April 11, 2010

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 EthiopiaIf 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.”

Categories: Good Goverment, Local Businesses
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9 Replies

  1. I think new development should move into some of the empty buildings just outside the area. Continue the march down Florida Ave. There are some great opportunities across from Thai-X. Bloomingdale also has a few commercial places around 1st and Rhode Island that would be close, but outside the “over crowded” areas.

    T St resident - April 12, 2010 @ 12:40 am
  2. If there were dry cleaners and clothing stores clamoring to pay the high rent that prime U Street locations command, that would be one thing. But there aren’t. How many of the 75% of frontage that don’t serve food are vacant? Who benefits from this?

    This law does not reflect present time economic realities: many types of businesses that were once commonplace are no longer viable because they have been replaced by big-box stores like Rite Aid, online shopping, and a throwaway culture driven by the low prices of many items that people no longer routinely repair (versus replace).

    The rule should be changed. You can’t legislate progress (or evolution, if you don’t think this is progress) – but no law will suddenly cause shoe repair stores or whatever to open on U Street. They can’t make enough money to stay in business. If a law is keeping storefronts empty in prime areas then the law is bad and the longer it stays this way, the more it hurts residents and other businesses.

    Bring it on - April 12, 2010 @ 10:05 am
  3. I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other about whether the 25% frontage limit is good or bad, but I want to point out an inconsistency in the posting.

    As the author correctly pointed out at the beginnning of the post, the restaurnat and bar limitation only applies to the street frontage 14th and U Streets. The map is accurate. It shows that only those areas with the darker red shading on map are subject to the limitation. Those with the lighter pink shading are within the zoning overlay, but are not subject to the restaurant limitation provision.

    So it’s wrong to suggest at the end of the post that the limitation would somehow limit restaurants/bars/etc in front of the Howard Theater and on 9th, which do not front 14th or U. While those areas are within the overlay, they are not subject to the restaurant limitation provision. In fact, it would have just the opposite effect. If no new restaurants could open on 14th and U, and they could on 9th and T, there would be an increased likelihood of restaurants on 9th and T Streets.

    I really like the blog otherwise and look forward to further discussion of this issue.

    Jake - April 12, 2010 @ 10:25 am
  4. I derived my interpretation from Ch. 19 D.C. Municipal Regs. § 1901.6, which states:

    Eating and drinking establishments shall occupy no more than twenty-five percent (25%) of the linear foot frontage within the ARTS Overlay District, as measured along the lots fronting on 14th Street and U Street, N.W.

    The restriction applies to the entire overlay, but only two streets serve as the basis of measurement. I assume this is to reduce the administrative burden on DCRA.

    Eric Fidler - April 12, 2010 @ 10:55 am
  5. I read that provision too before I posted, and interpret it differently. I took it to mean that the restriction only applies along 14th and U. Do you have a basis for your interpretation other than a reading of the regulation?

    Jake - April 12, 2010 @ 11:11 am
  6. I forgot to add that your reading of it seems like a reasonable interpretation, but I’m wondering if that’s the way DCRA interprets it.

    Jake - April 12, 2010 @ 11:19 am
  7. Jake, you’re right. I emailed the Office of the Zoning Administrator for clarification. I have updated the post accordingly.

    Eric Fidler - April 12, 2010 @ 11:46 am
  8. that’s funny because I was starting to think that your interpretation was the right one. I appreciate your diligence in contacting DCRA to clarify.

    Given that the limitation only applies to 14th and U Street, I think it’s advantageous for the residents of LeDroit and Bloomingdale who want increased retail options closer to their homes for the limitation to remain in place. Much of the eastern end of the corridor is underserved with retail, including restaurants and bars, and the limitation will encourage restaurants to the eastern end of the corridor.

    Jake - April 12, 2010 @ 2:31 pm
  9. I like the area and the choices in restaurants but it would be nice to have more shops to look at before/after a meal.

    LA Cochran - April 12, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

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