Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Douglas Development wants to rebuild Tenleytown’s long-vacant Babe’s Billiards into a mixed-use development with 60 residential units and ground floor retail space. Perhaps most significantly, Douglas wants to build no parking at all on the site.

The once-popular neighborhood nightspot has been shuttered for several years, despite its location just a few hundred feet from the Tenleytown Metro station.

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E will hear about the proposal tomorrow night (Jan. 12) at St. Mary’s Armenian Apostolic Church, 42nd and Fessenden Streets NW. It would help for smart growth supporters in the area to attend and encourage the ANC to support this worthy project.

The former Babe’s sits on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Brandywine Street, near the top of a hill with downward slopes to the south and west, and Douglas’s proposal promises to utilize this topography creatively.

Douglas Development’s proposal would allow for a potential sit-down restaurant to have an outdoor seating area along Brandywine Street and for the sought-after retail tenants (no dry cleaners, fast-food restaurants, or banks) to have tall, airy ceilings as high as 16-18 feet. 

Renderings by Douglas Development Corp.

Although the retail mix in Tenleytown is improving, this stretch of Wisconsin Avenue has long been associated with mattress stores, cheap fast food, dry cleaners and lots of banks (okay, maybe not the banks) that belies the affluence of upper Northwest and the proximity to the student population at American University.

A ground-floor restaurant would be an ideal tenant for the space and provide significant value to the community, but if the ANC or Zoning Commission requires parking, that won’t be possible due to the topography.

Foregoing on-site parking will also help make the upstairs housing units more affordable. This is appropriate, as the cost of underground parking can cost as much as $40,000 per unit, a significant barrier to working-class people seeking to move to the Wisconsin Avenue corridor.

The site is also just a few hundred feet from the Metro station, is well-served by several bus routes, and is within walking distance of two grocery stores and other amenities. 

Despite the fact that people who are willing to pay a premium to live directly next to a Metro station have fundamentally different travel patterns, with much lower car ownership and transit usage rates than the surrounding neighbors, Douglas Development is planning ahead for the few people who may own a car.  The company proposes to aggressively pursue shared parking agreements with neighboring businesses with spaces that go unused every day.

Douglas could also help reduce driving demand further by providing amenities like car sharing spaces and dedicated bicycle parking. Supportive neighbors have recommended making both a part of the community benefits package.

While the predictable opponents of any change have opposed the Babe’s development, city officials in Santa Monica, California, recently approved a very similar 56-unit mixed-use development without any off-street parking.  This despite the fact that it will be at least a half decade until the light-rail Expo Line is extended to Santa Monica.  The Babe’s site already has Metro nearly at its doorstep.

If a mixed-use development can be built in car-centric Southern California without any off-street parking, years before a light rail connection will be provided to the neighborhood, DC’s elected leaders and planning officials should have the courage to support a similar development in a walkable community, already well-served by transit. 

I urge smart growth advocates to attend the ANC 3E meeting.  The Babe’s issue might not come up until later in the meeting (perhaps around 9:30pm), but if you come earlier, you can hear from the folks at Safeway who are planning to rebuild the store at 42nd and Ellicott Streets NW, along Wisconsin Avenue. 

There are sure to be the usual opponents of any Wisconsin Avenue development in attendance, so the more proponents of a mixed-use development of the Babe’s site in attendance, the better.