Yesterday, we discussed DC’s current 25% linear-foot cap on restaurant and bar uses in some neighborhood commercial districts. Prohbiting restaurants is one possible tool for ensuring that restaurants don’t completely push out other businesses. What other techniques could accomplish the same goal?
Locally serving retail isn’t the only use that zoning might encourage. The Comprehensive Plan also calls for zoning to encourage “small-scale office space” and arts and creative industries in neighborhood commercial areas. Office uses bring daytime activity to an area, boosting area business, and many of those businesses (like accountants or medical offices) can directly benefit the local residents.
Some districts currently contain specific incentives for certain uses. In the Uptown Arts Overlay (14th and U), a new building can receive an FAR bonus if it includes a theater. Downtown, buildings have to contain some residential use, but a “Child Development Center” satisfies 50% more of the residential requirement than equivalently-sized apartments. And on H Street, there’s a specific FAR bonus if a developer puts a grocery store in Square 776 (bordered by 3rd, 4th, H, and I Streets NE).
In other areas, simply making some uses easier to create is the incentive. Normally, hotels require a “special exception,” where the Board of Zoning Adjustment must ensure that they won’t conflict with the public interest and other factors, but some areas allow them as a matter of right. Some districts have specifically permitted artist live-work studios in residential areas.
Likewise, new zoning rules could (and should) allow many uses as a matter of right, and could provide specific bonuses for the ones that communities most wish to encourage. However, DC’s range of bonuses is limited. Arlington accomplishes much of its planning by giving developers extra height in exchange for good urban design and desirable amenities. However, Arlington’s buildings can get much taller than in DC.
Another way to encourage more retail, especially neighborhood-serving retail, is to allow more opportunities for these stores to open. When high rents in popular commercial districts push out other stores, the rents can only keep rising because the supply of usable commercial space is limited. Most neighborhood commercial areas are small, and the surrounding residential zoning prohibits commercial activity. If restaurants are crowding out a small florist, we could let the florist open up in the basement of an adjacent residential townhouse, for example.
On the other hand, neighbors are often reluctant to allow commercial expansion because of the trash and loading truck traffic they generate, especially food establishments which create garbage that often attract rodents. However, zoning could restrict this expansion outside the commercial district to establishments, like clothing stores, florists, and pharmacies, which don’t generate as much trash, and put strict limits on loading times and other impacts.
Parking policy can also promote certain types of businesses. The Pennsylvania Avenue performance parking pilot in Capitol Hill, which added market-rate meters to many blocks, has particularly helped daytime businesses which benefit from quick turnover. The right parking policies could help those businesses better compete with restaurant uses.
Which of these techniques do you think would help encourage thriving and diverse retail areas in our neighborhoods? Are there other tools that could help improve neighborhood commercial zones?
Update: Matt Yglesias posted an article on this topic right around the same time I posted this one, making the same point that limited supply due to the constrained size of neighborhood retail districts is the biggest market distorter.