Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Thomas Circle

I've always felt that Thomas Circle was one of DC's prettier traffic circles. The other night, I found myself out and about with a borrowed SLR camera from Luis Gomez (One Photograph a Day), and decided to start snapping some shots.

The one below--of General Thomas looking out from atop his horse with the night sky as a backdrop--presented a rather interesting and unique view of the statue. Now, if only they would install a few benches...

Latest on Birch & Barley; Diamond District Seafood coming soon

Many of you have probably been wondering what's going on with the long-awaited Birch & Barley and ChurchKey, the two new establishments headed for the former Dakota Cowgirl space on 14th Street between O and Rhode Island.

As you may recall, the establishments have blown through several deadlines--first summer, and then October (which is now highly unlikely). And although NRG, the group behind both establishments, is keeping mum about a potential opening date (too many false starts, I suppose) there does appear to be some very good reasons as to why both places are taking so long to get off the ground.

Seems that executive chef Frank Morales was "let go" recently, according to comments I received from a company spokesperson. In Morales' place steps Kyle Bailey, who most recently served as executive chef at New York-based Allen and Delancey.

According to a release sent out by NRG:

"...[Birch & Barley's] modern American menu will include appetizers such as Charred Octopus with warm fingerling potatoes, pickled eggplant and fried capers and Char tartar with yuzu, ginger, basil and sesame chips. The menu will include a pasta section with rotating selections all made fresh in-house, such as Tagliatelle with braised rabbit, carrots, chives and housemade ricotta.

...Upstairs from Birch & Barley is ChurchKey, NRG’s 3,250 square-foot beer bar. For this space, Bailey has conceived an imaginative menu split into four sections: Fresh, Pressed, Roasted and Fried. Artichoke hearts with sheep’s milk ricotta and chestnut honey are a welcome ‘fresh’ snack, while ‘fried’ and spicy Hush Puppies are destined to be a crowd pleaser. For ‘pressed’ or ‘roasted’ options, guests can try the Truffled grilled cheese with tomato soup dip and the wood-fired Flatbreads with toppings such as Port-glazed Black Mission figs and Gorgonzola crema focata."

While strolling by the building a few nights ago, I managed to sneak a shot inside. While the exterior is clearly looking better, they've got a ways to go on the interior.


A little bit up the block, in the former 100% Mexico Space, Barton Seaver's new sustainable seafood restaurant and market--Diamond District Seafood--continues to take shape. Although Seaver has not yet announced an opening date for the combination restaurant/market, interior space build-out is continuing.

During a recent conversation, Seaver also mentioned that he was exploring the possibility of expanding his establishment across the street, into the space formerly occupied by Candida's World of Books. A lot remains up in the air at this point, but those of you waiting to have a place to purchase or enjoy sustainable seafood in the neighborhood may not have to wait too much longer.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A sunny day in Meridian Hill Park

Meridian Hill Park is truly one of DC's treasures, and those of us who live in the 14th and U street areas should consider ourselves fortunate that such a lovely green space resides so closely to us. The 14thandyous made it out to Meridian Hill this weekend for a little lounging in the sun....after all, you don't know how many good weekend days we have left.

Unfortunately, I forgot my congas and thus couldn't participate in the drum circle.

Brave or stupid? You decide.

Via Borderstan, this interesting piece from the weekend:

The victim of a Saturday-night mugging on the 900 block of U Street NW fought back with the help of two friends and caught the mugger, according to a friend who saw the incident.

Seems a would-be mugger picked the wrong group of guys to accost on U Street on Saturday night. After snatching something from one of them, the mugger took off east on U Street--followed by the three men. They caught up with him in front of Nellie's, where they proceeded to administer a beat-down in front of cheering bystanders.

Now, there is a part of me that relishes this. After all, muggings have been plaguing our neighborhood in increasing numbers for some time, and there's a certain sense of justice in seeing one of them "caught in the act." Who knows--if it had been me, I might have done the same thing. God knows it can be infuriating to have your purse or wallet taken forcibly by some thug.

But this could have ended much worse for all parties. Luckily for the three men who gave chase, the mugger was not armed; otherwise this incident might have become a homicide. (Although it seems that even homicides aren't attracting that much ire from prosecutors these days...) As it was, it made for a nice story of vigilante justice--but what about next time?

So what do you think: were the actions of the three man vigilante crew an act of justice-seeking bravery, or spur-of-the-moment stupidity?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

14th Street Pet Store and Comic Book Shop Closing

In yet another sign of the struggling market for local retailers along 14th Street, we have some sad news to report regarding a couple of local neighborhood businesses:

Linda Welch, owner of environmentally friendly pet supply shop Green Pets and comic book shop Big Monkey Comics has told us that both establishments will soon be shuttering due to the loss of their lease at their current location. Although a definitive closing date for each store is not yet known, the longtime 14th Street establishments will likely vacate their current homes sometime in the next 2 to 6 months. According to Welch, the two businesses are victims of rising commercial lease rates along 14th Street.

