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Logan Circle ANC Approves Continuing 14th Street Arts Overlay, Seeks Additional Support; Report Emphasizes Zoning Approaches to Ensure Results

By Anthony L. Harvey

A full house of community residents gathered on September 2 for an almost four-hour session of the Logan Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission’s (ANC) regular monthly meeting. The chock full published agenda was further augmented at the start by four additional items. Issues for consideration ranged from that of the ANC’s position on the legalization of same sex marriage to that of the tax status of dilapidated structures being renovated by the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church — this issue seeming to have drawn the largest number of attendees.

But it was the final item on the agenda, the report and recommendations of the ANC’s Arts Overlay Committee that for several others in attendance was the most important matter being considered.

Representing three months of extensive committee work, including eight public forums, including with invited speakers this past June and July, the Committee’s 35-page report, including three pages of 25 single-spaced, highly technical recommendations, was dealt with in a matter of minutes with a resolution of unanimous approval.

The Committee members’ August meetings along with its presentations during the month made to the U Street Neighborhood Association, the MidCity Business Association, and the ANC’s own Community Development Committee apparently paved the way for this seemingly effortless but ringing endorsement by the full ANC. Only a doubting question regarding any prospects for the enforcement by the District’s Zoning Administrator of any of these recommendations, should they be adopted by the Zoning Commission, and comments from outside the ANC by Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner Ramon Estrada, raising objection to the recommendation for splitting the Arts Overlay District between 14th and U Streets and the “up-zoning” of Frontier Estates condominiums from residential to Arts/Commercial, marred this spirit of absolute unanimity.

Near unanimity was also obtained the following evening when the Ward One Cardozo/Shaw ANC spent no time on discussion. In response to ANC Commissioner Peter Raia’s question whether the community was at least going to be asked for comment, Commissioner and Chairperson Brianne Nadeau stated that the previous month’s discussion by the ANC sufficed. Commissioner Raia abstained from an otherwise unanimous vote on the ANC’s Resolution of Approval.

The Arts Overlay Committee’s recommendations were considered for 30 spirited minutes of discussion at the Dupont Circle ANC’s September 9th monthly meeting. The commissioners voted unanimously to support Logan Circle’s report, reserving for further study questions that commissioners had regarding several of the report’s specific recommendations.

Findings and Recommendations

Following a set of 12 listed findings, the Committee’s 25 recommendations are framed in the form of concisely articulated — albeit highly technical — zoning regulation amendments and proposed new provisions for presentation by the ANC to the District’s Office of Planning and the DC Zoning Commission for consideration during the current comprehensive revision of the District’s zoning regulations.

These findings, and the Committee’s consequent recommendations, will resonate with those in the community who have wrestled with previous zoning controversies — especially those with development interests, zoning and land use attorneys, and historic preservation advocates.

Without considerable contextual fleshing out, however, these recommendations will be somewhat opaque if not incomprehensible to most, even to generally informed residents of the immediate and wider neighborhoods. Indeed, as emphasized by Committee Chairperson Andrea Doughty, this report constitutes a set of District zoning regulation recommendations. It is a first report, and will be followed by a second report — planned to be prepared by September 30 — that will present further recommendations specifically for economic development of the 14th Street corridor between Thomas Circle and Florida Avenue.

On zoning matters, the Committee’s recommendations build upon its fundamental finding that “the Arts Overlay has failed to be fully effective in promoting its arts objectives for many reasons; three of the most important are:

“(1) The original ‘bonus’ density and other zoning-related incentives were poorly targeted and relatively insignificant in size;

“(2) The zoning objectives were not supported by other Government policies to catalyze and support arts growth in the district;

“(3) The Arts Overlay District (which is the largest neighborhood overlay zoning district) is too large and unwieldy in size and encompasses diverse zoning contexts, which has made it difficult to consolidate community institutions behind a cohesive approach to support and promote the overlay’s goals.”

No one, however, has pointed to any specific bonus benefits realized by developers seeking to use so-called existing incentives of the present arts overlay. Thus proposing to increase bonus density and, for example, additional height in projects with arts components seems — as a development strategy — problematic at best. (As one observer commented, it reminds one of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary definition of a second marriage: namely, the triumph of hope over experience.)

Rather than receive bonuses or other zoning incentives in the past for 14th Street arts overlay projects, developers have been required to overcome the effects of down-zoning along with intensive historic preservation review such as with the ultimately abandoned Rapture Lofts project, and regulatory and permit issuance delays — all the while hoping that financing for their respective projects will still be available at the end of these approval processes. Whether new and additional developer incentives would translate into more affordable commercial rents was not addressed.

Continuing, the Committee reported that “four ingredients were repeatedly pointed to as being important to the future development of the district:

“(1) ‘Momentum’: loss of business &/or failure of critical development projects to go ahead would likely have negative impacts on the district that may last for years;

“(2) ‘Special Appeal’: this district’s ‘special appeal’ to developers, businesses, and residents alike is close related to two factors-business diversity and the arts;

“(3) ‘Daytime Foot Traffic’: the need to grow daytime foot traffic in order to support retail;

“(4) ‘Dead Zones’: the need to overcome ‘dead zones’ in the streetscape (especially along 14th Street) and join up the existing ‘clusters’ of retail and other development.”

