Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Why is Cleveland Park’s commercial strip struggling while restaurants that could serve residents’ needs don’t open? An outdated zoning law prohibits new food establishments. It’s time to get rid of this failed rule.

5 years ago, shortly before our second child was born, my wife and I moved to Cleveland Park from Dupont Circle. We were determined to stay in the city, and Cleveland Park seemed like best of both worlds: Metro, restaurants and shops, but also a yard for the kids. So we bit the bullet, took out a mortgage we couldn’t really afford, and moved.

I work from home, and coming from a more urban neighborhood I had a hard time adjusting to Cleveland Park’s little commercial strip. The area felt empty and sad during the day, with a thin selection of lunch options. But word came out that a Così planned to fill a space that Blockbuster had recently abandoned.

I already had a long-standing addiction to their wasabi-roast beef sandwich on freshly baked flatbread. So, good news! I’d get another lunchtime option, plus a place to meet someone over good coffee, or to work when I need to get out of the house.

That’s when I learned about Cleveland Park’s anti-restaurant zoning overlay. A couple of decades ago, the neighborhood lobbied for a cap on the number of restaurants. Specifically, no more than 25% of the linear footage fronting the Connecticut Avenue commercial strip could hold any kind of food establishment — including restaurants, bars, takeout, delis, coffee shops, or sandwich shops.

Così, after briefly floating some creative legal arguments that would have exempted them from the cap, decided a zoning fight wasn’t worth the trouble and pulled out.

To summarize, we had:

  • a sandwich shop that wanted to sell me sandwiches;
  • a landlord ready to rent space to the sandwich shop;
  • citizens ready to take jobs as making sandwiches; and
  • me, a customer, willing to buy sandwiches on a regular basis.


The neighborhood would have gotten another “third space”, a comfortable and informal local gathering place. The city would have gotten tax and licensing revenue. Così‘s vendors, suppliers, and contractors would have made money, and so on — a cascade of voluntary, mutually beneficial economic transactions that would have left everyone involved better off.

But no. Instead we got a shuttered storefront for two full years. No jobs for anyone, no sandwiches for me, a landlord losing money on a vacant space, and an increasingly depressing-looking commercial strip.

Why?

At this point it would be very easy to turn dismissive and snarky about Cleveland Park’s comfortable, out-of-touch, selfish residents who oppose everything. But here’s the thing: Since that time I’ve gotten to know these people. They are among my neighbors and my friends. They’re good and generous people, and they’re not fools or cranks. They’re proud of their history of local activism and they’re trying to do what they think is best for the neighborhood.

They deserve a fair hearing for the strongest arguments they’ve made for the restaurant cap. I still think this is still a bad law. More broadly, this provides a good case study in how neighborhood politics can go wrong, and what we can do about it.

The original rationale for the restaurant overlay involves two main arguments.

  1. Cleveland Park’s commercial strip should provide first for the needs of the neighborhood. Restaurants can pay higher rents, so they crowd out small and diverse neighborhood-serving retail and services. Typical quote: “We have enough restaurants, what we need is a bookstore and a hardware store.”
  2. Restaurants are more likely to bring in people from outside the neighborhood; a critical mass of restaurants would turn Cleveland Park into a drinking and dining destination, creating traffic and parking problems. Typical quote: “Removing the cap could turn Cleveland Park into another Adams Morgan that lacks a neighborhood feel.”


To the first point, the overlay hasn’t worked. It hasn’t given us the retail landscape we imagined, but has instead given us empty storefronts and tanning salons. To the second point, I’d suggest that these fears are exaggerated and not realistic. There are better ways to address parking problems than keeping amenities out of the neighborhood.

Most importantly, though, it’s fundamentally unfair to allow a minority of neighbors to use the government to impose their consumer preferences on all of us. The District of Columbia doesn’t want the restaurant cap, and neither does Cleveland Park. It’s time to get rid of it.

It isn’t working

We all want a lively, diverse retail landscape. The problem is that zoning laws are a blunt instrument: They can only say “no.” Zoning can prevent business, but it can’t create business. The overlay has been around for 23 years now, Cleveland Park is still waiting for that hardware store and that bookstore, and neither one is ever going to come.

It’s not hard to see why, now more than ever: We’re halfway between two legendary local bookstores, Politics & Prose and Kramerbooks. Established independent bookstores and big corporate chains alike are going out of business in droves. As much as we might wish the world was otherwise, the economic rationale for retail bookstores has been nearly destroyed by the one-two punch of Amazon Prime and the Amazon Kindle.

A hardware store isn’t much more likely: there’s also competition nearby and the retail hardware sector is still subject to the economic forces that are leading us to the End of Retail As We Know It.

The long-term future of neighborhood retail, in Cleveland Park as everywhere else, is in products, services, or experiences that people can’t obtain over the Internet or receive by UPS. If we don’t allow more restaurants, cafés, bars, or delis, what does that leave? We have a couple of grocery stores and a CVS and a Walgreen’s. And there are shops that are doing well by offering unique and carefully curated selections (like Wake Up Little Suzy) or advice from helpful specialists (like Potomac River Running).

But that still leaves a lot of space to fill. After years of empty storefronts, that void has now been filled by an abundance of nail salons, tanning salons, cellphone shops, and the like. That’s not exactly the sort of “diverse retail” anyone had in mind. 