Welch indicated that she is exploring options for reopening both businesses in new locations. Green Pets might end up in the recently completed View 14 building at 14th and Belmont, which was developed in part by fellow 14th Street business owner (Universal Gear) David Franco. As for Big Monkey Comics, its future is a bit more uncertain.

The inevitable question that arises from this is what might take the space of these businesses? Nothing is certain yet of course, but we have heard that preliminary discussions are underway to bring in a "sex ed" (sex club?) entity called "WholeDC" on the second floor.

And no, we're not kidding.

Plans at 14th and N Shaping Up

Many of you have no doubt noticed the renovation currently ongoing at the building on 14th between N and Rhode Island Ave. The work being done on the building is turning what was once a decrepit property into something truly stunning. Witness the "before" image:

...and the "after":

Pretty amazing, huh?

While plans for all of the building's tenants are not final yet, we can tell you about two that are likely to come. Part of the ground floor retail space will be filled by a Korean restaurant, and another part by a Subway restaurant.

Now, I'll be the first one to complain about the lack of good, cheap eats in the neighborhood. But I can't say that a Subway was what I had in mind, and it's not exactly befitting a space such as the one above. Still, the sandwiches are cheap, you can smell it from several blocks away, and you can annoy the Subway employees. So maybe it's not so bad?

We'll post further details about the Korean restaurant once we have them.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lessons From Cleveland Park

This morning, the Washington Post ran a story about Cleveland Park's disappearing retailers. Never known as a commercial and retail hotspot, it seems that retailers are closing down at a rate that is alarming the neighborhood residents.

Several factors were blamed as culprits, but a couple of them should sound familiar to neighborhood residents who have been following neighborhood developments around 14th and U streets recently: a lack of parking, and a zoning regulation that restricts bars and restaurants to no more than 25% of the linear retail frontage in the neighborhood. Unlike along 14th Street however, in Cleveland Park the restriction is actually followed and enforced.

As the ARTS Overlay District Committee recently concluded, shifting retail demographics mean that it's no longer reasonable to reserve 75% of retail frontage for non-restaurants and bars. The Committee's recommendations included raising the allowable limit of bars and restaurants to 40-50%.

In Cleveland Park however, the citizen's association has been adamant that the restriction not be raised, setting up a showdown between the entrenched Association leadership and a group of citizens who would like to see the restrictions relaxed and other initiatives advanced to encourage development in the neighborhood. Keep in mind, this is the same neighborhood that engaged in a ten year battle with Giant over a new Giant store and mixed-use development along busy Wisconsin Ave.--at the location of an existing Giant store.

What's happening in Cleveland Park is an example of what can happen when zoning laws do not adapt to a changing retail environment. How might this apply to 14th Street?

Unlike Connecticut Avenue, 14th street is not fully built-out, so the issue of vacant buildings is not a good comparison. A more likely scenario is that the vacant storefronts along 14th street become banks, pharmacies, real estate offices and other uses that do not enhance the street-level activity. (One such plan is in the works at a prominent 14th street intersection in Logan--more on that in a later post).

In other words, when development is unnaturally restricted, there is a risk that undesirable results may arise.

Everyone can agree that a vibrant, mixed-use corridor along 14th and U streets is within everyone's interest. But this vision should be tempered with a pragmatic approach to the current retail market. Personally, I would love to see more art galleries, bookstores and independent boutiques up and down 14th Street. The changing retail market however tells us that such a vision is unlikely to come to fruition without some assistance and changes to DC zoning laws. This means more vacant storefronts that must be filled, and the question becomes "with what?"

With a de facto moratorium in place restricting bars and restaurants--which are, in effect, the only local businesses thriving in this market--the answer is more chain retailers and the aforementioned banks and pharmacies. Some may argue, directly or indirectly, that this is an acceptable course for the neighborhood to take in order to maintain a "mix" of retail in the neighborhood that does not include more eating and drinking establishments. This blogger is not among them.

Reversing this course, and ensuring that 14th street remains a vibrant, attractive home for a variety of new businesses, will require some changes. Many of these--including the recommendation for raising the allowable limit of bars and restaurants--are included in the report recently released by the ARTS Overlay Committee, which has now been heartily endorsed by all three area ANCs as well as numerous neighborhood associations.

What's happening in Cleveland Park serves to highlight the importance of ensuring that zoning regulations work to benefit--not hinder--development and progress in a neighborhood.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

ANC2F, 1B Vote to Endorse ARTS Overlay Committee Recommendations

At Wednesday night's ANC2F meeting, the Commission voted unanimously to support the proposal put forth by the ARTS Overlay District Committee regarding zoning recommendations to guide the further development of the U Street and 14th Street arts corridors--despite objections put forth from ANC2B Commissioner Ramon Estrada on certain recommendations included in the proposal.

On Thursday night, ANC1B voted to endorse the proposal as well (voting 6-0 in favor, with one abstention).

