A lot of people don’t realize that the particularities of a given neighborhood or city result from the particularities of zoning laws, many of which are bad. For example, the Arts Overlay District, which was established (by whom I’m not sure), “to help direct development along some of the areas’ most popular retail strips, including 14th Street, U Street, P Street, Florida Ave. and 7th Street.”
One of the particularities of this law is that restaurants can’t exceed 25 percent of total retail frontage, and it has real impacts for the development of the neighborhood. From 14thandYou:
For instance, consider the new JBG Cos. proposal for the Whitman-Walker Building at 14th and S streets…With the high number of restaurants along U, P and 14th streets, the neighborhood is currently sitting at around 24%–meaning that the W-W development would be precluded from introducing any new restaurants tenants in the development. This is unfortunate, because the restaurants are thriving in the area and are largely responsible for the continued growth and viability of Logan/U Street as a “destination” for others throughout the region.
Neighborhood advocates charge that restaurants and bars (in particular) drive up rents and crowd out local businesses. Like 14thandYou, I’m not totally sure about this. It seems that the development of fancy condo buildings and other forms of retail are going to drive up rents anyway, and what’s more, many of the “local businesses” that I can think of stand to suffer at the hands of lowered demand. That is, the proclivities of condo dwellers typically don’t stray towards the Seafood and Crabs, Dollar Stores, or — as 14thandYou puts it — “furniture rows” of the world. I don’t see the sense, especially in these parlous economic times, in potentially driving away development for the sake of propping up retailers that aren’t suited to meet demand. I could see an argument for protecting historic businesses like Ben’s Chili Bowl, but Yum’s Chinese Food?
Finally, because restaurant frontage is near capacity, there are a number of mediocre to crappy restaurants that manage to hang around because competition is weak. Allowing other businesses to compete against the likes of Sala Thai will not only improve the overall quality of dining options, but will also ensure that the number of restaurants reaches proper equilibrium. Who knows, maybe market demand can only support roughly the number of restaurants now available, but it’s hard to know when zoning regulations make it easier for poor options like The World’s Worst Jumbo Slice to survive.