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Can You Zone for a Successful Neighborhood?

The DC blogosphere stirred a bit yesterday regarding the DC Office of the Zoning Administrator’s announcement that the commercial neighborhood surrounding 14th and U Streets NW had reached its threshold for bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and carry-outs. Per local law, the maximum share of such establishments in the MidCity neighborhood is 25 percent. The ruling means any new establishments, whether building from scratch or taking over current retail space, will need to get a special exemption from the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

The initial analyses I saw, courtesy of DCist and Matt Yglesias, tended to frown at the decision. And I have to agree this was my gut reaction. While certainly not the center of the universe, the establishments emanating from that corner are quite popular with many age groups, offer a wide range of entertainment options, and have greatly facilitated the economic resurgence of a classic DC neighborhood. There are also still vacant properties on that strip, as Matt mentioned, so doesn’t the city want those filled?

But then I read this cross-posted piece at Greater Greater Washington and BeyondDC. The author’s general contention--these zoning limits are there for a reason, specifically to make sure neighborhoods offer all amenities needed to create a quality place--offers a solid counterpoint to my gut reaction. And using the example of a successful mall’s quota system really brings that point home, notwithstanding the differences between a commercial-only mall and a neighborhood’s residential needs.

As I’m neither a MidCity resident nor a current or prospective shop owner, I’m not sure what the right answer is here. I do know the lines to get into bars and restaurants can be overwhelming in that part of town, but I also don’t know if there’s enough hardware or grocery stores to satisfy the residents. Actually, the only thing I really know is that this will probably cause a serious ideological fight in the ever-politically-active District.

So what do you all think of this? These kinds of zoning decisions are certainly not unique to DC, and many dense areas across the country are experiencing commercial resurgences. What would you think if an up-and-coming neighborhood in your metro suddenly reached its cap on these types of establishments or any others? Would you see it as a sign of progress that should continue or as a sign that the current retail inventory was out of whack?

* Note: This other GGW post gives a solid background on the vast bureaucratic web involved in this affair.