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.


Sean Hennessey said...

makes me wonder what percentage of shopping we expect to do in brick and mortar shops, and what percentage of going out to eat/drink/find entertainment do we expect to do online. knowwhatimsaying?

i know little about economics but wouldnt it make more sense to incentivize small, independent business rather than legally restrict bars and restaurants?
i know that it would involve more city action than restrictions involve but still. seems worth it.

tax breaks. fast tracks on permitting. other allowable variances that might be obstacles.
( see cap city dinner over on bladensburg ave ne).

so yeah, unnaturally restrictive=bad. unnaturally helpful=good.

Nick the Greek said...

I totally agree the retail environment has changed. I am amazed and very pleased with the diversity of business along 14th St. A few shops have closed because they just couldn't make it and this was a few years ago. I would rather have a vibrant neighborhood than a dead zone, even if it has too many restaurants. The other shops will follow because that is where the people are.

Brandon Green said...

I think of Cleveland Park as more of a place to eat than shop.

Anonymous said...

Yet the vacancies in that article were mostly corporate chains; Blockbusters and Starbucks in particular facing some tough times themselves.

Vacancies are a temporary trend thanks to the dual effects of the bubble and the coming CRE troubles: drastically reduced commercial lending (bad for small business) and building owners obviously asking too much for rent (left over bubble irrationality).

Anonymous said...

RE: Anon 9:23 AM

Your argument has a leak. Nationals tend to have reserves for their franchises to overcome such "temporary trends." The local businesses that remain in CP's lovely historic commercial district remain not only because they are frequented by neighbors and visitors alike, but that they are community oriented. They serve their audience/customers.

Where your argument does hold water is that small business loans/incentives are jelly against a wall. Additionally, why would a creative entrepreneur choose to open a new shop or social space if in addition to city red tape he/she needs to step gently on the eggshells of neighborhood politics during these "hard times"?

Mr. 14th and You, an interesting comparison article on Mount Pleasant and/or the East-of-18th-Columbia Road might expand your example. Moneyed/propertied residents failure to shop in their own neighborhoods is a problem. With the exception of Starbucks, I doubt if CP homeowners frequented the 7-Eleven or McDonald's chains. I am not advocating for the high-end. See Dos Gringos (MP), the new taco place at Park Plaza, one could even argue for local franchises, e.g. Firehook.

As an earlier commenter to this blog implied, folks are shopping more and more online. In order to survive, commercial districts need to create spaces to draw those of us that spend 6+ hours a day in front of a computer screen through their doors.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Anonymous - can you explain your comment to "vote out Ramone Estrada?"

Unknown said...

As someone who abandoned Cleveland Park after nearly 12 years for the 14th & U area two years ago, I can tell you that one of the contributing factors to our departure was the entrenched "community leadership" that opposes change of any kind with the intent of keeping Cleveland Park some remnant of 1950/60s suburban Washington. What we kept hearing was fear-mongering that if any new restaurants were let in, "Cleveland Park will become Adams Morgan." Adams Morgan was always the boogeyman; there was no other alternative. The list-serve was filled with absurd notions not based in economic reality. One of my favorites was a campaign by one community voice to attract a "used clothing store for children." If Starbucks and 7-11 can't make a financial go of it.... The other part of the equation is that some of the controlling powers don't frequent the local businesses but don't really want to attract traffic, outsiders and "riff-raff" to the neighborhood. The Giant fiasco is what pushed me over the edge. Zoning overlays can be a very good thing, but there needs to be some flexibility in adjusting to changing economies and demographics. In the Cleveland Park case, that inflexibility is also tainted with a not-too-subtle concern about outsiders and "those not like us." It's not open hostility, and there is certainly a veneer of liberal open arms, but after almost a dozen years, we still felt like outsiders. Those who treated us like family were the new restaurants and other businesses that some in the neighborhood fought so hard to keep out.