The Executive Summary in the Committee’s report helpfully arranges its recommendations into 15 categories, some very specific and others broad and open ended. The first 10 of these include, in the order listed:

“Address streetscape dead zones in a variety of ways; Promote daytime foot traffic, including by allowing greater flexibility for office development; Provide a tiered list of preferred arts uses that recognizes the varying financial competitiveness of different types of arts uses; Recognize the distinct nature of restaurants, bars, and similar uses in a separate use category; Introduce an Arts Requirement (0.5 floor to area ration) to apply to new developments above a certain size; Provide bonus density of three to one for financially challenged arts uses, two to one for financially competitive arts uses, and zero for restaurant/bar uses-which do not require incentives; Provide a highly constrained possibility for a bonus height incentive of up to one storey-10 feet; Retain an increased (from 25 to 40 or 50%) limit on the frontage (per square) of eating and drinking uses; and Include an increased (75%) ground floor retail requirement.”

Beginning with the first item of streetscape dead zones, this is a favorite issue for the new urbanists and smart growth advocates, especially in their pursuit of uniformity in separate land use zones, and was discussed at great length during several of the public forums attended by this reporter. Commercial projects in the planning phase — Utopia at 14th and U Streets; Central Union Mission at 14th and R Street; and the Whitman-Walker Clinic redevelopment site at 14th and S Street were especially noted. So also was one existing non-commercial project, namely the low-rise, garden apartment-style Frontier Estates between Riggs and S Streets, the western side of which fronts on 14th. The Committee’s fourth recommendation deals with Frontier Estates, without naming it, under the rubric of “Basic Zoning Conformity,” asserting that “it is not appropriate for residential zoning to apply to lots fronting onto major arts and commercial corridors. In the case of the Arts Overlay District, a 200-foot-long stretch of 14th Street on the east side between Riggs and S Streets is currently zoned ‘R-5-B.’ This creates an enormous dead zone in the heart of the arts corridor and is a major obstacle to the development of a cohesive and unified Arts Overlay District streetscape.” Other equally dead zones of church buildings and non-profit service organizations are not mentioned nor recommended for re-zoning to arts and commercial/residential uses.

The Committee’s follow-on recommendation, its fifth, also deals with re-zoning and zeros in on the parcel of lots in the 1300 block of S Street that are currently zoned either R-5-B or R-4 and are used by the District for parking large Department of Parks and Recreation buses along with “a commercial building.” These “undeveloped city-owned parcels that currently have inappropriate uses and /or inappropriate zoning [and] are contiguous to arts districts,” the Committee’s recommendation states, “should be integrated wherever possible in the Arts District zone.”

The Committee’s recommendations that distinguish, and list, the financially challenged from the financially competitive arts uses in determining the size of density bonuses will some; the elimination of any bonus density consideration for restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and similar establishments will prompt howls from others. Both established and fledgling theatrical groups and emerging visual and performance artists have received vital support from such establishments. Cherry Red productions at Dante’s; any number of terrific groups at Playbill; Ganymede at Miss Pixie’s, a retail business; jazz at HR 57 — all come immediately to mind. Busboys and Poets adds a book store and literary events to their commissioned art, lectures, and performance space, all as part of a restaurant and bar. Entertainment endorsements on any number of liquor licenses provide a vital element to the expressed preferences of many residents for the 14th and U Streets arts overlay district. And, in addition to gallery space provide by retailers, the dramatic, and stunningly colorful murals commissioned for Andy Shallal’s recently opened Eatonville restaurant are an extraordinary addition to the artistic ambiance of 14th Street.

Yet the Committee asserts that the Office of Planning’s new draft Proposed Arts Use List “remains fundamentally flawed in that it continues to include restaurants, bars, nightclubs and the like as ‘Arts Uses.’ While restaurants, bars, nightclubs, etc. are important land uses in their own right, there is widespread consensus in this neighborhood and in other jurisdictions that these uses are not ‘arts.’ For this reason the Committee believes that it would be entirely inappropriate for these uses to be defined as ‘Art Uses’ in the new zoning regulations.” No mention is made of the possibility of defining these named activities as “auxiliary art uses” or “art uses concurrent with restaurant, bar, and performance space uses.”

Several other Committee recommendations respond specifically to community concerns for more street-level retail and additional restaurants for blocks that presently have none. As noted earlier, if the Committee’s recommendations are adopted by the Zoning commission, restaurant and bar linear foot restrictions would be changed from the present 25 percent to 40 or 50 percent and street-level retail requirements for new construction would be increased from 50 to 75 percent.

Further, the Committee’s proposed new building massing increases are not timid, especially that of providing bonus height incentives of up to one story (10 feet) in new construction with an arts component. The Committee’s work as evidenced in this first report — a meaty and professionally organized document — is a credit to the continuing pro bono community contributions by residents to the city’s civic betterment. It is further noteworthy for being prepared to meet the very tight September 15th deadline for submission to the Office and Planning and the Zoning Commission.

In a subsequent conversation with this reporter, ANC Commissioner Peter Raia found this treatment of bars and restaurants to be “unfair and just plain wrong”. He also expressed objection to the proposed increase from 25 percent to up to 50 percent street frontage for these establishments in the arts overlay district.