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's Onerous Parking Requirements Slow Development

Last Wednesday, representatives of the Office of Planning held a private meeting with developers and community leaders in Anacostia to discuss how to create a bustling retail zone in the Ward 8 neighborhood. communities. Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, the Toolkit says, could be a model for Capitol Riverfront. Boston's Charles Street might inform. Georgetown. Main Street in Philadephia's Manayunk, Pa.'s can inspire Brookland.

And Anacostia? The Toolkit suggests East Davis Street in Culpeper, Va.

Culpeper's downtown, according to the Toolkit, was "dormant for decades" until a community effort "helped this isolated, rural community capture unmet retail demand in Central Virginia." The effort seems to have paid off: East Davis Street, on just two blocks, boasts two antique stores, three gourmet food shops, an art supply store, a wine store, and a halfdozen gift and accessory stores.

In other words, East Davis Street has exactly what Anacostia lacks: retail.

The discussion at last week's meeting, according to several people present, quickly turned from positive vibes to fingerpointing. The problem, participants argued, isn't as simple as mimicking the economicdevelopment strategies of other cities; rather, it's partly attributable to regulations from the same city government that says it's working to promote growth in Anacostia.

The central issue is parking. The neighborhood is transitrich and pedestrianfriendly, with a compact downtown served by a Metro station, numerous bus lines, and a Circulator route. Yet according to the city's zoning codewhich dates back to 1958, when public transit had fallen out of fashion and automobiles were ascendantretailers there are required to provide onsite parking for customers, regardless of the customers' need or the retailer's ability to meet it. As a result, several businesses interested in opening in Anacostia have changed their minds or been forced to endure long and expensive delays while they apply for special exemptions.

It's a challenge that's playing out across the city, with some developers opting to apply for exemptions from the parking minimums, which are usually granted, while others are discouraged from undertaking projects. But it's a particularly acute problem in Anacostia, where retail is sorely needed and the market is still sufficiently unproven that developers are reluctant to take risks on ventures that could lose money. A requirement to build parking or apply for a variance adds an extra expense that can scare wouldbe retailers awayparticularly when there's not even space on site for parking, a common scenario in the historic neighborhood.

Exhibit A is the Anacostia Playhouse. The former H Street Playhouse, which is in the process of moving from Northeast, is supposed to host a show this spring and participate in two festivals in June. But city regulators recently slapped a "Stop Work" notice on its door for doing interior construction work without a building permit, which it can't get because it doesn't meet the parking requirements. The holdup has taken its owners by surprise; the space's lowbulk commercial/light manufacturing zoning requires it to have one parking space for every 10 seats of capacity, or 15 spacesand it does. But the parking lot is across an alley and technically on a different tax lot. So the owners have to go through an appeal process; even if they're successful, they might not be able to open before October, leaving them and their scheduled performers in logistical and financial straits. Commission on the Arts and Humanities; ARCH also provided a $50,000 interestfree loan to the Playhouse. "So basically one part of the city government is hurting the other part of the city government who wants this done quickly. It doesn't make a lot of sense."

Or take the vacant America's Furniture building on the 2000 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. The building once housed a bowling alley, before becoming a discount furniture store. It's a property with obviously high potential, given its downtown Anacostia location and its 10,000 square feet of space on each of its two floors. Its owner, the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, has been approached by multiple restaurateurs interested in moving into the space, according to Four Points Development's Stan Voudrie, who has a hand in many Anacostia projects. (FSFSC Executive Director Perry Moon did not return several phone calls.) But parking regulations have gotten in the way: In the low and mediumdensity commercial zones that comprise much of downtown Anacostia, retailers in excess of 3,000 square feet must have one parking space for each additional 300 square feet.

"There were a number of restaurant operators that looked at it, and the challenges are, to get a restaurant by right, you have to provide parking onsite," says Voudrie, who attended the meeting last week. "Well, that building covers the entire lot."

The PNC Bank next door has a parking lot that it's willing to let its neighbor's customers use, Voudrie says. But that doesn't help with the rigid city regulations that require onsite parking.

"This is a big challenge for builders and for proprietors and retailers because it puts a limitation on our ability to attract businesses, particularly sitdown restaurants, which require a certain number of parking spaces," says Akaii Lineberger of the advocacy group River East Emerging Leaders, who was present at last week's meeting. "I think that's something that really needs to be addressed as we try to attract Ziggy Ansah Authentic Jersey a broader base of proprietors to the area."

