Mind the Gap: the 14th Street Zoning Dilemma

So I guess this is an unconventional day for my little blog. First, a non-local news post and now a somewhat serious post (gasp!) about neighborhood politics. I know, but bear with me. This is a neighborhood blog after all.

So my U Street area, known in zoning speak as the Uptown Arts Overlay District, has gotten it’s fair share of press in recent years. The New York Times wrote about it last month. Restaurants like Marvin, Masa 14, and Birch & Barley have received strong reviews across the board, rents have skyrocketed. But I feel with all the hype, people forget one thing: that it’s not quite “there” yet. So yes, 14th street has  a great deal of this:

Churchkey (photo from New York Times)

But it also has great swaths of this:

14th Street (Ohad photography)

In effect, gaps. Sure the vacant storefronts are charming in their own way (we know  they give hipsters a sense of place) but they also reflect the area’s transitioning nature.

It’s these gaps that make the recent Zoning Commission decision so puzzling. Namely, on April 5th, the Commission ruled that the amount of linear storefront space devoted to bars and restaurants within the Uptown Arts Overlay District cannot exceed 25%.  Given that the area is at 24.88% right now, the ruling basically prohibits new bars and restaurants (save those currently pending). Ridiculous? Perhaps. But it becomes even more bizarre once you see what the Uptown Arts Overlay District encompasses:

Yes, ALL of that. So bars stacked on top of one another at U and 14th streets will effectively prevent restaurants from being built below Logan circle. Sure, the 25% number was resident-driven, homeowners frightened of having another Adam’s Morgan on their hands, but I take issue with the structure more than the percent. Namely, the area is simply too big for such a sweeping percentage quota. If you applied that quota on a block-by-block basis, maybe, but to the WHOLE district? Come on.

To this end, I think the Commission needs to take a more broad view of the problem. Instead of haggling over the percentage, which seems to be the theme, they should look at other options to see whether the current approach is the best for the area. Because yes, bars and restaurants have their negative effects, such as dirt, noisiness and competing with daytime retail, but they also have positives to promote. They increase foot traffic at night (which deters petty crime) and are a primary draw for an area that frankly, is becoming know for innovative restaurants.

So that’s just my 2 cents on the issue. The Commission is meeting again on April 26th to discuss the decision. I will keep you posted.

(OH. And to those that say it’s easy to get an exemption from the quota, it doesn’t cut it for me.  Having a weak policy with an accessible loophole benefits nobody. It does not send the right signals to residents or businesses honestly)

2 thoughts on “Mind the Gap: the 14th Street Zoning Dilemma

  1. Thanks for the comments. Just a little clarification for you. DCRA does not set the limits, we simply enforce them. The Zoning Commission actually set the overlay and it the government body that will be meeting to discuss a proposed amendment – submitted by the Office of Planning – to increase the percentage allowed in the overlay. Here is a great overview by Greater Greater Washington: http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post.cgi?id=5461

    Thanks and nice post. – Mike Rupert, DCRA

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