Are There Too Many Restaurants?
Are there too many restaurants, bars, and cafés on U Street and Fourteenth Street? According to the zoning code, the answer is yes.
View U-14th-Florida-9th Arts Overlay in a larger map
The Uptown Arts Overlay District (shaded in red above) covers much of the commercial areas on U Street and Fourteenth Street (and some side streets) and limits eating establishments in the zone to 25% of the linear frontage as measured along Fourteenth and U Streets in the zone (red lines above). The original purpose of the limitation was to prevent the area from becoming “overrun” with restaurants, thus crowding out other non-eating establishments.
DCRA recently finished surveying the zone and found that the area is a mere 12.6 feet short of hitting the 25% limit, meaning that DCRA will not issue new Certificates of Occupancy or Building Permits for restaurants unless they receive zoning variances. Variances takes months to approve and aren’t guaranteed. Now opening even a modest café will require much more time and money and may require hiring a lawyer to apply for zoning variances.
The MidCity Business Association is upset and is demanding a zoning text amendment to raise the limit from 25% to 50%. Their fury directed at DCRA is unwarranted, though, as the agency must enforce zoning laws.
MidCity, though, has a lot of support on its side. Last year the three ANCs in the overlay, 2B, 2F, and 1B, as well as the Logan Circle Community Association and the U Street Neighborhood Association all supported increasing the limit from 25% to 50%. Though the changes to the Uptown Arts Overlay were expected to be included as part of the District’s city-wide zoning rewrite, DCRA’s recent decision, combined with the fact that the city-wide zoning rewrite is over a year away, have given new urgency to an immediate text amendment.
Now it is the time to act. As Greater Greater Washington (GGW) explains, zoning amendments typically originate from either the Zoning Commission or the Office of Planning, but an ANC or ordinary citizen can propose a text amendment, too. The Zoning Commission, if it decides to take up the matter, would hold a hearing and decided whether to approve the amendment.
Limiting the space devoted to eating establishments allows for more space devoted to neighborhood-serving retail such as dry cleaners, grocery stores, furniture stores, and clothing stores. Even still, restaurants serve residents, too, and the 25% limit is too low. Seventeenth Street in Dupont, as GGW explains, enjoys a sufficient variety of neighborhood-serving retail stores even though frontage devoted to eating establishments far exceeds 25%.
The Overlay extends as far east as the Howard Theater and even down Ninth Street’s Little Ethiopia. If the 25% rule holds, don’t expect any new restaurants to open up there, either. [see update below]
What do you think? Should the District allow more eating establishments in the area?
Update: We emailed the Office of the Zoning Administrator for clarification, and we stand corrected: “The 25% restriction only applies to businesses within the subset of 900-1400 blocks of U St NW and the 1300-2200 blocks of 14th St NW; so a potential restaurant on 9th St NW would be able to proceed without seeking BZA relief.”