Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter

We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.

Last Wednesday, representatives of the Office of Planning held a private meeting with developers and community leaders in Anacostia to discuss how to create a bustling retail zone in the Ward 8 neighborhood. Assisting them was something called the D.C. Vibrant Retail Streets Toolkit, a document prepared for the Office of Planning by the Bethesda-based real estate and design firm Streetsense that serves as a step-by-step guide to attracting desirable shops and restaurants, using successful streets in other cities as models for D.C. communities. Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, the Toolkit says, could be a model for Capitol Riverfront. Boston’s Charles Street might inform Georgetown. Main Street in Philadephia’s Manayunk, Pa.’s can inspire Brookland.

And Anacostia? The Toolkit suggests East Davis Street in Culpeper, Va.

Culpeper’s downtown, according to the Toolkit, was “dormant for decades” until a community effort “helped this isolated, rural community capture unmet retail demand in Central Virginia.” The effort seems to have paid off: East Davis Street, on just two blocks, boasts two antique stores, three gourmet food shops, an art supply store, a wine store, and a half-dozen gift and accessory stores.

In other words, East Davis Street has exactly what Anacostia lacks: retail.

The discussion at last week’s meeting, according to several people present, quickly turned from positive vibes to finger-pointing. The problem, participants argued, isn’t as simple as mimicking the economic-development strategies of other cities; rather, it’s partly attributable to regulations from the same city government that says it’s working to promote growth in Anacostia.

The central issue is parking. The neighborhood is transit-rich and pedestrian-friendly, with a compact downtown served by a Metro station, numerous bus lines, and a Circulator route. Yet according to the city’s zoning code—which dates back to 1958, when public transit had fallen out of fashion and automobiles were ascendant—retailers there are required to provide on-site parking for customers, regardless of the customers’ need or the retailer’s ability to meet it. As a result, several businesses interested in opening in Anacostia have changed their minds or been forced to endure long and expensive delays while they apply for special exemptions.

It’s a challenge that’s playing out across the city, with some developers opting to apply for exemptions from the parking minimums, which are usually granted, while others are discouraged from undertaking projects. But it’s a particularly acute problem in Anacostia, where retail is sorely needed and the market is still sufficiently unproven that developers are reluctant to take risks on ventures that could lose money. A requirement to build parking or apply for a variance adds an extra expense that can scare would-be retailers away—particularly when there’s not even space on site for parking, a common scenario in the historic neighborhood.

Exhibit A is the Anacostia Playhouse. The former H Street Playhouse, which is in the process of moving from Northeast, is supposed to host a show this spring and participate in two festivals in June. But city regulators recently slapped a “Stop Work” notice on its door for doing interior construction work without a building permit, which it can’t get because it doesn’t meet the parking requirements.* The holdup has taken its owners by surprise; the space’s low-bulk commercial/light manufacturing zoning requires it to have one parking space for every 10 seats of capacity, or 15 spaces—and it does. But the parking lot is across an alley and technically on a different tax lot. So the owners have to go through an appeal process; even if they’re successful, they might not be able to open before October, leaving them and their scheduled performers in logistical and financial straits.

“The city gave $200,000 in a grant to renovate [the Playhouse space],” says Duane Gautier, CEO of the nonprofit ARCH Development Corporation, referring to funding last summer from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities; ARCH also provided a $50,000 interest-free loan to the Playhouse. “So basically one part of the city government is hurting the other part of the city government who wants this done quickly. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Or take the vacant America’s Furniture building on the 2000 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. The building once housed a bowling alley, before becoming a discount furniture store. It’s a property with obviously high potential, given its downtown Anacostia location and its 10,000 square feet of space on each of its two floors. Its owner, the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, has been approached by multiple restaurateurs interested in moving into the space, according to Four Points Development’s Stan Voudrie, who has a hand in many Anacostia projects. (FSFSC Executive Director Perry Moon did not return several phone calls.) But parking regulations have gotten in the way: In the low- and medium-density commercial zones that comprise much of downtown Anacostia, retailers in excess of 3,000 square feet must have one parking space for each additional 300 square feet.

“There were a number of restaurant operators that looked at it, and the challenges are, to get a restaurant by right, you have to provide parking on-site,” says Voudrie, who attended the meeting last week. “Well, that building covers the entire lot.”

The PNC Bank next door has a parking lot that it’s willing to let its neighbor’s customers use, Voudrie says. But that doesn’t help with the rigid city regulations that require on-site parking.

“This is a big challenge for builders and for proprietors and retailers because it puts a limitation on our ability to attract businesses, particularly sit-down restaurants, which require a certain number of parking spaces,” says Akaii Lineberger of the advocacy group River East Emerging Leaders, who was present at last week’s meeting. “I think that’s something that really needs to be addressed as we try to attract a broader base of proprietors to the area.”

Businesses can still move into Anacostia without building parking spaces, but they need to apply for a special variance from the Board of Zoning Adjustment, a long and costly process whose prospect can scare potential retailers away.

“You have to go to BZA and get a waiver, and for a lot of people that’s expensive and difficult,” says Voudrie. “It’s a whole application process, and it takes a couple months, and you usually have to hire an attorney.”

Voudrie is frustrated that the rules don’t have the flexibility to allow for parking on neighboring lots. He argues that businesses should be able to open without a variance, or “by right,” if they can provide the parking, even if it’s not technically on the same lot.

“It should be just by right if you say, ‘Here’s my plan, and I’ve got an agreement with a parking lot down the street, and I’ll have valet service,’ or whatever,” Voudrie says.

As it turns out, the scenario Voudrie is advocating will likely be a reality soon. The Office of Planning is currently shepherding a rewrite of the city’s zoning code through the approval process. As currently written, the new rules, which could go into effect as early as late 2014 (or possibly much later), would remove the minimum parking requirement for buildings within half a mile of a Metro station or a quarter of a mile of a high-capacity bus line. Much of Anacostia would be exempt from the parking requirements.

But in the meantime, as Anacostia struggles to attract retailers, the impending zoning changes aren’t any help. In the absence of a retail boom, what predominate are boarded-up buildings and social-service organizations—some of which are subject to less stringent parking requirements than retailers and attract impoverished and in certain cases drug-addicted clientele whom neighbors don’t always welcome with open arms.

Until the new zoning code is in place, the city should grant relief from the parking requirements. The Office of Planning has supported expedited Board of Zoning Adjustment hearings for parking variances, but the rules don’t allow expedited cases to displace previously scheduled cases, and city rules also require a minimum of 30 days’ notice before any public hearings, so even the expedited process can be quite slow (and still likely requires a lawyer).

There are a few possible fixes. One would be a rule change to allow for parking on neighboring lots if on-site parking is impossible. Another, Gautier suggests, is to give businesses a certificate of occupancy while they’re applying for a variance, so as to speed up the process. Simplest of all would be to stop enforcing the regulations. Gautier says that in the past, when he told city authorities that one of his businesses would be taking up 100 percent of the lot and couldn’t provide parking, they didn’t press the issue. An explicit policy of nonenforcement until the new code takes effect could be enough to reassure would-be Anacostia retailers.

But one way or another, in a neighborhood that the new zoning code will officially recognize as not dependent on cars, outdated parking regulations shouldn’t be allowed to prevent an influx of badly needed retail.

* Due to a reporting error, this story originally incorrectly stated that the “Stop Work” order was issued because the parking requirement wasn’t met. In fact, it was issued because the work was being done without a valid building permit, which couldn’t be issued because of the parking minimum.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery