Posts about Retail
For almost 90 years, 1827 Adams Mill Road welcomed drivers with an Exxon gas station. Soon, this lot at the heart of Adams Morgan will make way for a new condominium with several features to encourage future residents to bike or use transit instead.
Neighbors generally support the 36-unit building, which will be built in a partnership between PGN Architects and Perseus Realty. They're excited about what establishments could fill the project's 8,600 square feet of ground-floor retail space. But others worry that losing the gas station and repair shop, which first opened in 1926, will make it hard to get their cars fixed.
The Board of Zoning Adjustment agreed to give Perseus and PGN an exception to the height limit, allowing them create a rooftop communal space, which should have great views of downtown Washington. They will also allow the developers to build just 24 parking spaces instead of the required 37, which will reduce the cost of building expensive underground parking.
In April, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C, which represents the surrounding neighborhood, voted 7-1 in favor of the project with several concessions, including that they don't want nightclubs or taverns in the building's retail space.
Residents will get 18 of the building's parking spaces, while the rest would go to commercial tenants. The residential parking spaces will be sold separately from the units, meaning people without cars won't have to pay for space they won't use. Everyone in the building will have to get a chance to buy one parking space before anyone can buy a second, and non-residents will be able to rent any excess spaces.
To reduce the amount of car trips future residents will make, everyone will get a $75 SmarTrip card or one year membership to Capital Bikeshare or a car sharing service. According to the building plans, there will also be 20 bicycle parking spaces.
The developers will pay to repair the "Pueblo Desmuralizado" mural, shown in 2007. Photo by Keith Ivey on Flickr.
In addition, the developer will set prices for any required Inclusionary Zoning units at a level that people making 50% of the average median income in Adams Morgan can afford. They'll also hold a public meeting with ANC 1C residents about their proposed construction traffic plan, and provide a one-time contribution of $2,000 to repair the "Pueblo Desmuralizado" mural on Columbia Road, otherwise known as the Ko Gi Bow Bakery mural.
After the building's finished, they'll continue to pay for upkeep at the pocket park at Adams Mill Road and Lanier Place NW, including periodic irrigation, fertilization, mulching, seasonal plantings, and installation and maintenance of tree boxes.
The developer's agreement with ANC 1C ensures that this project will make a great contribution to Adams Morgan, by supporting new residents who don't drive and giving current residents more shops within walking distance. This is just one of several condo projects in the works in the neighborhood, which altogether will add 175 units.
Any ideas on what you'd like to see on the ground floor?
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.
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.
Arlington's Bluemont neighborhood fought plans to rebuild the local Safeway and add apartments. Now that the project's stalled, a new group called Bluemont Forward wants to change the debate over growth.
In April, the Bluemont Civic Association voted to oppose a proposal from Safeway and developer Silverwood Companies to replace the 1960's-era store on Wilson Boulevard just west of Ballston with a new supermarket and 160 apartments. They claimed that the building would harm the area's quality of life and left no room for compromise.
Now, neighborhood leaders say Silverwood has quietly backed out of the project. As a result, Safeway could continue to pursue plans for the site, or it could simply close the store and leave Bluemont without its only grocery store. Silverwood won't comment on the record, but it's possible that BCA's hard-line stance was a factor in the decision to pull out.
Bluemont Forward touts the benefits of progress
Residents formed Bluemont Forward around a common vision of remaking their stretch of Wilson Boulevard as a walkable, vibrant place. Their website invokes tradition and history, inviting people to "rediscover the benefits of rationally scaled, neighborhood-oriented, mixed-use commercial areas." The group's supporters include former BCA presidents from the past 20 years.
While recent BCA meetings suggest the neighborhood is a hotbed of hostility to change, Bluemont Forward demonstrates that neighbors holds a variety of views. Many welcome progress and are ready to embrace the benefits of new development. Group members push for a pragmatic, collaborative approach that would serve the neighborhood well in future discussions.
"Arlington County, the developers, the Safeway, can come together for the common good," says Bluemont Forward spokesperson Chitra Kumar. "The Safeway is really a centerpiece of the community. Right now it's mostly a parking lot, and the community would like to see it redeveloped. We have talked to our neighbors and we know there's a sense of wanting to see some change, especially in that site."
Kumar says a new Safeway could bring about many positive changes. "If you have more foot traffic in that area, potentially have street improvements, a lot of positive things could come," she says. "We want to see that happen in a reasonable way."
Opponents' fears are overblown
Research shows that we have what psychologists like Dan Gilbert call an "impact bias." In the context of neighborhood development, author Edward Glaeser explains it best: "people…significantly over-estimate the impact that a negative shock will have on their happiness. The enemies of a new high-rise may think that the tower will make them miserable, but in reality, they will quickly adapt to the new situation."
The existing store on Wilson Boulevard, seen from west (left) and east (right).
