Recently, there has been much gnashing of teeth over the supposed decline and fall of Cleveland Park. Blogs have bemoaned it for a while, but the angst gained a higher profile last week when the Washington Post focused its attention on the puzzling growth of vacant storefronts in the historically stable Northwest neighborhood.
The Post wrote:
[M]ost businesses in other parking-starved areas, such as Dupont Circle and Georgetown, appear — so far, at least — to be weathering the economic downturn. In Cleveland Park, 11 of 64 storefronts are vacant.
This recent attention comes in the wake of several high-profile tenants in Cleveland Park closing their doors, including Magruder’s, 7-11, and Starbucks(!). But many are not content to put the blame solely on the economic climate. Rather, many argue that Cleveland Park’s supposedly restrictive zoning regulations:
Many Cleveland Park residents and business owners say the biggest factor behind the empty storefronts is a 20-year-old zoning rule limiting neighborhood restaurants and bars, which many say they think is being enforced too strictly…Drawing the most blame is the 1989 zoning restriction limiting bars and restaurants to no more than 25 percent of the area’s total linear store frontage, a threshold that the neighborhood has reached. Residents asked for the restriction to ensure that they would have everyday services, such as cleaners and grocery stores, in addition to restaurants and bars, which usually pay higher rents but often bring traffic, noise and parking problems.
Setting aside the question of whether Georgetown is “parking starved” (it’s not), it’s interesting to consider whether Cleveland Park is simply reaping what it sowed, and whether it’s even a bad thing.
Of the stores highlighted by the Post, five of eleven are national chains. While it is heartbreaking to see old standbys like Yenching Palace close, perhaps it is simply going as planned. Or maybe the plan is essentially sound, but the numbers simply need tweaking.
The most common complaint about the mix of Georgetown stores is that it is too skewed towards national chains and doesn’t offer enough of the neighborhood “everyday services” stores that the Cleveland Park regulations are designed to protect. Frankly, if five chains closed in Georgetown, some residents would call that progress. So, despite the angst of our northern neighbors, would we benefit from similar restrictions here? But instead of restrictions on bars and restaurants (which we already have as a result of the liquor license moratorium) how about restrictions on “destination stores” like clothing or shoe stores?
Would that lead to more variety in the retail mixture? And more importantly, could we endure a few more empty store fronts to accomplish it?