Do you want “commercial” uses in your neighborhood? Proposals for corner stores or commercial zoning can yield some great enthusiasm or strong antipathy. Often, this seems to depend on whether their experiences with local businesses have been good or bad.
In one part of Capitol Hill, residents once wanted to rezone 15th Street SE to eliminate an existing commercial strip, but 10 years later, many feel much more affectionately about the neighborhood businesses that have opened, and might prefer to keep the commercial strip around.
ANC Commissioner Brian Flahaven explains the history of zoning debates around this commercial corridor:
For most of the past decade, residents’ experience with retail along this corridor has been negative. In the early 2000s, residents complained about crime and loitering around the now defunct New Dragon restaurant. And some residents also voiced concern that developers were taking advantage of the commercial zoning to build tall residential-only buildings along the corridor (C-2-A allows buildings up to 50 feet high compared to 40 feet for R-4).
In 2003, ANC 6B supported a request made by several frustrated 15th Street residents to rezone 15th Street SE from the commercial C-2-A to the residential R-4.
The Zoning Commission did not change the zoning, but DC’s Comprehensive Plan started showing the area as residential, rather than commercial or mixed-use.
When the Office of Planning finishes the zoning update, it could be an opportunity to change the zoning. But do residents still want that? Flahaven thinks perhaps not:
This past year saw the opening of two popular food establishments along the corridor — The Pretzel Bakery and Crepes on the Corner. The Pretzel Bakery (340 15th Street SE) has been a huge hit. And while Crepes on the Corner (257 15th Street SE) unfortunately closed, most Hill East residents I’ve talked to enjoyed having a place to grab coffee and lunch in the neighborhood. Southeast Market (1500 Independence Ave SE) was also recently sold and renovated. All three of these establishments are or were positive additions to the neighborhood.
While 15th Street will never be a Barracks Row, I can certainly envision a future time when the corridor acts as a small neighborhood serving commercial zone located halfway between the heavier retail activity around Eastern Market and the future retail activity on Reservation 13. Rezoning 15th Street to R-4 would eliminate future opportunities for restaurants, cafes and shops along the corridor.
With a change in the retail mix, people can now see the commercial corridor as a positive contribution to the neighborhood rather than a blight. Attitudes about living near stores also are continuing to evolve, as more people who want to be within a short walk of shops and restaurants move into urban neighborhoods.
Hill East had a commercially-zoned area already, and since the effort to zone it out didn’t succeed, that neighborhood still has the chance to welcome more beloved local markets and eateries. But in many neighborhoods, there aren’t commercial corridors for new businesses to start in. Some, like Big Bear Coffee in Bloomingdale, end up occupying buildings that were once commercial but whose zoning is now residential, which sets them up for a big zoning fight when someone objects. More often, neighborhoods just don’t get any stores.
The zoning update’s corner store proposal will allow just a few of these — maybe too few. To some residents in the neighborhoods that could get them, the idea of commercial zoning conjures up images of problem shops, especially the ones that are mainly liquor stores and draw intoxicated customers. To others, it’s the beloved local shop that adds to convenience and makes the neighborhood more appealing.
The corner store rules try to limit the actual impacts of commercial uses, such as trash (it can’t be stored outdoors) or early morning or late night noise (stores can’t be open outside
10 am-7 pm
7 am-10 pm). Any such set of rules, though, can’t be perfect. If they keep out all of the businesses residents don’t want, they’ll also keep out many that they do.
Beyond the corner store rules, we also simply need to ensure there are enough neighborhood commercial corridors with real commercial zoning. There, businesses can open next to one another and benefit from each other attracting foot traffic. In Hill East, a commercial strip on 15th Street may become an asset to the neighborhood, and other neighborhoods need equivalents of their own.