Photos by the author.
Roger Lewis, an architect and frequent guest on WAMU's The Kojo Nnamdi Show, offered similar thoughts to radio listeners in February. On the subject of "people worrying about everything from parking to density and property values, et cetera," Mr. Lewis said, "I think a lot of the fears are unjustified. A lot of the anxieties at least that I've heard voiced…are bogus. I don't think they're justifiable."
Neighbors who voted against the change may have legitimate concerns, but in time they'll become accustomed to it. "We do think people will get used to seeing it, especially if they see the benefits they get out of it," says Kumar. "There can be a lot of them: a walkable, biking-friendly Wilson Boulevard village center that they can walk their families to."
However, the difference between the BCA and Bluemont Forward is about more than tone or attitude. BCA has taken a hard-line position against any development whether or not the existing Safeway is economically viable. They unequivocally oppose rezoning the Safeway site, saying they want no additional density there.
Meanwhile, Bluemont Forward's vision for the Safeway site is arguably moderate: not too restrictive but not too big, either. They worry that 160 apartments may be too dense, but are open to changing the current zoning. "To encourage a service-rich neighborhood center," says their website, "we agree that a redeveloped Safeway site that offers public amenities should be allowed a level of density greater than the currently allowed density, which is amenable primarily to one-story strip-mall type development."
No one actually wants to lose Safeway
Surveys of Bluemont residents show that everyone wants to have a grocery store in their neighborhood. But with the redevelopment plans in doubt, so is the future. The worst-case scenario is that Safeway may decide it's easier to sell the property than to maintain an outdated store. The new owner may then build a big car wash or another auto-oriented facility, which are allowed under current zoning.
Former BCA president and former Arlington Planning Commission member Gerry Procanick confirms the possibility that Bluemont could lose the Safeway: "The analysis we did a number of years ago showed that the current zoning would not support any viable by-right upgrade to the property," he says. "Without significant re-development the site will remain mostly asphalt, or default to some sort of townhouse project. For those of us who plan to stay and have seen what other neighborhoods have done with similar properties, there is no doubt that our neighborhood can do better."
Development opponents say that this argument plays on people's fears. But by warning that a new Safeway and housing could produce more traffic, parking problems, noises, smells, threats to safety, and school overcrowding, they're doing the same thing.
Bluemont certainly can do better than the current Safeway. If Bluemont Forward is any indication, the neighborhood can also do a better job of working with Safeway than its civic association has in recent months.
When opponents of redevelopment say they want to protect the character of their neighborhood, what does that mean? A petition, circulated by activists in Arlington's Bluemont neighborhood who oppose a mixed-use Safeway, suggests it's mainly about the height of buildings.
Preliminary rendering of Safeway's proposed new building on Wilson Boulevard. Image from Silverwood Companies.
The document, entitled, "Keep Safeway Site at 35 Feet High or Less," says, "taller commercial and residential structures would violate the scope, scale and values of the community."
Why are they wrong? Because the character of a neighborhood is not defined by the height of its buildings, but by the spirit of its people. The real question is this: What kind of neighborhood do Bluemont residents want? Do we want to be an inclusive, welcoming community, or do we want to be the kind of place that tries to keep newcomers out?
The Bluemont Safeway is on Wilson Boulevard, about a ¾-mile walk from Ballston Metro. Last year, Safeway announced their intention to redevelop the decades-old store and its large parking lot. Current plans call for the new building to occupy the entire site, with parking underground and 160 predominantly 1-bedroom rental apartments on top, according to developer Mark Silverwood.
The region needs more housing in the right places
The Washington region has folks who commute to DC from as far as West Virginia. Their daily journey illustrates a variety of serious problems we say we care about: affordable housing, suburban sprawl, oil consumption, high emissions, and traffic. When a commercial landowner seeks to add significant housing to a single-use site, they're offering an opportunity to help solve all those problems.
Bluemont residents are pretty close to the center of our region. As such, we use less energy and produce less pollution per person than people farther out in the suburbs. We're closer to a whole array of cultural and economic resources. We can be proud of those advantages. They're a big part of why people want to live here.
If we say "no" to new housing, the people we've kept out will do one of two things. They'll move further out into the suburbs, contributing to the loss of farmland and wildlife habitat, driving and polluting more to get to the center from way out there. Or they'll bid up prices to move into one of our scarce housing units; less affluent residents will be pushed out over time. That's why Arlington neighborhoods like ours need to provide more housing. We have a chance to do that.
The proposal promotes real community values
If we care about widely shared values like land conservation, energy conservation, pollution reduction, and affordable housing, then Bluemont residents should support Safeway's proposal. It's good for the region, and sets a positive example for others to follow.
It's also good for the community itself. Aesthetically, it will be a tremendous improvement. The existing store presents a featureless brick wall to Wilson Boulevard, and its parking lot is a bleak void in the fabric of the neighborhood.