Businesses can still move into Anacostia without building parking spaces, but they need to apply for a special variance from the Board of Zoning Adjustment, a long and costly process whose prospect can scare potential retailers away.

"You have to go to BZA and get a waiver, and for a lot of people that's expensive and difficult," says Voudrie. "It's a whole application process, and it takes a couple months, and you usually have to hire an attorney."

Voudrie is frustrated that the rules don't have the flexibility to allow for parking on neighboring lots. He argues that businesses should be able to open without a variance, or "by right," if they can provide the parking, even if it's not technically on the same lot.

"It should be just by right if you say, 'Here's my plan, and I've got an agreement with a parking lot down the street, and I'll have valet service,' or whatever," Voudrie says.

As it turns out, the scenario Voudrie is advocating will likely be a reality soon. The Office of Planning is currently shepherding a rewrite of the city's zoning code through the approval process. As currently written, the new rules, which could go into effect as early as late 2014 (or possibly much later), would remove the minimum parking requirement for buildings within half a mile of a Metro station or a quarter of a mile of a highcapacity bus line. Much of Anacostia would be exempt from the parking requirements.

But in the meantime, as Anacostia struggles to attract retailers, the impending zoning changes aren't any help. In the absence of a retail boom, what predominate are boardedup buildings and socialservice organizationssome of which are subject to less stringent parking requirements than retailers and attract impoverished and in certain cases drugaddicted clientele whom neighbors don't always welcome with open arms.

Until the new zoning code is in place, the city should grant relief from the parking requirements. The Office of Planning has supported expedited Board of Zoning Adjustment hearings for parking variances, but the rules don't allow expedited cases to displace previously scheduled cases, and city rules also require a minimum of 30 days' notice before any public hearings, so even the expedited process can be quite slow (and still likely requires a lawyer).

There are a few possible fixes. One would be a rule change to allow for parking on neighboring lots if onsite parking is impossible. Another, Gautier suggests, is to give businesses a certificate of occupancy while they're applying for a variance, so as to speed up the process. Simplest of all would be to stop enforcing the regulations. An explicit policy of nonenforcement until the new code takes effect could be enough to reassure wouldbe Anacostia retailers.

But one way or another, in a neighborhood that the new zoning code will officially recognize as not dependent on cars, outdated parking regulations shouldn't be allowed to prevent an influx of badly needed retail.

Due to a reporting error, this story originally incorrectly stated that the "Stop Work" order was issued because the parking requirement wasn't met. In fact, it was issued because the work was being done without a valid building permit, which couldn't be issued because of the parking minimum.

So we have a theater owner who willingly rented the required parking spaces but failed to realize that they were on a separate lot, so she needed to go to the BZA. Fair enough, could easily happen. And it sucks, though it's not an argument against parking minimums.

But then she waits four months into her six month rentfree period to start construction, doing so without a building permit. At which point a stop work order is issued and she finally applies for a permit. At which Tony Scheffler Elite Jersey point she first learns about the BZA issue something she could have known about four months earlier had she applied for the building permit when her lease began. Now the wait for a BZA hearing date will hold up construction for months, putting the theater at risk.

I can see how this is an argument for applying for building permits as early as possible. I can maybe see how this is an argument for expedited DCRA or BZA processing of certain kinds of cases or for allowing parallel processing (using denial of certificate of occupancy rather than denial of building permits) as the mechanism for enforcing complaince with zoning regs). But I don't see how it's an argument for doing away with parking minimums.

Note that the minimum here (1 space for every 10 seats) assumes that the vast majority of people coming to the theatre (which includes performers and other employees as well as audience members) will not be driving. And it clearly wasn't a dealbreaker for the theater owner, who rented the parking at the same time she rented the building.

For the theater's and the community's sake, I hope this can be worked out quickly. But it seems disingenuous and a bit exploitative to spin this situation as an example of why people should support the zoning rewrite.

It's my understanding that the revision of the zoning regulations may do away with parking requirements in many areas. But it's also worth noting that much of the Anacostia commerical district is within a historic district, where owners can get waivers of offstreet parking and loading requirements for the older buildings.

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