Housing Complex

SLIDESHOW: Z Burger and Why Sometimes You Don’t Need a Fence


This open space needs places for everyone to sit. Click for slideshow!

For the last year, Z Burger has been negotiating with Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A about how it ought to be able to use the public space in front of the old Tivoli Theater in Columbia Heights. There are lots of particulars to the situation, but the sticking point is over whether Z Burger should be able to erect a fence around its seating area.

Peter Taibibian, head of the rapidly-expanding Z Burger empire, says he wants the fence to prevent drunks, panhandlers, and dogs from bothering his customers. Plus, he says, look around: Everybody else has a fence around their seating area. "I don't know why they're trying to use me as an example," he says, impatiently.

But there's a difference between Alero or Acre 121 and Z Burger's location: It's right on the Columbia Heights plaza, which a 2004 framework plan envisioned as a cohesive public realm. Enclosing part of that would privatize what's supposed to belong to the neighborhood, says Laina Aquiline, the ANC commissioner for that area.

"The whole intention is for the Columbia Heights public realm to be an open public space, what people have referred to as a park from the very beginning," Aquiline says. "Z Burger wants to come and take advantage of it, as any smart business would. They want to come in and destroy it to take advantage of that." The Commission will consider a resolution in opposition to the fence at its May 9 meeting, and the District Department of Transportation's Public Space Committee makes the final decision.

You could dismiss this as yet another example of a meddling micro-politician—outside commentators have complained that the ANC's insistence on this point is strangling a business' efforts to serve the community. That's bullshit. The Columbia Heights plaza is an absolute gem of a public space, and alterations should be taken very seriously.

Of course, there should be seating there—it's been barren and empty for too long—and Taibibian is reasonable in not wanting to provide tables and chairs for everyone. Ideally, Columbia Heights would have a Business Improvement District that could pool private resources to furnish and maintain public furniture, but it doesn't. In the mean time, many of Z Burger's customers will use all parts of the plaza; the company has no right to exclusive use of any of it.

Curious about the rest of the city's sidewalk cafes—there are probably more than ever this year, having celebrated their 50th anniversary—I took a tour to see how they're used. There are basically four types: Permanent, enclosed patios built as an extension of the restaurant, fixed fences around seating areas that are difficult to remove, more symbolic lines of demarcation created by planters or light cordons, and tables that aren't enclosed at all.

Barriers make sense when you're trying to keep the party inside the bar—tipsy revelers shouldn't necessarily spill onto the sidewalk—and when you're trying to create some semblance of privacy for a higher-end dining experience. None of those circumstances apply to Z Burger (its own Southwest location doesn't have a fence). And in fact, not having a fence around tables and chairs creates a more intimate public space; diners cluster closer together, and passersby feel more like they're walking through someone's living room. That's something worth preserving.

Here's a slideshow of the different types of patios and sidewalk cafes we've got.

  • Ben

    "That's bullshit."

    Whoah, you're, like, the Matt Taibbi of local real estate reporting. Totally in-my-face.

  • http://twitter.com/elcolin Colin

    I don't have a problem with Z Burger getting a part of that public space for themselves. Unlike you, I don't really see it as a gem and is mostly underused. Also, I think the owner's concerns about drunks and panhandlers are legitimate.

    The real gem is across the street with the fountain and grassy area to sit while enjoying some froyo or empanadas. If someone wanted to fence that off it would be a different story completely. But the area directly in front of Z Burger seems underused and no big loss if part of it is taken.

  • meeshee boo

    Why doesn't any of the coverage of the outdoor seating boom point out its catalyst; the indoor smoking ban and the drive to compensate for it.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    In the slideshow - all are outdoor patios, obviously, but I'm not sure all of them are actually in public space. The Tortilla Coast one at 15th and P appears to be in private space. The Acre 121 patio with the large awning also appears to be on private land (judging by the setbacks of those buildings, compared to the narrower right of way further west on Irving). Interesting jurisdictional issues.

  • jcm

    I'm with you, Lydia. That is, in fact, bullshit. That whole article you linked to is bullshit, actually. You should check out pictures of Leidseplein or Rembrandtplein in Amsterdam to see public space cafes done right.

