Photo by MIT-Libraries on Flickr.

Parking isn’t the only part of DC’s zoning update that got cut back this month. In the latest drafts, DC planners have also limited plans to allow corner stores in residential areas.

Originally, they considered permitting retail, service, grocery, and arts businesses as matter of right in corner buildings, subject to lots and lots of conditions. Instead, only grocery stores might be able to locate as a matter of right, while other businesses can apply for a special exception and have a hearing.

This responds to resident concerns about stores’ impacts. While it might impede corner stores, the old rules were so restrictive that almost no corner stores could have opened anyway, so this will have little further impact.

Corner store proposal tries to restore historic patterns

DC’s historic neighborhoods had a few “corner stores” (usually, but not always, on actual corners) scattered throughout neighborhoods. Before zoning prohibited commerce in residential areas, and before malls and big box stores, these stores met many everyday needs.

But in the era of single-use zoning, which sought to segregate all commerce from residences, DC and other cities outlawed these stores. Some remained open, grandfathered into the zoning, while others closed and, if they remained closed for 3 years, could never reopen. OP wanted to fix this problem.

Certainly, a store can potentially harm neighbors if there is a lot of noise, trash attracting rodents, smells from cooking, and so on. Therefore, planners tried to write a set of narrow rules limiting trash to being stored indoors, restricting on-site cooking, curtailing hours, and so on.

Leaders ask for hearings before stores can open

The Zoning Commission approved the idea in theory, but it drew opposition from many residents. Councilmember Muriel Bowser, in particular, expressed hostility to this idea. Some small stores in neighborhoods in her ward tend to sell mostly liquor and junk food and can be magnets for disturbances or crime, though OP’s rules didn’t allow liquor stores under the corner store proposal.

Bowser suggested there have to be a public hearing before any store could locate in a residential area. Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B, for southern Capitol Hill, also suggested requiring a hearing.

OP has agreed to change the rules so that a grocery store can still locate as a matter of right, but a retail sales business, art studio, cafe, or service business will require a special exception. To get one, an owner will have to apply to the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA), talk to the ANC, and have a hearing where neighbors can speak.

OP is still finalizing some of the details. For example, the old rules had many limits, including how close one store could be to an existing commercial corridor or mixed-use area. The idea was to ensure that such stores don’t sap vitality from the actual commercial area. But, ANC 6B suggested, if the BZA is going to review an application anyway, instead of a firm rule this could be something the BZA can consider.

Similarly, maybe the strict limits on hours and size can be a little less absolute if the BZA is able to use its discretion and weigh the impacts against the benefits.

Is this the right move?

Certainly, this change will make corner stores harder to open than they would have been under the original, Zoning Commission-approved proposal. But there were so many limits on corner stores that there were actually vanishingly few eligible sites for corner stores at all.

Stores could only be in the moderate density R-3, R-4, and R-5-A zones, not the detached or semi-detached house R-1 and R-2 zones or the apartment R-5-B zones. They had to be at least 500 feet from any mixed-use zone (even one with no stores). They had to locate on corner buildings, or buildings originally built to be commercial.

That leaves few areas in most parts of the city. In Ward 4, for instance, only Petworth and a few tiny bits of other neighborhoods are eligible, and then only far from the commercial corridors. Even within the eligible area (shaded in yellow below), it’s only corner buildings, most of which someone already owns and uses for a purpose other than a store.


DC’s Ward 4. Eligible corner store area is shaded yellow. Corner stores cannot locate in the purple or white areas under OP’s proposal. Click for larger map and other wards.


In this case, even with all the restrictions, neighbors might have an understandable concern about an impact the rules didn’t anticipate. A special exception, while it creates a burden, might not be unreasonable here.

Meanwhile, residents need easy access to food, especially fresh food. The biggest potential problem with a grocer is trash, and rules require them to store all trash indoors. They also limit the store’s size (1,200 square feet in the prior proposal), number of employees (3), hours (not after 10 pm and before 7 am), and more.

OP has tried to bend over backward to allow some stores while also keeping them from affecting neighbors. If their new, scaled-down proposal goes into effect, a very small number of new corner stores might open up, and then we can see how well they do. Or, the rules might be so restrictive that no stores appear.

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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.