Should Georgetown Ban Chains?

2900 block of M St.

Gawker published a provocative article yesterday (which is to say it was a Wednesday) arguing in favor of banning chain stores in New York. The article was inspired by a less aggressive, yet still risky proposal by Jersey City, NJ to put a square footage cap on chain stores opening in its commercial buildings. Would something like this be a good idea for Georgetown? Probably not, but it’s worth considering.

The Jersey City proposal is to limit chain stores to 30% of commercial square footage. The idea has spurred both support and opposition, and it’s unclear what its chances are for adoption. Proponents see it as a way to avoid homogenization of the commercial district and to protect independent “mom and pop” stores. Opponents think it’s an infringement on property rights and that it’s too risky for the city to turn away possible tenants.

No plan exactly like this has been proposed for Georgetown, or DC generally. But it’s not so different from rules that have been proposed and adopted here.

As GM wrote about a long (long) time ago, Cleveland Park has an unusual zoning overlay. It limits the amount of restaurants and bars to only 25% of the street frontage of the commercial buildings. It’s obviously addressing a different “threat”, namely restaurants not chain stores, but it’s methods are similar: capping an unwanted category of commercial use by fiat. Cleveland Park residents claim this keeps the commercial district diverse (i.e. restaurants and retail) but some argue that it leads to excessive vacancies.

In Georgetown, several years ago as part of the commercial zoning code rewrite, some residents (including GM in his role with the Citizens Association) began working with the Office of Planning on a proposal to limit the number of banks opening in Georgetown. The proposal was something like: no banks can open if another one is already open within a block. A similar proposal was discussed concerning fast food restaurants.

The business community was opposed and the Office of Planning decided that no changes would be adopted without the consent of the business community. And with that the proposals died.

It’s unlikely the business community would be any less opposed to a cap on chain stores. But as GM has demonstrated with his annual survey, the majority of establishments in Georgetown are not chains. A cap on chains would arguably be very much in their interest (and very much not in the interests of their landlords). Could a wedge be driven between them?

GM has long argued that the prevalence of independent shop in Georgetown belies the widely held perception that it contains nothing but chains. However, that’s slowly changing. And along M St., just about the only non-chains left are restaurants, and they’re dying off too. Independents still dominate Wisconsin Ave., particular on the north end. Would a prophylactic regulation keeping the status quo make sense?

As GM said, it’s still unlikely. But we should discuss it nonetheless. We don’t have to leave Georgetown’s future solely to the free market. We already put our thumbs on the scale left-and-right (e.g. liquor license moratorium). Maybe this is another place we should give the market a nudge.




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4 responses to “Should Georgetown Ban Chains?

  1. Why stop there? Why not have government officials also dictate what’s on the menu? Don’t let the market decide or anything; the people might do something silly, like make rational economic decisions and purchase the goods and services they desire.

  2. “Proponents see it as a way to avoid homogenization of the commercial district and to protect independent ‘mom and pop stores.”

    Because government intervention should absolutely “put our thumbs on the scale” to benefit the jivey suit stores and hemp shops that currently occupy upper Wisconsin Avenue and so artfully embody the spirit and charm of independent retail. Whatever can be done to give these bombed-out businesses a well-deserved “nudge” will be all worth it if we can just prevent a Starbucks from opening.

  3. That is the silliest idea I have heard in a long time. What constitutes a chain? Two locations, three locations, ten? By limiting ourselves to “one off” stores, Georgetown would never get the benefit of anyone else’s intellect or success unless that person happend to live here and happened to want to open a store in Georgetown. Also, as this “idea” seems to have originiated in Jersey City, New Jersey, it is a tad ironic that where Georgetown may not want to import previously proven retail concepts, they apparently don’t mind importing another jurisdictions bad ideas…….

    Thanks for the laugh.

  4. Pingback: Will New Law Block Condo Projects? | The Georgetown Metropolitan

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