  • Lydia DePillis

    @Ben - God, I'd hoped to never be called the Matt Taibbi of anything.

  • JS

    I really think confusion over the extent of the CH Plaza is part of the problem here. I think (rightly or wrongly) that some see Park Rd and the little traffic island as separating Tivoli off from the main plaza triangle bordered by Park, Kenyon, and 14th. The same goes for the Heights space south of Kenyon. The anti-fencers keep with the letter of the public realm plan and see the whole facade to facade area as the plaza and ignore the de facto divisions caused by the streets.

    FWIW, I think that a temporary/removable fence (like the one from Policy in the slideshow or the one employed by Pete's near the CH metro entrance) is not objectionable, but that's just my opinion.

  • Matt

    I've kept pretty close tabs on this debate and don't have a big problem with a fence, but I do have a big problem with Zburger's unwillingness to consider what the community (at least those who have spoken up) has voiced as its big concern. The community said "we don't want a fence" and Zburger said, "ok, we're putting up a fence.". The community said "how about planters or any other of a number of solutions that we find reasonable?" and Zburger said "ok, how about a fence?". The community said "listen, we want to work with you to get your business open with a nice outdoor seating area, but we really don't want a fence" and Zburger said "the community is picking on us.". I've said all along that I don't care about the fence and just want a burger (formerly a Zburger), but let's be clear, instead of giving me a burger, Zburger has given me and all of us this debate. As a result, I am going to walk the extra two blocks to Five Guys to avoid giving these babies my burger dollars, unless I'm drunk, then I'm going to go sit on Zburger's outdoor cafe.

  • Phil Lepanto

    @Matt Great point. I'm all for giving businesses wide latitude on things, but a little give and take with the community goes a long way. Residents who remember the drama and vote with their sober-dollars send an important message.

    BTW, I noticed that Lydia didn't include a picture from Don Juan's Restaurant and Carryout, an outdoor cafe in the adjacent Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. The owners went through significant grief from the community to get that set up, but it's widely hailed as a success. Moreover, the owners do quite well with planters and some temporary stanchion-chain barriers. The owner goes out of his way to break down his seating and barriers each night to make sure there is a clear path on the sidewalk when he's not using it.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    Nice job on the slideshow/typology. I'd argue that the example of Taylor Gourmet "the picnic area" is a bad variant.

    - http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2011/06/tension-in-urban-sidewalk-design.html

    I don't know what to say about the Tivoli issue. I don't think that the continuation of the square on the north side of Park Road is particularly well designed, especially the Giant supermarket side.

    From the standpoint of future use considerations, placing the one bench very close to the building was a mistake I think.

    And having worked in hospitality for many years, I definitely understand the proprietor's concerns about customers being hassled by panhandlers, etc., it was definitely a problem on Dupont Circle.

    And likely while it wouldn't be a problem to not have a fence because the area is achieving critical mass in positive urban revitalization energy, the proprietor likely sees this as a competitive disadvantage compared to say, The Heights, which has a cordoned off area.

    - http://www.google.com/maps?q=&layer=c&z=17&iwloc=A&sll=38.929813,-77.032538&cid=9110349873186139412&cbp=13,105.1,3.8,0,0&panoid=W986tM17g-HTy4872q4cGQ&q=heights+restaurant&ei=

    Plus, given how drunks congregate on the currently unused side entrance steps, the proprietor probably figures that problem won't go away and they need some proactive CPTED, hence the desire for a fence.

    - http://www.yalelawjournal.org/the-yale-law-journal/article/architecture-as-crime-control/

    Me, I'd allow for part of the patio to be fenced, part unfenced, and do a comparison study to see the results, and then revisit the issue. (Like the DDOT research of innovative bicycle infrastructure treatments -- http://ddot.dc.gov/DC/DDOT/Publication%20Files/On%20Your%20Street/Bicycles%20and%20Pedestrians/Bicycles/Bike%20Lanes/DDOT_BicycleFacilityEvaluation_ExecSummary.pdf )

  • Jane

    I work in real estate in the area and if I am not mistaken, the owner here is paying rent for that outdoor space as most of the other cafes do and with that also insurance and maintenance etc. If that is the case, then he does have some rights but Lydia you say the company has no right to exclusive use of any of it. Is that accurate?.

  • Katie

    If I were to see the same people that hang out (or to cut the shit - loiter) in that space now, taking over the tables, I would be less inclined to sit and eat. I think that's their main issue. It's good marketing for passersby to see people happily eating delicious burgers. It sounds like the neighborhood wants a food court situation, and Z Burger, after having invested in the property, would rather not have people eating from other restaurants right outside theirs. I don't think they're being unreasonable. If there was supposed to be a food court feel around the center there would be random tables already set up. There aren’t.
    Asking Z Burger to foot the bill for tables and chairs for everyone to use is bad form. They will have to do the cleaning for the litter left behind; they will have to keep the area tidy so their image isn’t tarnished. They should either not be allowed to use that area at all, or be allowed to use it in a way that’s best for the area and for their business.

  • Lydia DePillis

    @Jane - If the city decided to grant Z Burger a permit, then yes they would be paying rent and insurance. But it's the city's decision whether or not to do that. It seems to me that it would make sense for the city to give them a break on rent in exchange for making the seating open to all who might want to use it.

  • Co Hi

    Well, considering the number of derelects, drunks, panhandelers and brazen open air drug dealers hang out in front of that building and on its steps, I don't begrudge the guy wanting to put a little separation between him and the masses of unwashed who currently loiter there, especially considering he is paying for the privlidge of using that space.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    Seating open to all should be the financial responsibility of either the Tivoli generally, or a broader public realm organization. They could in turn pay Z Burger to maintain it. OTOH, Z Burger's not likely to want that kind of scenario for the reasons mentioned by others above.

    The issue is if people consider the space along the Tivoli facades "public square" or more associated with the building and/or storefronts. My sense is the latter.

    Nothing prevented something like that from being set up already, except for lack of a coordinating organization, e.g.,

    - http://washington.uli.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/2012-04-10-DB-for-ULI-in-DC.pdf

    - http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2012/04/23/harvard_yard_transformed_by_colored_chairs/

    But I haven't heard of a similar kind of idea being done outside of park/plaza type space. I think it's a stretch to consider the sidewalk along the Tivoli to be more of a public square and extension of the plaza across the street vs. space associated directly with the Tivoli.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/ Mr T in DC

    Katie hit the nail on the head when she said: "If I were to see the same people that hang out (or to cut the shit - loiter) in that space now, taking over the tables, I would be less inclined to sit and eat."

    I walk past that corner every day, and the guys who sit on the bench right up against what will soon be Z Burger are generally drinking alcohol from paper bags and intimidating other local residents from using the bench. This is the spot where the street vendor murdered a man in broad daylight not too long ago. In my opinion, just let Z Burger fence off the space, remove the bench, and hopefully that will encourage the drunks to go elsewhere.

    As a further example, witness who currently uses the two unfenced table in from of the deli just around the corner in the Tivoli building. Patrons of the deli never sith there and eat! Instead, people sit there drinking Starbucks, or from paper bags again. Homeless people, and teenagers who didn't buy anything from the deli have taken over those tables and chairs. The store manager is partly to blame - they really shold put signs "for customers only" and instruct their employees to enforce those rules, but they're probably afraid of confrontation or retaliation.

    Just let Z Burger set up a fence, it's no big deal.

  • Rock Master Scott

    Why don't they just open without any outdoor seating for now? It can't be cheap to rent the place and not operate a business.

  • Brooklandite

    Although I absolutely hate when people say "CoHi", I have to agree with commenter CoHi. I lived in Columbia Heights until the whole Disney-fication got to be too much, and then I moved to Brookland. When I lived in that area, what I would describe as shady characters tended to hang-out roughly where Zburger is opening (specifically near the Bank of America ATM). From what CoHi says, it sounds like those individuals are still there. Thus, I can't blame Zburger for wanting to cordon off part of an ENORMOUS sidewalk for their outdoor seating. I certainly wouldn't want to be bothered by high people while enjoying a burger. By no means would I support a massive 20 foot wall, but I imagine that Zburger wants something like what Pete's has near the Metro.

    Also, the spot into which Zburger is moving used to be an Asian/Sushi restaurant and, if I'm not mistaken, they had outdoor seating that was roped-off. This would tend to support the idea that Zburger could rope-off its sidewalk and remain in harmony with the neighborhood... since that has already happened in the exact same spot several years ago. DCUSA, The Park Triangle, and all the other developments were already there at the time I'm referencing, though the streetscape hadn't been completed.

    Still love you Lydia... just don't agree on this issue.

  • http://www.ToddCWiggins.com Favorite Flava (Todd C Wiggins)

    Installing a functional translucent fence no taller than 4 feet is a reasonable solution. On to more important matters....How soon can I get a Vege Burger and a S'mores MilkShake?

  • Matt

    Brooklandite and others, lemme reiterate. The community said "how about a roped off area?" and Zburger said "ok, how about a fence?"

  • Lydia DePillis

    @Richard Layman, others -

    The difference between Z Burger and the Heights or Alero is that it's a fast food restaurant, not some place where you're rooted while a waiter serves you. FroZenYo and Julia's Empanadas have some seating, with no fence, because it's a much more casual type of thing.

    On the presence of drunks and panhandlers: I'd argue that's a direct result of that storefront NOT being activated for so long. If it were cleaned and maintained and people were coming in and out all the time, they'd probably move elsewhere. And mentioning the recent murder there is just a scare tactic.

    I think the best solution here is to try tables and chairs without a fence to start, and if the interference thing becomes a serious impediment to Z Burger's business, perhaps they can be granted a fence (although I'm not sure it would necessarily keep the panhandlers away, if they're that determined).

  • http://Alexblock.net Alex B.

    Lydia, I think the key difference there isn't the type of business, but the type of space. FroZenYo and Julia's all front on the actual plaza. Z burger, effectively, is on a regular old sidewalk. Whether that was the design intention or not doesn't really matter, that's how the space functions now. There is a a street, a sidewalk, and a building facade.

    Now, their insistence on a fences rather than other kinds of barriers is a head scratcher, but given the context of the space, I can see why they would want to segregate and define their seating a bit.

  • Brooklandite

    @ Matt
    Please realize that my comment was focused at Lydia's argument, and not the fence vs. rope issue... since it doesn't seem that Lydia would support a rope or a fence. I was merely making an argument in support of creating some physical separation, be it a fence or a rope.

    But since you brought up the rope vs. fence issue, I ask: What is the difference? Is the proposed fence of the type that is being built along the Mexican border? I severely doubt it. Is the proposed fence of the type that is around the seating area at Pete's? I believe so. So why make it a sticking-point whether its a fence or a roped-off area.

    From the way I understood Lydia's point, she doesn't believe there should be a barrier preventing the public as a whole from enjoying the streetscape area. It seems she may favor a separation of sorts formed by planters, but not a complete obstruction. Since roping off an area is equivalent to fencing it off, I don't understand why you believe (if, in fact, you do) that roping something off fits cleanly within Lydia's argument, but a fence does not. I don't think you actually agree with Lydia... you just believe that a rope is superior to a fence of the same height. I don't know how you arrived at your preference for a rope, but I can certainly respect that we all have different opinions.

  • J

    Im personally just sad that such a beautiful building and corner is going to have a z burger - of all things.

  • Denise Wiktor

    Thanks for the slideshow, but the ones that you included in the old PADC (Penn Ave. Devel. corp) boundaries are not licensed by the Public Space Committee. I would also note that having been the secretary to the Public Space Committee when some of these in the slideshow were permitted, they are not exactly in compliance with their permits. By regulation, barriers are supposed to be temporary and the whole cafe must be able to be dismantled within 24 hours (not going to happen with the poured cement base of the one cafe). One other note, the other Burger, on Wisconsin has a fully enclosed cafe. As this is not my ANC I will not weigh in on the Z debate, though I imagine the Z enthusiasts in my family will not be eating in but doing carry out. As for me, I have become hooked on Le Caprice a few blocks north.

