Monday, December 15, 2008

How the Arts Overlay District Could Stymie 14th Street Development

Those of you who are only casual observers of neighborhood development matters may have only a passing notion of the Arts Overlay District. The District guidelines were put in place in order to help direct development along some of the areas' most popular retail strips, including 14th Street, U Street, P Street, Florida Ave. and 7th Street.

What many people likely don't realize is the extent to which Arts Overlay guidelines affect projects and overall development along neighborhood commercial corridors. For instance, consider the new JBG Cos. proposal for the Whitman-Walker Building at 14th and S streets. According to Arts Overlay guidelines, only 25% of the retail frontage in the district can be businesses classified as restaurants. With the high number of restaurants along U, P and 14th streets, the neighborhood is currently sitting at around 24%--meaning that the W-W development would be precluded from introducing any new restaurants tenants in the development. This is unfortunate, because the restaurants are thriving in the area and are largely responsible for the continued growth and viability of Logan/U Street as a "destination" for others throughout the region.

At a recent Dupont Circle ANC meeting, the commissioners voted to withhold support of the project, due in part to objections from "local business advocate" Andrea Doughty, who voiced concern about the potential for restaurants occupying space in the new development. Ms. Doughty stated her belief that "eating and drinking establishments" have a greater impact in the neighborhood, and assigned to them the blame of "driving up rents" for other businesses.

Well, there are a couple of ways to address this. First of all, I believe it's possible to embrace the spirit of the law ("we don't want 14th street to be overrun with restaurants") while not embracing the letter of the law ("given the current situation, exceeding the 25% restaurant barrier might not be inappropriate"). I would agree to some extent with Doughty's feelings that restaurants have a greater impact on the neighborhood than other businesses, but that works out in both good and bad ways. My guess is that people such as Doughty are focusing largely on the negative impact: increased traffic, parking problems, noise, etc. But the positive impacts--encouragement of development, increasing the vibrancy of the retail corridor, improving the quality of life for area residents--are just as, if not more, important.

The District's zoning laws already largely prohibit the opening of retail establishments like restaurants and bars in residential neighborhoods. Contrast DC with, say, Baltimore, where you'll find numerous restaurants, pubs and markets scattered about residential areas. To then go a step further an make the opening of a restaurant in an area *known* for restaurants and nightlife more burdensome seems antithetical to the spirit of the Arts Overlay.

In addition, the Arts Overlay guidelines specifically address restaurants, but leave other businesses--such as furniture stores--out. Now, nothing against the "furniture row" that has developed along 14th street, but there is something terribly wrong if JBG receives more encouragement from community development voices to introduce another furniture/housewares shop to the 14th street mix, but not a new dining establishment.

Finally, as to restaurants being largely responsible for driving up the cost of rents in the area--I don't buy it. Perhaps some businesses have seen their rents rise as the 14th street corridor has become more popular and filled-out, but any honest assessment of the neighborhood retail scene would lead one to the conclusion that the presence of the restaurants and bars in the neighborhood have done far more to ENCOURAGE the patronization of other neighborhood businesses rather than do drive them out of the neighborhood. (And does anyone honestly want to argue that the arrival of, say, Cafe Salsa will have a greater impact on neighborhood rents than Bang & Olufsen, Mitchell Gold or Room & Board?)

In progress, it's inevitable that some businesses won't make it or will be forced to move elsewhere. This is unfortunate, but should not be an overriding concern when making decisions about developments that will have an impact on the neighborhood for years to come.

Everyone can agree that a diversity of retail establishments is beneficial to the neighborhood's overall health, but adhering to a set of principles for their own sake--or allowing development to be thwarted on the basis of such protests--serves no one.


Unknown said...

I absolutely agree. THANK YOU for the post. Any suggestions on what those of us who are only casual observers of neighborhood development matters can do to effect positive change on this issue?

As someone who lives only a block away from this proposed project, I WELCOME the possibility of another restaurant. I'm tired of spaces being renovated and new buildings coming in only to have just a store front that sells condos (we have had as many as 5 at a time). I'm also tired of not having more options for dinner (I've exhausted everything already here), and I frankly don't have much interest in furniture more than every few years--and even then I'm not going to buy it here just because it is around the block; these stores are too expensive and don't seem to take urban living space size into consideration of their offerings).

We need restaurants. [We especially need a sandwich shop.]

Anonymous said...

Agree entirely. The limit on restaurants on 14th Street is absurd, particularly given the number of empty storefronts from N to V Streets. I would think most rational folks would agree that a new restaurant is preferable to nothing.

IMGoph said...

great post! seriously, this is a good example of where regulation can just become too damn onerous.

Mr. Other Upper NW said...

David (and others who may be interested):

The next big decision in this process will be from the Board of Zoning Adjustments, who will be meeting on January 6 to decide on the requested variances and exceptions. You may submit written communication in support of the project directly to the BZA. the contact info is as follows:

District of Columbia Office of Zoning
441 4th Street, NW
Suite 210 South
Washington, DC 20001
Telephone: (202) 727-6311
Fax: (202) 727-6072

(Warning: the email address above bounced back to me when I tried to use it. You may want to try calling.)

You may also reach out to the appropriate ANC commissioner, which in this case would be ANC 2B09. The ANC has already given its blessing on the project, and can tell you what efforts have been made to encourage the BZA to grant the exemptions.

Steve S. said...

One of my most bitter gripes about U Street is the total lack of convenient restaurants. On a weekday night when I feel like grabbing dinner by myself rather than cooking, I'm stuck walking to Dupont or Columbia Heights, there's just no place to eat around here that offers convenient non-sit down service. When do we get a Chipotle?