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A few weeks after boosting the ARTS Overlay restriction on bars and restaurants in Midcity on an emergency basis, the Zoning Commission reconvened to hear arguments as to whether or not it should be permanently raised, as recommended by the Office of Planning.
Except nobody showed up to oppose it.
ANC 2B commissioner Ramon Estrada, who had previously pushed for enforcement of the 25 percent cap on the percentage of store frontage that could be devoted to eating and drinking uses, had been signed up to testify. On May 28, he had even sent a letter to Zoning Committee members on behalf of the ANC’s zoning and historic preservation committee that opposed raising the limit to 50 percent.
Earlier this week, the Office of Planning understood Estrada’s letter to represent the stance of the whole ANC, to some consternation among other ANC members—at its Tuesday meeting, 2B voted unanimously to endorse the recommendations of the ANC 2F arts overlay committee. Chairman Will Stephens sent a new letter to correct the record, and Estrada didn’t appear at the hearing.
Newly-minted 14th Street restauranteur Mark Wise of the Whisk Group was among the dozen people testifying in favor of raising the cap. The only person to rise in “opposition” to OP’s recommendation—based largely on the work of the ANC 2F arts overlay committee—was the celebrated local broker Wayne Dickson, who said that even a 50 percent cap would be too low.
“Today in our market, the only thing working is food and beverage,” Dickson said, noting the high cost of space. “We can’t get soft goods, meaning clothing, shoes. It doesn’t exist.”
The Commission seemed also positively disposed to the Office of Planning’s recommendation, which included measuring store frontage on a block-by-block basis rather than over the entire vast area. The only tough questioning came from vice chair Konrad Schlater, who worried about the increased traffic that more restaurants might bring—he can’t find a parking spot near U Street on a weekend night!—before invoking the D.C. development bogeyman.
“We’re trying to avoid what’s going on at 18th Street in Adams Morgan,” Schlater said. “I feel like it’s not something to be recreated.”
Office of Planning associate director Joel Lawson explained that while no, there hadn’t been a comprehensive traffic study, the Adams Morgan example doesn’t really apply.
“First of all, this isn’t 18th Street,” Lawson said, explaining that there were ways to manage traffic to avoid that type of situation. “If what we’re saying is ‘are we trying to recreate an 18th Street,’ I would say no. What we’re trying to do is create a 14th street and a U street that are the best that they can be.”
Zoning Commissioner Michael Turnbull also pressed members of ANC 2F’s arts overlay committee about parking and then joked: “I was just looking out for the interests of the vice chair,” referring to Schlater.
“I hope he’ll take the bus,” Chairman Anthony Hood quipped.
Other details: In order to protect arts uses even as restaurants are allowed to expand, the arts overlay committee recommended that eating and drinking establishments be removed from the list of “preferred uses,” which are allowed to operate under a three-to-one bonus density, and that any new bar or restaurant seeking a license above the 50 percent limit be required to obtain a zoning variance, rather than the relatively easy-to-get special exception.
The case is scheduled for consideration for proposed action on June 28th.