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14th & U Streets Arts Overlay Zoning District Seen to be of No Benefit; Logan Circle ANC to Review New Approaches to Revitalization Goals

By Anthony L. Harvey

The creation of vibrant, walkable, and safe urban settings with lively street and sidewalk engaging activities — where people can live, work, raise a family, and enjoy night life amenities – is the current goal of an activist DC Office of Planning (OP), together with that of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) and civic associations throughout the city. Consequently, the Logan Circle ANC 2F’s Arts Overlay Review Committee presently is exploring with its residents, business owners, developers, and planners how best to recalibrate zoning and related regulatory frameworks to achieve the desired goals of such mixed use residential and commercial districts centered around the historic 14th and U Street corridors. The ANC’s specific focus is the current Arts Overlay Zoning requirement that no more than 25 percent of street frontage in the demarcated area be used for restaurant and tavern purposes. This focus is a lens through which one can view a remarkable array of neighborhood issues and business opportunities.

Meeting weekly in June and July in open meetings, ANC’s Arts Overlay Review Committee has been soliciting views from all community stakeholders — those who live, work, patronize bars and restaurants, shop, and develop properties and small businesses in this lively downtown urban area. The committee’s June meetings have been remarkably informative, and with the June 30th participants, unusually candid. Results of the June and July meetings will by compiled by the committee for presentation to the full ANC and, after its deliberations, prospectively forwarded with recommendations to OP and the DC Zoning Commission, both of which are at present wrestling with the complex task of revising the District’s zoning regulations to conform with the 2006 enactment of a dramatically revised – and, by all accounts, greatly improved — comprehensive plan for the District of Columbia.

As with the earlier meetings, discussion at the June 30th session at times ranged far afield of the Arts Overlay 25 percent restaurant and bar restriction. Issues repeatedly raised included those of how best to attract a critical mass of neighborhood-serving retail establishments by using tax incentives and abatements or forbearances, if necessary, and how to create office and commercial spaces to attract daytime business and yet retain the local flavor and affordable spaces for neighborhood boutiques and self-employed entrepreneurial activities. In spite of the burst of restaurants, art galleries, and new residential projects on the drawing boards of prominent DC developers, continuing problems of boarded-up properties, vacant lots, and commercial dead zones such as the large Verizon building at 14th and R Streets, social services providers, and the west side of the Frontier Estates residential complex that borders 14th Street just south of S Street were cited. Retailers unanimously praised the positive effects on sidewalk traffic of performing arts venues, restaurants, and taverns that helps to create their successful business enterprises. Several participants pointed out that blocks without a destination restaurant or bar suffered accordingly.

Urban Essential’s David Schaefer eloquently expressed his appreciation for the impact on his business’ success of daytime traffic generated by nighttime visitors to the Lincoln Theater and other successful performance venues and the attractive bars and restaurants in the several blocks around his U Street store. Scott Pomeroy, a former president of the Cardozo-Shaw neighborhood Association, interjected an iteration of how many live performance venues the Arts Overlay District encompasses already — for example, Studio Theatre, Source Theater; the Black Cat, Playbill Café, to name only four.

Committee Chair Andrea Doughty continually returned the committee’s attention to the question of how the Overlay’s 25 percent restaurant and bar restriction affected community goals for the continued desired development of the stretches of 14th and U Streets under consideration, especially given the increasingly tight competition among several Washington urban mixed residential and commercial areas currently undergoing restoration and in some cases significant redevelopment. Financing, and even indirect governmental support are becoming much scarcer. Doughty also reminded the group that OP is considering the recommendation of abolishing the Arts Overlay District — and other such commercial/residential zones. In their place, OP may propose the creation of detailed small area plans with “tool kits” of urban planning techniques for selective use by communities and the District’s regulatory agencies in forging more desirable such mixed use communities.

Local developer Giorgio Furioso observed, in strong language, that he knew of no developer or property owner who had ever benefited from the current Arts Overlay District. Nor, added Furioso, has the city provided any direct or indirect financial benefits or tax relief to the businesses or developers in the arts district. Candida’s highly acclaimed bookstore and Furioso’s own restaurant development suffered dramatically when large-scale construction blocked the 14th Street sidewalk in front and around their street level entrances. No construction property tax abatement, for example, was offered by the city. Further impacting Furioso’s efforts to participate in a substantial way to the arts redevelopment of greater 14th street has been his bank’s refusal to refinance his restaurant building because, asserted Giorgio, he charges below market rate rents for the art galleries on the floors above the street level restaurant.

Scott Pomeroy, now with the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID), added his take, noting the irony of the city offering tax increment financing (TIFs) and other inducements in other parts of the city for the purpose of encouraging incubator developments such as those of the arts and yet offering nothing to the 14th Street corridor north of Thomas Circle where those factors already exist. Local Washington historian and neighborhood resident Jim Kane, who also serves on the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board, spoke of the numerous historic structures on 14th Street awaiting the development of adaptive re-use projects.

Discussion of the specifics of the Arts Overlay’s 25 percent restriction on restaurant and bar street frontage was more prominent during the committee’s second and third meetings, on June 16th and 23rd, respectively. On the 23rd, David Alpert presented the committee with his greater, greater Washington blog discussion piece reviewing OP’s five alternatives to the question of how to regulate the impact of bars and restaurants in the overlay districts. [Ed Note: We have reprinted his article starting at the bottom of page 1 of this issue and continuing in the Special Online Content section at] First term Cardozo-U Street area ANC 1B Commissioner Peter Raia, who has 62 alcoholic beverage control (ABC) licensed establishments in his single member district that borders the east side of 14th Street, followed with an explanation of his work with two highly regarded businesses, Café Saint Ex and Bar Pilar, in their conversion from restaurant to tavern licenses while retaining through successfully negotiated voluntary agreements substantial food serving requirements – 40 percent instead of 45 percent of annual sales or, alternatively, $1,800 instead of $2,000 per seat annually.

As captured in the committee’s minutes for its June 16th meeting, “Ramon Estrada, [Dupont Circle] ANC Commissioner for 2B09 [single member district bordering on the west side of 14th Street] discussed the relationship between the Arts Overlay guideline . . . and ABRA [Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration] enforcement of its regulations. He noted that there is no database that is shared between OP and ABRA. According to statistics he has received from ABRA, there are 48 ABC licenses within walking distance in the Arts Overlay. . . . He further noted that the [guideline] applies to new construction and not to existing properties. . . . He [further] mentioned that sometimes the only tool that a community has to work with is a moratorium to limit the number of ABC licenses, like the East Dupont Moratorium along 17th Street. . . .”

ANC 2F’s Arts Overlay Committee’s final four meetings will take place on successive Tuesday evenings from 6:30 to 8:30 PM in the lobby of the apartment building at 1401 Q Street on the corner of 14th and Q Streets, the same site as its earlier four meetings.