Matt Yglesias responds to the news that ANC 6B might advocate for a liquor license moratorium by going on a tear about why such restrictions are “highly un-optimal.” The best solution, he says, would simply be to add more retail square footage. But if residents don’t want to zone more areas for commercial use, “then the right thing to do is to offer an explicit subsidy for dry cleaners (or pet shops or whatever else) perhaps paid for with an explicit tax on disfavored activities like the sale of liquor.”
To be fair, the ANC’s Retail Mix Committee is considering a wide array of options, including tax incentives. Here are few more from the committee’s initial report, and a couple thoughts on each:
A “targeted recruitment effort” to reach out to businesses that might wish to locate in the neighborhood, along the lines of what the city recommended for Adams Morgan (which hasn’t been implemented, at least by the Adams Morgan BID, which keeps a running list of retail openings and rents but doesn’t actively pursue businesses). I’m pretty skeptical that this would be truly effective—businesses are pretty good at scouting locations on their own, and a charm offensive won’t change the fundamentals of rent and foot traffic.
“A Hospitality Resource program … to better manage the activities of the area’s eating and drinking establishments.” The Responsible Hospitality Institute has good ideas that definitely should be looked at, but they’re mostly about managing the nighttime economy rather than supporting other types of retail. It’s a supplement, not a solution.
More Reimbursable Details, or off-duty police officers paid for in part by businesses to keep a lid on disturbances. Putting more cops on the street may make people feel safe, but what faster way to make your neighborhood feel like a club zone than have security swarming the sidewalks? More police officers don’t address the root issue of rowdy nightlife.
Tax incentives for landlords who lease to local retail establishments. This seems like a good way to reward landlords for jacking up rents to levels only bars and restaurants can afford. If it’s purely a rent problem, Yglesias’ suggestion of subsidies targeted to the businesses themselves is a more fair way to accomplish essentially the same goal. If it’s not—meaning that the retail economy has changed such that these businesses wouldn’t survive even with pre-bar-scene rental rates—it doesn’t make much sense to subsidize businesses that the community wouldn’t otherwise support.
A Community Land Trust that would buy up buildings to lease on preferential terms to desired businesses. A fine solution, if you have several million dollars to spare!
A zoning overlay that would restrict certain uses and incentivize others with carrots like bonus density for developers. This is perhaps the strongest, cheapest, and also most fine-tunable option available to communities. It’s helped the Midcity area keep a strong arts presence, even if the 25 percent cap on bars and restaurants had to be lifted when it started to stifle new businesses.
The fundamental question is: If the neighborhood brings in non-food businesses, by whatever mechanism, will people actually patronize them enough to keep them afloat? If you do all your shopping online or at Home Depot, it’s hard to complain when the local boutique or hardware store goes kaput. Business assistance in the form of advertising, special events, and making local purchasing a priority are at least as important than taxes or zoning regs.