Photo by rockcreek on Flickr.

This is the first of a series of articles diving deeply into the details of an aspect of the zoning code. Today, we’ll look at corner stores.

Right now, in residential zones, stores are illegal except for the few grandfathered in. The Office of Planning wants to allow a few of them in areas far from commercial corridors, subject to lots of restrictions to try to keep them from disrupting residents or overrunning the area.

With this, like many of the proposals, some people are steadfastly opposed to any stores encroaching into residential areas whatsoever. Others think that we shouldn’t even have the restrictions. Personally, I think that the corner store proposal is a good idea, and OP could and should make it a little less restrictive than they propose.

Please come to one of the upcoming public meetings on the zoning code, Saturday in Southwest, Tuesday 12/11 in Penn Quarter, or Thursday 12/13 in Anacostia. A lot of people opposed to any change will be there; we need people there to support the proposal or, perhaps, push OP to move a little in the other direction.

Proposal allows corner stores in row house areas

The corner store proposal only applies to the moderate density row house zones, currently designated R-3 (example: Georgetown), R-4 (example: Capitol Hill) and R-5-A (example: Marshall Heights).

It does not change anything in detached house house zones (like Chevy Chase), attached house zones (like Queens Chapel), or the denser row house zones like Dupont Circle.

In the below map, the zones that could get corner stores appear in red, purple, and light blue.

Low and moderate density residential zones as of 2008.

List of restrictions aim to protect against impacts

Beyond limiting the proposal to a subset of zones, there is a further set of rules limiting corner stores to certain buildings, certain parts of neighborhoods, and certain types of stores. Here is the draft text, from the latest draft OP has released:

402.2 Arts Design and Creation, Food and Alcohol Service, Retail, and Service uses are permitted by-right [in the relevant zones] subject to the following conditions:

(a) There shall be no Mixed Use or Mixed Use Transit zones within five hundred feet (500 ft.) of the lot.

(b) There shall be no more than three other Arts Design and Creation, Retail, or Service uses and no more than one other Food and Alcohol Service use within five hundred feet (500 ft.) of the lot.

(c) If the lot is an interior or through lot, the building must have been built:

    1. Prior to [INSERT DATE HERE]; and2. For the purpose of a non-residential use, as established by permit records or other historical documents accepted by the Zoning Administrator.

(d) Except for the Arts Design and Creation uses listed below, the use shall not occupy or use any space above the ground story:

    1. Apartment accessory to an artist studio; and2. Artist live-work space.

(e) The use shall not exceed one thousand, two hundred square feet (1,200 sq.ft.) in total floor area.

(f) The use shall not operate between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m.

(g) The maximum number of employees, including the owner, on site at any time shall be three.

(h) Only one external sign may be displayed on the building’s facade,  provided that the sign is not illuminated and is flush-mounted.

(i) All storage of materials and garbage shall occur indoors.

(j) Any parking shall be fully screened from all adjacent properties, streets and alleys in a manner consistent with § 802.1.

(k) For any Food and Alcohol Service use, there shall be no sale of liquor for on-site consumption.

Arts Design and Creation uses may also be allowed as accessory uses subject to the conditions of E § 404.1.

In the zones now called R-5-A, the densest of the zones allowing corner stores, there are a few differences. Condition (c), which limits stores to actual corner buildings or buildings that were historically commercial, doesn’t apply. The total size can be up to 2,000 square feet instead of 1,200.

Finally, it adds that:

The Board of Zoning Adjustment may waive up to three (3) of the conditions of this subsection by special exception, subject to Subtitle Y Chapter 8, provided that E 402.3(a) [no mixed-use zones within 500 feet] and (c) [nothing above the ground story except for arts] may not be waived.

OP listened to your previous feedback on restriction (f), the limit on hours, and pushed the allowable hours to 7 am to 10 pm. The initial proposal was for 8 am to 7 pm, and many of you said that this would make it impossible for many people who work to patronize any stores that might open.

This is a start, but possibly still too restrictive

OP is treading very lightly, because there is a lot of nervousness in some quarters about the proposal. Ironically, though, most of the pushback has come from people in single-family zones, like upper Northwest, where this won’t change a thing.

A lot of people don’t actually know what kind of zone they live in. I was speaking to one councilmember who thought this wasn’t a good idea because the block where the member lives wouldn’t be right for a corner store. However, upon further discussion, it turned out that the block was part of an R-2 zone, where this wouldn’t apply.

In the actual row house zones, this could give people many new options for local retail. I worry, however, that it’s so strict that we’ll get almost no stores.

The limit to corner buildings and historically commercial buildings leaves few options. Corners are better, but they’re almost all occupied now. It might take a long time for more than vanishingly few corner buildings to come on the market, and for someone to want to open a store there.

The restriction that the store can’t be near a mixed-use zone (now called a commercial zone) is intended to keep the stores from competing with existing local commercial


corridors. That makes sense in most places, but often there are mixed-use zoned areas with no or little actual retail space.

Florida Avenue around LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale, for example, is “mixed-use zoned” along its length, but has very few commercial buildings. There’s no way to even get an exception for these. Also, the zones now called “Special Purpose” (SP-1 and SP-2) will right be “mixed use” zones under the new rules, but there’s a great variety of buildings in those zones (such as New Hampshire Avenue in Dupont), not necessarily commercial.

A better rule would simply count actual stores nearby, instead of counting land zoned that could possibly hold stores if it doesn’t.

I would also suggest having the rules let the BZA waive up to 3 of the restrictions even in the R-3 and R-4 zones, and making all restrictions eligible. The special exception process lets neighbors object to changes, and so if a store wants to open near a mixed-use zone with no actual retail space, or in a non-corner building, the hearing provides an opportunity to oppose it.

Finally, this should apply to R-5-B zones as well. There isn’t a lot of R-5-B that’s not near commercial corridors, but no reason to exclude the areas that do exist.

What do you think?

Please post your thoughts in the comments and try to attend one of the upcoming meetings. These meetings are the best chance to get more positive changes into the document before it moves on to the Zoning Commission.

After OP hears from residents, they will revise the proposal in a more or less progressive direction. Then, they will submit text to the Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local body that has the final say on all zoning issues. The ZC is unlikely to make the proposal any more progressive than it is, but they might dial it back if they get too much opposition.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.