The recommendations--which can be found here--detail a number of items that the Committee feels should be addressed in order to ensure that the arts corridor remains vibrant and a haven for artists and the arts. Some highlights of the Committee's recommendations include:

  • allowing for greater density on developments including--in certain rare circumstances--an additional floor of height beyond the current 75 foot restriction;
  • requiring that all developments above 15,000 square feet have a dedicated arts use, which can be lessened if the use is placed on the street level;
  • increasing the allowable percentage of street frontage devoted to bars and restaurants from its current 25% level to 40-50%, and measuring the amount in smaller segments as opposed to throughout the entire district (for instance, on any given block, no more than 40-50% of the retail frontage could be bars or restaurants);
  • splitting the U Street and 14th Street districts into two separate districts; and
  • applying a single, unified zoning code to the entire district.
ANC2F Chairman Charles Reed praised the Committee's work, which included meetings throughout the summer with numerous business owners, city officials, developers and residents, prior to calling for a vote on a motion to endorse all 25 of the Committee's recommendations.

The vote was not without some degree of controversy. During the period where comments from the community were solicited, ANC2B Commissioner Ramon Estrada stood to voice objections to certain parts of the proposal.

Estrada indicated that while he generally supported the Committee's proposal, he took issue with two specific recommendations--to split the arts districts, and to apply a unified zoning code to the entire arts district. He then went on to announce that ANC2B "would not be supporting the Committee's recommendations in their entirety."

This is notable because ANC2B had not yet met to discuss the recommendations--leading to questions as to whether Estrada was speaking only for himself, or for the entire ANC.

Reached for comment regarding the matter, ANC2B Chairman Mike Silverstein indicated that "no single commissioner" can speak for the Commission. As to what ANC2B will do regarding the proposal, he said "I really don't have a clue. [T]here have been no deals. Most of us haven't fully read the ARTS Overlay Committee report yet." He went on to state "Personally, I think it's an impressive report, well researched and well reasoned."

Regardless, the strong endorsement of two area ANCs gets the proposal off on the right foot. Committee chairperson Andrea Doughty will appear before ANC2B next week to present the proposal, which will be presented to neighborhood associations as well before eventually being sent to various District of Columbia agencies for review. The ultimate goal is for the DC Office of Planning to implement the Committee's recommendations as part of the overall zoning code governing arts districts in DC.

Additional information about the Committee's work can be found by clicking here.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Shaping the Future of 14th Street, Part 2

Can we keep the "arts" in the ARTS Overlay?

That was the predominant question put before the ARTS Overlay Committee this summer. What follows is a brief preview of the Committee's report, to be unveiled at tomorrow evening's ANC2F meeting.

First, a little background. The Committee (which, in the interests of full disclosure, I was a member of) was created in order to provide a set of recommendations to the DC zoning regulations that govern the Overlay district. The Committee included a mix of new and longtime neighborhood residents, business owners--and one developer--and held a series of public meetings over the summer, where they discussed the current state of the District, and what could be done to help preserve (and attract) arts uses for years to come.

While the ARTS Overlay restrictions maintain some rather esoteric regulations governing things like bonus density and FAR allowances, their most notorious feature is the 25% restriction on the amount of bars and restaurants (as measured in linear feet). Our findings were that a) the restrictions are not working, as no DC agency is even tracking the amount of frontage currently taken by bars and restaurants (it's currently estimated to be around 29%), and b) 25% is too low a figure, as it doesn't properly reflect the changing nature of the neighborhood.

Also atop the Committee's lit of things to address was the reality that the neighborhood stands to lose some of its arts-related establishments. At several public meetings, we heard from proprietors of galleries, and landlords who had arts tenants, explain that economics were pushing them out of the neighborhood. It seems that while everyone claims to love the arts element in our neighborhood, and the city likes to promote their existence, very little is being done to ensure that they can remain here.

Thus the Committee's task was set: make recommendations to the city's zoning code that encourages arts uses in the neighborhood and helps ensure that once they are brought it they remain, while also seeking to ensure that the 14th and U Street corridors remain vibrant streets filled with a healthy mix of retail and entertainment options.

Though specifics for each of the recommendations in the Committee's final report won't be announced until tomorrow evening, I can tell you some generalities of what will be included, such as:

  • providing additional developmental incentives to encourage arts uses in new developments;
  • instituting arts use requirements for developments above a certain size;
  • increasing the allowed percentage of street-level retail that can be bars or restaurants; and
  • allowing for the use of vacant properties as temporary arts exhibit space.
In addition, we determined that one of the things we could do to economically aid artists, retail businesses and even restaurants would be to look for ways to encourage daytime traffic in the neighborhood, something that is covered under another set of the Committee's recommendations.

Ultimately, the Committee's report will need to go through several stages of review, before ending up in the DC Office of Planning, which will then need to determine whether or not to accept them.

Undoubtedly, the 14th/U Street areas have been transformed during the last several years. However, there is still a significant opportunity for change in the neighborhood, and the decisions that are made today may very well have an affect on the corridor 20-30 years from now. If you're interested to learn more, plan to attend tomorrow evening's ANC2F meeting. Or, you can visit the ARTS Overlay Committee's website, located at