The existing store on Wilson Boulevard, seen from west (left) and east (right). Photos by the author.
The new store will create a superior pedestrian experience, with ample shop windows and no curb cuts along Wilson. The apartments, a housing type new to the neighborhood, will allow long-time residents to remain active in the community as they outgrow the yardwork and stairs of typical 2-story houses.
The proposal isn't perfect, of course. Neighbors have suggested allowing customers of nearby businesses to share the new garage, a move that would help make the area's sidewalks safer and more appealing for foot traffic. Smaller-scale "liner" shops and restaurants along Wilson would also make the place a more vibrant destination for nearby residents.
At a recent public meeting organized by the Bluemont Civic Association, Safeway representative Avis Black explained that the geometry of the rather narrow site precludes additional stores, although outdoor cafe seating appears likely.
Neighborhood group plans to vote this week
This Wednesday, Bluemont Civic Association members will vote, choosing between 3 statements of BCA's position on the redevelopment. The first 2 options oppose Safeway's proposal, essentially on the grounds that it's "excessively tall," according to the group's April newsletter. The third option, revealed in an e-mail over the weekend, states support for Safeway's proposal "under certain conditions."
The Association should work with Safeway in a spirit of cooperation, not conflict. One day, when they write about the character of our neighborhood, let's make sure they say that we recognized a good thing when we saw it, that we found a way to make it even better
DC food trucks have grown in number and quality over the last several years, and are now a lunchtime staple in the District's business corridors. But new regulations would directly undermine food trucks, giving DC workers fewer options and lower-quality food.
Food trucks have been in a state of legal limbo since they first started selling lunches in 2009. Current regulations were meant for other mobile businesses, such as hot dog stands and ice cream trucks. They are not designed for modern food truck practices.
While food trucks register with the District, are inspected for safety and cleanliness, and pay the same 10% tax on sales that restaurants do, many other issues have yet to be settled. For example, food trucks regularly receive expensive parking tickets because they often need to stay at a given location for more than 2 hours.
The currently-proposed regulations are their fourth revision. Rather than focusing public safety, they micromanage when and where individual food trucks can operate. But food trucks have been successful in large part because they quickly respond to consumer needs by changing menus and locations.
Most of downtown would be permanently off-limits under the new regulations, aside from a handful allowed to operate in designated "mobile roadway vending locations."
Locations where food trucks would be allowed or prohibited downtown.
Image from the DC Food Truck Association.
The regulations themselves do not create a single MRV location. Instead, they allow DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to propose locations and the number of food trucks that can operate in each one, subject to review by the District Department of Transportation.
The regulations also allow the director of either agency, on his or her own, "the discretion to propose, modify, or remove a designated MRV location at any time." This does not protect consumers from any actual harm. Given how popular food trucks are, it's not clear which, if any, public interest is being addressed by the regulations.
Helder Gil, DCRA's legislative affairs specialist, has stated that the regulations are an attempt to "find something that works for everyone." This is a misguided goal. Many restaurateurs would prefer a downtown free from competitors, but it makes as much sense to give restaurants input on where food trucks can operate as it does to give food trucks control over prices restaurants can charge.
In heeding the concerns of restaurants, DCRA has strayed from the traditionally-accepted role of crafting regulations to preserve public health by attempting to control competition between businesses.
It's also clear that restaurants and food trucks can coexist. While food trucks have the advantages of mobility, low overhead, and convenience, restaurants have the advantages of seating, climate control, and larger kitchens. When restaurants and food trucks compete for customers by playing to their strengths, consumers win. When businesses thrive by regulating competitors out existence, consumers lose.
DCRA should completely scrap the latest proposed regulations. Instead, simpler regulations should bring food trucks into a legal status without giving local officials power to stifle competition. DCRA should issue a mobile vending license for any truck that meets the already-existing standards for cleanliness and safety.
These licenses should permit trucks to park in any available spot in a commercial zone, allowing them to operate near their customers. The cost of the license, in the range of a few hundred dollars per month, would bring in more revenue than trucks currently pay by feeding parking meters.
By keeping food truck regulations simple and rule-based, we can ensure that restaurants and food trucks compete on an even playing field. By removing discretion from the regulations, we can ensure that consumers, not competitors or officials, are in control.
If you would like to share your input on the proposed food truck regulations, send your thoughts to DCVendingRegs@dc.gov by 5 pm on Monday, April 8th.
- Metro maps out loop line between DC and Arlington
- The reason cyclists love green bike lanes
- Ask Congress to give DC self-rule on building heights
- Alexandria board rejects King Street bike lanes
- More roads won't solve traffic on I-95 in Northern Virginia
- It's fine to not build parking at Tysons Metro stations
- DC sports spaces give short shrift to girls