Even in some of DC’s most affluent neighborhoods, neighborhood retail corridors are causing gray hairs for local leaders. In Cleveland Park, there are many vacant stores along Connecticut Avenue, a repeated topic of conversation on the neighborhood email list. Over on P Street west of Dupont, several businesses are having trouble, leading to empty storefronts there as well and calls at the ANC for help. 17th Street is a constant subject of controversy, whether you think something is wrong or not.
All of these cases share a common thread: a tension over one more profitable type of use pushing out the others. In Cleveland Park, a zoning overlay prohibits more than a certain number of restaurants; a Cosi wants to set up shop there, but can’t. Instead, space goes empty. Critics of the overlay claim that it is just creating empty space and depriving the corridor of its chance to thrive; defenders, on the other hand, argue that landlords keep their spaces vacant intentionally to hold out for the higher rent they can get from a restaurant. They’re counting on residents to become fed up and change the rule, or the DC government to relax enforcement, which has been common in the past. Who’s right?
P and 17th both have liquor license moratoriums to keep the number of bars down. In the past, both streets were home to bicycle shops, apparel shops, and other neighborhood-serving retail. As in Cleveland Park, defenders of the rules feel that they will ensure rents stay low enough to make these kinds of businesses possible. On the other hand, we have these rules, and not those businesses.
Recently, several P Street restaurants have appealed to the Dupont ANC to allow a small increase in the number of liquor licenses. The ANC has gone along in hopes that the licenses will help the area restaurants to become profitable while remaining restaurants, and has insisted on voluntary agreements to limit the establishments to actual restaurant-type operation rather than become nightclubs or bars.
We can’t go back to the good old days. More people shop at major big-box stores and online these days, making it harder for neighborhood retailers to compete. One way to help retail is to add residential density (the theory behind mixed-used development nodes recommended for Rockville Pike and Georgia Avenue. But neighborhoods like Cleveland Park and Dupont Circle fought higher density near their retail decades ago; opposition to density in Cleveland Park even launched HPRB Chairman Tersh Boasberg’s preservation career.
Can we catalyze neighborhood retail, or are nightlife destinations like U Street, Adams Morgan, or Gallery Place, big-box meccas like Columbia Heights, or major mall-like chain-store centers like Georgetown or Friendship Heights the only viable options for urban neighborhoods? All of those draw people from all over the region instead of just from the neighborhood. Maybe Barracks Row is a good example.
Smart people have told me that it’s infeasible to get neighborhood-serving retail by regulating commercial corridors that have lost it. I need to learn more. Any recommendations for good books or online resources on the topic?