Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Last night, Council Chairman Kwame Brown came out with his edits to the Mayor’s budget for agencies within his purview, and one tweak jumped out at me: A $300,000 increase to the Department of Planning and Economic Development’s grant making authority to “encourage development, attract new business, and in particular ensure development and help bring another sit-down restaurant east of the river.” Nevermind the redundance of the word development. What was this money for, exactly?
According to Brown spokeswoman Karen Sibert, it’s a reorganization of funds within the agency that will free up a total of $700,000 for a table service restaurant. They don’t have a particular entity in mind, but rather a place: Penn Branch Shopping Center on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, not far from where Brown, Mayor Vince Gray, and Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander lay their heads. It’s a special project for Brown—-he’s been trying to lure a restauranteur there for years, having helped keep the District’s DMV lease in place to anchor the center.
The location certainly has a lot going for it: The tens of thousands of cars that rush by every day, the relative wealth in neighboring Hillcrest, the paucity of high-quality options nearby. But broker Tom Papadopoulos has so far been unable to lure somebody in, and at least one previous potential—-Ben’s Chili Bowl—-bowed out when the city didn’t offer a subsidy.
The city uses grants to incentivize retail in locations where perception hasn’t caught up with market realities; Yes! Organic Market on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue got $900,000 for that reason. I can think of one thing that might help more, though: Making it easier for developer ICG Properties to build housing on the back parking lot, which neighbors have opposed. Density is the kind of thing that helps restaurants survive long-term, not just come because of a fat carrot.