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The Uptown Arts Overlay is the zoning designation getting all the attention this week. But it isn’t the only one: Woodley Park and Cleveland Park are also wondering what to do about zoning regs that are restricting business.
First, a little background. In total, there are seven overlays in D.C.. All of them cap eating and drinking establishments at 25 percent of total store frontage (with the exception of 8th Street SE, where the limit is 50 percent). While the U Street/14th Street district—the largest of the seven—only recently reached that threshold, Woodley Park has been butting up against it for years now. Eating and drinking establishments now take up 31 percent of total store frontage, and all prospective new restaurants have to go to the Board of Zoning Adjustment for a special exception.
That, according to residents at a panel convened last night by Woodley Park neighborhood groups, is a major factor behind the empty storefronts that currently dot Connecticut Avenue. Ruthanne Miller, a former ANC 3C chair who ran the BZA from 2007 until 2009, says that even though she typically granted applications for exemptions, she didn’t actually get many of them.
“Restaurants and lessors are interested in certain spaces, but when they hear they have to go before the BZA, they went somewhere else,” she told the group, which met at the Stanford in Washington building. “When we say just come get a special exception, they don’t.”
Adrienne Hedmon owns two commercial buildings in the area, and says the zoning restriction is preventing her from leasing the space. Restaurants don’t want to bother with the BZA—even though the sluggish economy has shortened the appeal process from six or seven months to four or five—and clothing stores worry that there isn’t enough daytime foot traffic to sustain sales. “I have very limited options in terms of who I can bring in,” Hedmon said. “Currently, Woodley Park is not a vibrant business district.”
During the discussion, speakers voiced support for zoning restrictions that have helped their commercial district retain some businesses that serve residents, like small food markets and dry cleaners, which might have a harder time surviving in an unfettered market. But the 25 percent bar, at this point, might be doing more harm than good.
“Empty buildings are the worst,” said Barbara Ioanes, vice president of the Woodley Park Community Assocation. “The rats are back.”