyway, so this will have little further impact.

Corner store proposal tries to restore historic patterns

DC's historic neighborhoods had a few "corner stores" (usually, but not always, on actual corners) scattered throughout neighborhoods. Before zoning prohibited commerce in residential areas, and before malls and big box stores, these stores met many everyday needs.

But in the era of single-use zoning, which sought to segregate all commerce from residences, DC and other cities outlawed these stores. Some remained open, grandfathered into the zoning, while others closed and, if they remained closed for 3 years, could never reopen. OP wanted to fix this problem.

Certainly, a store can potentially harm neighbors if there is a lot of noise, trash attracting rodents, smells from cooking, and so on. Therefore, planners tried to write a set of narrow rules limiting trash to being stored indoors, restricting on-site cooking, curtailing hours, and so on.

Leaders ask for hearings before stores can open

The Zoning Commission approved the idea in theory, but it drew opposition from many residents. Councilmember Muriel Bowser, in particular, expressed hostility to this idea. Some small stores in neighborhoods in her ward tend to sell mostly liquor and junk food and can be magnets for disturbances or crime, though OP's rules didn't allow liquor stores under the corner store proposal.

Bowser suggested there have to be a public hearing before any store could locate in a residential area. Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B, for southern Capitol Hill, also suggested requiring a hearing.

OP has agreed to change the rules so that a grocery store can still locate as a matter of right, but a retail sales business, art studio, cafe, or service business will require a special exception. To get one, an owner will have to apply to the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA), talk to the ANC, and have a hearing where neighbors can speak.

OP is still finalizing some of the details. For example, the old rules had many limits, including how close one store could be to an existing commercial corridor or mixed-use area. The idea was to ensure that such stores don't sap vitality from the actual commercial area. But, ANC 6B suggested, if the BZA is going to review an application anyway, instead of a firm rule this could be something the BZA can consider.

Similarly, maybe the strict limits on hours and size can be a little less absolute if the BZA is able to use its discretion and weigh the impacts against the benefits.

Is this the right move?

Certainly, this change will make corner stores harder to open than they would have been under the original, Zoning Commission-approved proposal. But there were so many limits on corner stores that there were actually vanishingly few eligible sites for corner stores at all.

Stores could only be in the moderate density R-3, R-4, and R-5-A zones, not the detached or semi-detached house R-1 and R-2 zones or the apartment R-5-B zones. They had to be at least 500 feet from any mixed-use zone (even one with no stores). They had to locate on corner buildings, or buildings originally built to be commercial.

That leaves few areas in most parts of the city. In Ward 4, for instance, only Petworth and a few tiny bits of other neighborhoods are eligible, and then only far from the commercial corridors. Even within the eligible area (shaded in yellow below), it's only corner buildings, most of which someone already owns and uses for a purpose other than a store.


DC's Ward 4. Eligible corner store area is shaded yellow. Corner stores cannot locate in the purple or white areas under OP's proposal. Click for larger map and other wards.

In this case, even with all the restrictions, neighbors might have an understandable concern about an impact the rules didn't anticipate. A special exception, while it creates a burden, might not be unreasonable here.

Meanwhile, residents need easy access to food, especially fresh food. The biggest potential problem with a grocer is trash, and rules require them to store all trash indoors. They also limit the store's size (1,200 square feet in the prior proposal), number of employees (3), hours (not after 10 pm and before 7 am), and more.

OP has tried to bend over backward to allow some stores while also keeping them from affecting neighbors. If their new, scaled-down proposal goes into effect, a very small number of new corner stores might open up, and then we can see how well they do. Or, the rules might be so restrictive that no stores appear.

Zoning


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.

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