Image from Google Street View.

The DC Zoning Commission is usually a very slow-moving body. Hearings can take months just to schedule, and rezonings can take years. But the machinery has sprung into rapid action to address the outrage over DCRA’s recent determination that no more restaurants can open along 14th and U Streets in the ARTS overlay.

DCRA’s ruling just enforces the current, yet arguably unfair zoning rule that limits restaurants and bars to 25% of the linear frontage of 14th and U in the entire, large ARTS overlay.

That extends along 14th from just north of N Street all the way to Florida Avenue, and U Street from 9th to 15th. That means that a concentration of restaurants on U around 10th affects the ability of a restaurant to open down around 14th and Rhode Island. That seems wrong.

Furthermore, a committee created by ANC 2F (which represents most of 14th south of U) recommended modifying the 25% limitation, saying, “it is now overkill to reserve 75% of the frontage on 14th and U streets for non-restaurant and bar uses.”

The report recommended increasing the limit to 40-50%, but changing the standard for exceptions to no longer permit a “special exception” (which is easier to obtain) to exceed the limit. They also recommended computing the limit for each block rather than across the entire district, an approach I suggested on the blog and spoke to the committee about during their investigations.

After the MidCity Business Association raised the alarm, nearly every blog in DC covered the issue, area Councilmembers voiced their support for a change, DCRA put out press releases saying they wanted to change the rules, and the Office of Planning proposed an emergency text amendment, which the WBJ reported will have a hearing on April 26th.

That’s probably the meeting to discuss the “setdown,” where the Zoning Commission officially announces an issue and opens up the public comment. The Office of Planning just posted their setdown report for the amendment and recommended an abbreviated 30-day notice period for the subsequent hearing.

OP essentially recommends exactly what the ARTS overlay committee proposed. The new rule would allow up to 50% restaurant and bar uses, but measured for each “block face” rather than for the entire overlay. Any exceptions to this new standard would need to meet the much stricter variance test rather than the special exception requirements. The change would also clarify that restaurants above or below the ground floor do not count toward the limit.

According to the OP report, four block faces currently exceed the 50% limit: the east side of 14th between U and V (which includes Busboys and Poets), the north side of U between 13th and 14th, the south side of U between 11th and 12th (which is “currently entirely developed with popular eating establishments,” such as Dukem Ethiopian), and the north side of U between 10th and 11th.

It’s very meaningful that OP took the committee’s recommendations nearly without change. Unlike many resident efforts in zoning, the committee took a very pragmatic approach to the ARTS overlay. They came up with sensible ideas for better achieving the goals of the zoning regulations and improving the area, not agreeing to unlimited development nor fighting any change at all.

This committee did a remarkable amount of work learning about the issues, studying the regulations, interviewing residents, business owners, and developers, and debating the issues. It’s gratifying to see their hard work accepted by the Office of Planning. OP should similarly strive to incorporate as much of the committee’s other recommendations into the larger zoning rewrite, to demonstrate that when residents put in the work to formulate detailed, thoughtful, and non-knee-jerk recommendations, the government will listen.

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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.