Washington, DC's Cafe War
Bill Adler | June 5, 2007 at 06:56 amby
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What? You're thinking, "Why should there be a controversy over whether or not Cosi, a benign cafe, should move into a neighborhood that's got one of the largest movie theaters in the country in it -- a neighborhood that encompasses the National Zoo, one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Nation's Capitol. Yes, why indeed. But before I explain the situation in Cleveland Park, I need to reveal two facts: I'm a partisan; I support Cosi. I'm also the owner of the Cleveland Park Listserv, the place in cyberspace where much of the battle over Cosi rages.
Cosi wants to move into the space that had been occupied, until a few months ago, by Blockbuster Video on Connecticut Avenue between Ordway and Porter Streets. Cosi's application has been denied by the zoning administrator because there are already too many restaurants in that part of Cleveland Park. A zoning overlay limits the number of restaurants to 25 percent of the "linear street frontage" in the overlay zone; by some estimates the number of restaurants is already at 40 percent. A zoning overlay is a special set of zoning rules that further restrict what's allowed to be built or rented. So while current zoning prohibits things like high rise offices and too many fast food restaurants, the zoning overlay adds additional limitations. In addition to the 25 percent cap on restaurants, there's also a 20 percent cap on certain commercial uses like travel agents, ticket offices and banks.
Cosi is appealing the zoning administrator's decision. Cosi's lawyers claim that the zoning overlay term, "street frontage" does not apply to Cosi because it would be opening onto a parking lot, not the street. That's not merely a lawyer's clever explanation: Two object cannot occupy the same space. Only the parking lot fronts onto the street. Where Cosi wants to be is within the parking lot. When people ask where these stores are located, they're told that the stores are "in the parking lot" or "behind the parking lot." The definition of street frontage is "That portion of a lot contiguous to a street."
Created 18 years ago, the overlay zone was designed "to preserve and enhance neighborhood shopping areas, by providing the scale of development and range of uses that are appropriate for neighborhood shopping and services." Its other purposes include promoting the "safe and efficient conditions for pedestrian and vehicular movement," and preserving the historic district. The zoning overlay takes into account that retail establishments are also supposed to attract visitors to the neighborhood: by encouraging "retention and establishment of a variety of retail, entertainment, and personal service establishments, predominantly in a continuous pattern at ground level, so as to meet the needs of the surrounding area's residents, workers, and visitors."
One of the economic benefits that new restaurants bring is to help older, established stores: More people walking through the neighborhood means more business for our non-restaurant stores. But the overlay is a failed experiment, in part because it results in empty storefronts.
Those who still support the overlay believe that it helps preserve the special feel of Cleveland Park. But with the Uptown movie theater and the National Zoo as permanent fixtures in Cleveland Park, the neighborhood is a busy destination no matter what. To some, letting in Cosi opens the door to other establishments invading Cleveland Park, including restaurants that have live music. Wrote one person on the Cleveland Park email list, "Close one eye to the rule and allow Cosi's, a harmless little sandwich shop, and once again you have encouraged the landlords to try to ignore the overlay and open yet another food establishment. Waiting right down the road is truly a 'destination' restaurant that would be playing live tango music every weekend, Ole! Do we want to enforce a well meaning rule or do we want to open the floodgates?" Another Cosi opponent write, "Maintenance of the zoning overlay is all that protects CP from being nothing more than a destination for dining and wining." Other people in the neighborhood are concerned that more restaurants will bring more noise and parking woes. Some people don't like Cosi because it's part of a chain; they prefer independent, "mom and pop" restaurants.
In addition to Cosi, an Argentine restaurant, Divino, wants to move into the space on Connecticut Avenue at Newark Street that McDonald's abandoned in 2004. Divino is allowed to move into the old McDonald's space because the zoning overlay allows new restaurants to move into spaces that were previously restaurants -- a grandfather clause. Some neighbors oppose Divino's request to be open until 3am on weekends and to be granted a liquor license because it would creating late light noise and parking problems.
There are five vacant storefronts on Connecticut Avenue, NW along the two block strip between Macomb and Porter Streets.
The economic argument against Cosi and in support of the overlay goes like this: A) If the overlay is enforced, then B) landlords will have to reduce their rents to attract non-restaurant retail establishments, and C) we'll get a diversity of retail stores on the Connecticut Avenue strip.
There is no evidence that A leads to C, and that enforcing the overlay will lead to a variety of neighborhood-oriented shops. There is also no evidence that only restaurants can pay the "high" rents that are claimed. In fact, just the opposite is true: Some 60 percent of the retail establishments in that part of Connecticut Avenue are not restaurants. Retail other than restaurants are able to thrive in Cleveland Park. And there's no evidence that landlords will lower their rents if they can't rent to so-called high rent-paying restaurants. As the landlord for the old McDonald's has shown, some landlords are perfectly willing to leave their spaces vacant for years and years. The McDonald's has been vacant since January 2004.
While there's organized opposition to Cosi --and Divino-- there's been no effort in Cleveland Park to attract a hardware store, flower shop or book store -- the kind of establishments that the supporters of the overlay zone say they want. The two principal organizations involved in the Cosi and zoning overlay issues, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (an elected local body) and the Cleveland Park Citizens Association (a non-governmental group of residents), have been adept at keeping out restaurants, but have done nothing in public or private to coax stores to open in Cleveland Park. The result is that storefronts have been empty for months or years. The alcove that leads into the former McDonald's is now filled with graffiti and litter. (There's a photograph of the graffiti covered alcove accompanying this article.)
And vacant storefronts aren't just bad for the neighborhood as a whole -- they're bad for the merchants, too. I've seen a number of messages on the Cleveland Park Listserv about how our existing merchants would benefit from having stores other than restaurants on Connecticut Avenue between Macomb and Porter Streets. But when you talk to merchants, here's what they actually say: The Connecticut Avenue merchants need foot traffic, and restaurants help their businesses by bringing customers into neighborhood stores.
Cleveland Park is one of the most historic neighborhoods in the United States. In many ways it resembles a small town than a part of a large city: Tree-lined streets, century-old Victorian houses, green spaces that have been here since before the Revolution -- these are some of the distinguishing characteristics of Cleveland Park. And it's this sense of nostalgia that seems, in part, to drive many people who don't want more restaurants. For others it's the perceived noise an parking problems. Those things are hard to get a handle on, and they may be illusory. But the empty storefronts are real.
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