To the average passerby, it’s not immediately obvious why some streets have more or fewer of different types of businesses. That’s because D.C. isn’t a free market: zoning regulations dictate the character of most commercial corridors.
Take the Midcity area. Since the 1980s, zoning regulations have decreed that only 25 percent of storefronts in an “arts overlay” along U street and down 14th Street can be occupied by eating and drinking establishments (a similar district exists in Cleveland Park). At this point, the threshold has been reached: According to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory affairs, there’s only 12.64 linear feet of store frontage left.
Last year, local businesses, two neighborhood associations, and three Advisory Neighborhood Commissions recommended that the threshold be bumped up to 50 percent. The original zoning was designed to help support the arts, but a study performed by ANC 2F found that galleries and theater spaces would be helped by having more bars and restaurants in the area, not fewer. The city is undergoing a comprehensive zoning revision, and the community expected that its recommendations would be incorporated.
This Monday, they received a shock: The Zoning administrator ruled that it would approve no more building permits or certificates of occupancy as a matter of right; all new businesses would have to go through a special appeal process with the Board of Zoning Adjustment. For anyone hoping to open a new bar or restaurant in the area, that could be another couple months of hearings and legal fees.
Today, the MidCity Business Association blasted off a furious email to members. “Requiring all new projects to go to the BZA will absorb an enormous amount of business, community and government resources as projects seek exemptions to a rule that is widely regarded as outdated and harmful to economic development,” it reads. “It will send a strong message to local, regional, national investors that DC is business unfriendly.”
Peter Raia, a realtor for Long and Foster, represents an ANC single member district covering U Street between 9th and 14th and supports the enforcement of the 25 percent cap.
“Most people there will say, we think we have enough restaurants and bars,” Raia explains. “Even when I talk to licensees, they even feel there’s enough restaurants and bars. They can’t make enough money, because there’s too many of them. It’s killing some that are trying to survive.”
But that’s not true for blocks at the other end of 14th street—the affected zone goes all the way down to N street, and now anyone who wants to open a bar or restaurant there will need to apply for a special exemption. MidCity Business Association is sending an urgent letter to councilmembers Jim Graham and Jack Evans—we’ll see whether the protest is heard.
EDITOR’S NOTE 4/13, 3:08 p.m.: We’re re-reporting this item; a new version will be published soon. —-Andrew Beaujon, 202-332-2100 x. 249