City Paper is not for tourists
In the back of the Broad Branch Market, tucked behind the bulk dispensers of golden flax seeds (sold out), loose teas (10 varieties, amply stocked), organic muesli (nearly exhausted), and maple almond granola (plentiful), a store employee swirls, sniffs, and swills a plastic cup of sauvignon blanc. She takes notes as the wine distributor standing before her refills her cup from the next bottle in a lineup of more than half a dozen.
Before he can get through the arsenal, a DC Brau representative shows up, inspired by a tweet posted by the Broad Branch Beer Twitter account a few hours earlier boasting about the brewery’s Solar Abyss beer that the market has added to its growler station. (No matter that the store already stocks three DC Brau varieties, among the many other craft beers that cost up to $13.99 for a four-pack.) He, too, is soon cut off by the arrival of representatives from another wine importer and distributor, who are looking to add their products to the store’s expansive wine selection.
Up front, customers survey the store’s homemade sausages and impressive hunk of deep-red ahi tuna as Beach House and Dire Straits play over the speakers. Soon, an espresso bar will arrive to top off the monthly coffee tastings that will join the existing weekly wine and beer sipping sessions.
“Every yuppified, Whole Foods-shopping, Lululemon-wearing, affluenza-suffering, crunchy, NPR-listening granola head wishes they lived a few blocks from a BBM-type place,” rhapsodizes the store’s top Yelp review, “even if it was only to complain about their patrons’ Tesla blocking their driveway.”
Clearly, this is not a typical corner store.
It differs in its offerings, even though it does complement its more rarefied products with Heinz ketchup and Hellman’s mayonnaise. Co-owner Tracy Stannard (pictured below) insists, “We’re not one to claim to be natural, organic, local. We’re just a corner store.”
It also differs in its physical setting. Sure, it’s on a corner. But while most corner stores occupy the ground floor of a rowhouse in a medium- to high-density neighborhood, the Broad Branch Market lives in a detached house of its own, with a patio and outdoor seating. Its neighbors live in spacious million-dollar houses. Many of its customers arrive by car.
And it differs in its political milieu. (Yes, politics do apply to the neighborhood purveyor of breakfast cereals and six-packs.) The Chevy Chase neighborhood that’s home to the Broad Branch Market is the epicenter of the most vocal opposition to the proposal by the Office of Planning to rewrite the city’s zoning code comprehensively for the first time in more than half a century. The most controversial provisions of the revised code would scale back minimum parking requirements in some new buildings, permit certain types of accessory dwelling units, and allow new corner stores in very limited circumstances. Residents in and around Chevy Chase have raised hell over these proposed changes, for fear that they’ll increase residential and commercial density—and thereby noise and parking competition—in quiet neighborhoods like theirs.
Under the current rules, which promote single-use zoning that bans commercial activity on residential blocks, it’s basically impossible to open a new corner store without seeking special approval. The new code would allow corner stores in medium-density rowhouse neighborhoods, provided they’re at least 500 feet from the nearest mixed-use zone and are located at a corner. (The Broad Branch Market wouldn’t meet the new or old criteria, but it’s grandfathered in, since retail has operated there since it was a Jewish market nearly a century ago.)
This presents a conundrum. A neighborhood whose only corner store is wildly popular stands against the zoning rewrite that could bring similar corner stores to more neighborhoods. Residents’ opposition to some of the rewrite’s provisions—primarily the changes to parking requirements and accessory dwelling units—means they effectively oppose letting other neighborhoods enjoy the same kind of store they do.
In a part of town often slapped with the NIMBY label, this perspective seems almost IMBY-esque: Residents support the market in their own backyard, but are fighting a proposal that would, among other things, allow corner stores in denser neighborhoods.
“There is definitely an anti-development aspect to the neighborhood,” says Stannard. “They don’t like a lot of change. But anyone in this neighborhood would tell you that if someone wanted to put a corner store on their block like this, they should do it.”
Some Upper Northwest residents who oppose the zoning update seem to fear the stereotype of a crummy, urban convenience store, even if the changes wouldn’t allow those stores to open in their own neighborhoods anyway. “I am not against having more if it’s this quality,” says Chevy Chase resident Marcella Townsend, who’s shopping for cheese in the market during the mid-afternoon rush as parents pick up their kids from Lafayette Elementary School across the street. “I think we have plenty of the cheap, low-quality places. We don’t need that.”
The trouble is that it’s hard to imagine more places like the Broad Branch Market popping up in the District. Without a more radical change to the zoning code, they won’t be allowed in neighborhoods like Chevy Chase—nor would neighbors likely welcome them as an unknown quantity—and Stannard worries that a new branch wouldn’t be profitable in a less wealthy part of town. Instead, she says she may open new locations in other cities, in neighborhoods with similar demographics to Chevy Chase’s. She says she’s had inquiries from people in Nashville, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Seattle, among others.
Meanwhile, in part because of the restrictive rules, the corner stores we’re likely to see more of in the District are exactly the kind Upper Northwest residents might fear: ones that provide dense, low- to moderate-income neighborhoods with reasonably priced, if not entirely healthy, food and drink.
And while it might be the only corner store in its vicinity, the Broad Branch Market is full of reminders of the ways in which it differs from most corner stores, where people arrive by foot to get basic goods that don’t merit a trip to the supermarket. Which is exactly why its patrons love it.
“It’s easy to park, it’s not a nightmare like Safeway, the food’s better, and it’s cheaper than Whole Foods,” says Linda Willard, who’s stopped in by car to pick up a roast chicken and 100 pieces of candy for her daughter’s 100th day of school at Lafayette, on her way home to Chevy Chase Village, Md. “I can’t say enough good things about this store.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery