Strong real estate markets need more public protections, not fewer: entry of CVS into DC's Mount Pleasant neighborhood
The other day, I came across a piece written last fall by Alex Baca, now in the bike share biz but formerly a bicycling advocate and journalist at the Washington City Paper, about a markets oriented urbanism talk in Cleveland. Her article is quite good, and makes a bunch of points about the real estate market and the narrow range of urbanism straight up real estate development usually supports.
-- "Against Corporate Urbanism In the Heartland"
The site eyed by CVS in Mount Pleasant.
The Post reports ("A CVS store might be coming to the neighborhood. These D.C. residents are trying to stop it") on concerns in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood about the possibility of CVS, one of the nation's two largest pharmacy chains, opening a store in their neighborhood commercial district, Mount Pleasant Street, even though there is already an independent pharmacy on the block, and two CVS stores nearby, on 14th Street in Columbia Heights, and on Columbia Road in Adams Morgan.
Previously the neighborhood unsuccessfully opposed a Subway sandwich shop. From the article:
In the latest battle pitting Mount Pleasant against chain stores and big-box brands, nearly 2,000 residents have signed an online petition opposing the latest perceived threat to the neighborhood’s folksy, mom-and-pop spirit: CVS.The problem with a petition is that it has no standing in zoning or building regulations. It's an example of how people don't understand what "petition to redress grievances" means in the context of land use policy ("Historic Preservation Tuesday: Saving buildings vs. "the right to petition to redress grievances," 2015).
The pharmacy, which is exploring opening a store on the Northwest Washington neighborhood’s main street, would be an “eyesore” and “completely out of scale,” the petition says.
Residents opposed to the CVS worry about a pharmacy across the street that has served the community for more than 35 years and the locally owned supermarket in the building that CVS is eyeing. They’re also worried about what a CVS in this idiosyncratic neighborhood might bring: more chains, less character, a washing away of who they are.
Interestingly, yesterday I received my latest issue of the trade magazine Chain Drug Review. Outside of the three largest chains in the US, most of the regional chains that are left in this business have fewer than 100 stores.
The Mt. Pleasant story tweaks my memory on a bunch of things.
1. Probably in 2003, I submitted testimony on the community development plan and priorities of the DC Dept. of Housing and Community Development. Partly this was in response to their funding of a lousy project by the H Street Community Development Corporation, which demolished the oldest remaining historic buildings on the corridor for some ersatz box--one floor in the place of two- and three-story buildings--for some chain stores.
This was about one year after DC had created the Main Street commercial district revitalization initiative (I was one of the leaders that created such a program on H Street NE--now considered one of the most successful urban revitalization examples in the city and nation).
In already learning from our experience, one of the points I made was that when a Main Street designation is created, there should be a standard set of design and development guidelines that go into effect as part of the program. At the time I was influenced by the San Diego Main Street/commercial district revitalization program, and the North Park Main Street program had created both Development Guidelines and Design Guidelines, with the aim of satisfying neighborhood priorities.
These documents are now out of date and I didn't know as much then as I do now, but they seemed revelatory back then.
-- North Park Development Guidelines, adopted September 1997 (they might seem out of date now, but think about the time and context in which they were created)
-- North Park Main Street Design Guidelines
Most historic districts create these kinds of guidelines as a way to manage change and to provide guidance and predictability wrt decision-making. They are based on the period of architectural significance of the area and the architectural styles that were then prevalent and the type of building and how it was designed to perform its use--commercial buildings were designed differently from houses.
DC doesn't really do this, except through zoning, unless the commercial district is historically designated. But the process of creating more detailed requirements outside of the historic preservation regulation process is daunting and there isn't a lot of help and support from the various DC government agencies.
For example, H Street did develop a set of zoning requirements, as part of the planning process for the revitalization program, but they weren't super detailed, because the area isn't a historic district, and the Zoning Commission doesn't put a lot of stock into "design requirements" within zoning regulations.
