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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.