I do wish we had a bookstore and a hardware store, and there’s nothing wrong with you and I indulging in wishful thinking. But there is something wrong with building public policy on a foundation of wishful thinking.

We’ve made it illegal to add any more food establishments, in the hope that that would magically produce lots of charming independent retail. But no sane entrepreneur is going to give us the stores we say we want. The unintended consequence is that we’re filling our storefronts with the dregs of the service sector.

It’s a solution to a nonexistent problem

The second argument stems from fear: Fear of more traffic, fear of changing the neighborhood’s character, fear of becoming “the next Adams Morgan.”

Let’s not flatter ourselves. That’s not going to happen. Adams Morgan isn’t even the new Adams Morgan any more; the district’s hipsters have long since moved on to U Street and H Street and 9th Street. What those neighborhoods have in common is the energy that comes from cultural and economic diversity. How do I say this nicely: Cleveland Park’s respectable citizens are ... boring. No one goes out of their way to party in a neighborhood full of middle-aged white lawyers and minivan-driving families.

Anyway, Adams Morgan’s weekend crowds never went there for the fine dining, for the caf├ęs, or the sandwich shops: They were going for the bars and nightclubs; and the liquor licensing process gives neighbors all the tools they need to keep those kinds of establishments in check.

One last thing about the “not-another-Adams-Morgan” trope: I lived in Adams Morgan for years, and while the twice-weekly onslaught of drunken kids was a big nuisance, the entertainment venues didn’t crowd out neighborhood retail.

To the contrary, the neighborhood has a diverse and vibrant retail scene that puts Cleveland Park to shame: A slew of trendy women’s clothing stores, shoe stores, home decor shops, music stores, ethnic groceries, and gift shops. And the best running store, the best frame shop, the best bike shop, and the best florist in DC. And standard neighborhood amenities like grocery stores, pharmacies, dry cleaners, and convenience stores. And, yes, a hardware store and a bookstore.

None of us wants more congestion or more cars parked on our side streets. And none of us wants teenagers from the suburbs puking on our lawns. But allowing more food establishments in the neighborhood will do none of those things. Restaurant, cafés, or delis are not more likely than other businesses to cause traffic or parking problems. People can always take the metro or walk to eat out; but they’re more likely to use their cars to get to a hardware store, a grocery store, a wine store, or a vacuum cleaner repair shop.

It’s not fair

The most important argument for getting rid of the restaurant cap is that it’s not fair. It’s not fair for consumers, and it’s not fair to our local landlords and merchants.

The restaurant cap imposes the economic preferences of one group of consumers on everyone else, and that’s not right.

Some people eat out more than others. And there’s been a generational shift in dining preferences: For our parents’ generation, restaurants were for rich people or for special occasions. In contrast, my wife and I eat out all the time, sometimes with our boys and sometimes without, and we rely on neighborhood take-out for the occasional weeknight meal. The market is perfectly able to sort out those preferences and figure out the “right” number of restaurants for the demographics of any given location.

The 25% cap is also unfair to landlords and merchants. If you happen to already own space occupied by a restaurant, you’re “grandfathered in” and you can replace that restaurant with another as a matter of right. All else being equal, the retail space right next door is worth less, for the arbitrary reason that it doesn’t happen to already house a food establishment.

When a food establishment leaves the neighborhood for whatever reason, their landlord has every incentive to turn away retail or service tenants, even if that means keeping the space vacant for years. When McDonald’s left Cleveland Park in 2004, the 2-story space — one of the most beautiful and valuable spots on the strip — remained empty for 7 years.

People wouldn’t start restaurants if people didn’t want to go to restaurants. The fact that so many people want to open food establishments in Cleveland Park is a reflection of the desire of the people of Cleveland Park and the people of the District of Columbia for more food establishments. And yet here we are using the coercive power of the government to keep those food establishments from happening. That’s not right.

The neighborhood doesn’t want it

The Office of Planning would lift the restaurant cap if were persuaded that Cleveland Park doesn’t want it. And it’s not what the neighborhood wants, at least not any more. The Cleveland Park listserv held a survey on the question in 2008 and again just recently. In both cases voters expressed about a 2:1 preference for allowing more restaurants.

This is a classic example of one of the most frustrating aspects of local politics: A highly motivated minority can easily end up overruling a passive majority. A handful of angry people shouting “No” can often carry the day, even if the predominant sentiment is “Yes” or “Sure, why not?”

We’ve all seen this happen in Cleveland Park and elsewhere in DC. We saw it with the Wisconsin Avenue Giant controversy, and I worry that the same phenomenon will hamper the current effort to bring DC’s zoning code into the 21st century.

So if you’re OK with allowing more restaurants, cafés, diners, delis, ice cream parlors, sandwich shops, and other food establishments, you need to speak up. If you want lively and walkable neighborhoods, they’re not going to just happen as long as leaders only hear from an outspoken minority.

If you agree, and you’re a DC resident, please sign this petition to send a message to key local officials.

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Herb Caudill lives in Cleveland Park with his wife, Lynne, and two young boys. He has lived in DC since 1995; he taught math as a Peace Corps volunteer in West and Central Africa, and currently runs DevResults, a web-based mapping and data management tool for foreign aid projects.