Even without a specific commercial district revitalization organization for a particular district, there should be protections and reviews in place to ensure the maintenance of the best possible commercial district.
Development and design guidelines for commercial districts should be a minimum requirement and a basic element of zoning and planning regulations for a community.
2. Business Revitalization District designation as another framework for design review. Once I got heavily involved in local land use issues in DC, the first major national conference I attended was the National Trust for Historic Preservation annual meeting, in Cleveland in 2002.
One of the many things I learned about was Cleveland's "Business Revitalization District Overlay" zoning, which mandated extra-normal design review in districts targeted for improvement. The point of the design review was to ensure the coordination of projects and to reduce the risk of bad design negatively impact the value of adjoining properties and limiting the positive impact of public investment in those communities. From the webpage:
Certain proposals for construction, exterior alterations, building demolitions or signs in the City of Cleveland must undergo a process known as "design review." The City established this process as a policy to ensure that any visual changes to buildings or open spaces will enhance the architectural character of Neighborhood Commercial Districts.DC, the only places that are subject to local design review as a matter of course are areas designated as historic districts, although local projects can be subject to federal design review if they are in or impact the federal interest area of the city.
3. Formula retail. Some communities, but not very many, have zoning restrictions concerning the opening of chain retail in their cities.
• It may be for most every retail category, like in San Francisco,
• or more focused on so-called big box stores, through big box review ordinances.
• In Laguna Beach, California, they have a retail zoning categorization for what they call "neighborhood serving businesses."
The thing is that you need to have these provisions in place before a chain store comes calling, not after. That being said, I recall reading a study by the Community Land Use and Economics Group found that healthy traditional commercial districts have chain stores in their overall retail mix, upwards of 15% .
DC does have certain use restrictions, but they aren't particularly wide ranging. The three that come to mind, but they don't apply everywhere, mostly just in commercial districts like the one in Mt. Pleasant are:
- no automobile-oriented "drive through" type establishments
- extra review for gas stations but they can still happen
- extra review for fast food establishments but they can still happen.
If an outright ban is too hard, at the very least I am in favor of conditional use permitting processes.
I fell in with some people who were interested in this vis a vis Dupont Circle, and they thought that they could get CM Jack Evans to move such legislation forward ("Formula retail restrictions and other planning and zoning techniques," 2007).
No such luck, and in fact since then, national real estate investment trusts have become more heavily involved in that district, Cleveland Park, and other areas of the city ("Problematic outcomes as real estate investment trusts buy more "high street" retail real estate," 2015), making such incursions all the more likely.
Conclusion. As I write repeatedly, without remedies already existing in the law, it's very difficult to win land use advocacy battles ("Without remedies there's nothing you can do: historic preservation in Chicago and DC," 2014). You certainly can't do it with a petition.
The really sad thing about all of this is that again, you need these kinds of zoning review processes in place before the developer or chain store comes calling, not after.
It is a travesty that the Office of Planning hasn't worked to put such provisions in place, leaving neighborhoods pretty naked when it comes to having a minimum amount of input into retail developments in neighborhood commercial districts.
(This is also an issue with liquor licenses. I argue that rather than only categorizing and regulating licensing by type of use--bar, restaurant, etc., it should also be congruent with land use type, e.g., micro district within a neighborhood, commercial district by a Metrorail station but still in a neighborhood, downtown or in a regionally serving commercial district, etc.)
This item isn't really related to the Mt. Pleasant matter.
4. Funding for commercial district revitalization initiatives. San Diego also separates the organizational form of a commercial district revitalization effort--there it can be either a Main Street type somewhat grassroots program involving the community or a more traditional property owner oriented "business improvement district" from the funding mechanism, a supplemental tax on commercial property in the defined district. (In DC, we only allow BIDs to have property tax supplements.)
So Main Street efforts always beg for funding while BIDs don't.