A retail space with multiple entrances, adaptible for smaller retailers. Photo by the Office of Planning.

Yesterday, I mentioned the ARTS overlay’s restriction on restaurants. Only 25% of the street frontage, measured in linear feet, can be restaurants. The district (which includes commercial districts of U Street, 14th, P, and 7th near Florida) is already about 24% restaurants.

On the one hand, there’s merit in encouraging a mix of businesses (the purpose of the rule). However, restaurants are thriving there. Should we really prohibit any more? Plus, the ARTS overlay is very large. Why should a restaurant at 7th and Florida affect whether there can be one at 14th and S? If we are to have such a rule, it should apply over small distances.

Critics of Cleveland Park’s similar overlay say that that limitation leads not to more diverse retail, but simply empty storefronts. There, at least, there isn’t enough population to support more clothing boutiques or housewares. Defenders of the overlay argue that the real problem is poor enforcement in the past.

The new portion of the proposed 14th and S building includes four retail “bays”, which could contain four doors to four separate stores. Inside, though, the architects are making the interior one large space. That gives flexibility to house one large store, four small ones, or something in between. And the Utopia project is similar, with two large retail spaces that could house single large stores or multiple stores.

It’s sensible for architects to keep their options open, but it matters a lot to the neighborhood how many stores go in. The best walkable retail districts have many smaller stores, with closely-spaced entrances. One huge clothing retailer or Apple store or giant restaurant on 14th from S to Swann, even with a lot of glass, will create much less street activity than smaller ones.

As part of DC’s zoning update, the Office of Planning has proposed setting caps on retailer size in certain retail districts where we want this. There’s not yet any decision about which districts or what size caps are appropriate. The Zoning Commission should respond to OP’s recommendations on December 8th, and most likely will adopt the concept.

The retail recommendations also include requirements for adaptability, ensuring that even if a ground floor will house just one large store or a law office today, smaller stores could use the space in the future. Design standards could require more closely-spaced entrances, limit the frontage taken up by large lobbies, and ensure active windows instead of the papered-over windows or blank walls common to large drugstores.

A recent Downtown zoning review meeting specifically discussed drugstores. In Vancouver’s downtown, where drugstores are very profitable, the design standards actually require the drugstore to face the street with a series of “boutiques”, each with its own entrance and containing a different type of product, like cosmetics, photo products, or cough medicine. We didn’t have enough details at the meeting to know whether that specific rule would work in DC, but we needn’t continue to suffer from huge, blank walls and poor retail diversity in our commercial corridors.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.