  • Adam

    Why are they insisting on outdoor seating? There's plenty of indoor seating space to work with. Five Guys doesn't have any outdoor seating, and they do just fine. Even if there was a fence, I wouldn't want to eat outdoors on that corner.

  • Adam

    Oh wait, Z Burger wants outdoor seating because without it, everyone will continue to eat at Five Guys, since they have better everything. What is Z Burger trying to open a restaurant a block away from a superior burger joint? That's the real question.

  • Paul the Man

    Adam, don't get me started on the 5 Guys across the street from where zburger will be, you can't understand the employees, try getting a burger there that isn't well done and if you are with someone who might not like burgers you are screwed.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    Z burger is a fast food restaurant. So what (even though it's higher priced than what people think of as "fast food"). Starbucks coffee shops don't have table service either. Neither does Cosi (at least during the day). Neither does Sweetgreen or Firehook. The Starbucks on CT Ave. have patios, the Cosis on CT and PA Ave. SE have patios. The Firehook and Sweetgreen have patios on PA Ave. SE. None have table service. That's the point of a fence. To demarcate the space.

    FWIW -- it's about management of the space. Not whether or not there is table service. Although it does make a difference. (Alex B. made a similar point.)

    A free for all, especially at that space at this point in Columbia Heights' commercial districts phasing, is likely to be problematic.

    see the discussion of the phases of commercial district revitalization and how what phase you're in sets the stage for policy recommendations, including particulars about management of space, here:


  • Andrew

    Not to be annoying, but it's called the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza.

  • HPS

    I’m a neighborhood resident who lives a few blocks from the plaza and soon-to-open ZBurger. Though I wish it was something other than a burger joint, I’m glad we have another business coming to the neighborhood and am growing rather frustrated with this protracted bickering about a “fence.” I worry that our neighborhood will develop a reputation of being unwelcoming to new businesses (or at least really difficult to deal with) and that will slow the continued revitalization that has been underway for several years.

    On the particulars of the fence/demarcated space, I’m with Katie and others who note the importance of this to a pleasant dining experience in that specific venue (see also the lessons learned from the un-demarcated space in front of the deli or, formerly, in front of Starbuck which are/were both used primarily by non-patrons). Without a fence or some sort of divider/barrier that separates the space being used by ZBurger patrons from everyone else, the hobos will just capture all the chairs and tables, colonizing the space for their own use. Anyone who doubts this has clearly not seen the guy who has moved into the civic plaza with his two overflowing shopping carts. He’s set up camp on the northeast end of the plaza and has even plugged in a microwave (!) to heat the food that he somehow obtains (I’m guessing Giant’s “loss to theft” has gone up since he decided to occupy the plaza). A growing number of his friends seem to be joining him, at least during the day in the plaza and, as others have observed here, on the steps outside the ZBurger space. If the Z Burger tables are just set out like a food court, they’ll never be available (or appealing) to actual patrons. If patrons have unpleasant experiences, they don’t return and the new establishment fails. Then the neighborhood is no better off than before as we go back to having vacant space on that potentially vital corner. So let’s stop all the bickering and let the business create an appropriate space for outdoor dining using some sort of fence/divider that is neither permanent nor excessively costly for them to acquire or maintain.

  • LatinainDaHood

    HPS - you are 100% correct. It's clear that Lydia doesn't live in the neighborhood. As far as the guy who is now occupying the plaza - he's not really "homeless". He gets food dropped by a family member ( a heavy set woman) who double parks in front of XOXO dry cleaners and drops his food off. Probably a relative. The whole thing is a joke. He brings his chess, his boombox and his visiting bum friends leave their trash on the grassy area.

    This whole civic plaza was not an issue when the Asian restaurant that was there masqueraded as a club at night and it was g-h-e-t-t-o. Yet the instant a tax revenue generating business wants to come in and make money, everyone makes a stink. It's what's wrong with America today.

  • rosesdc

    If there is more activity near the Tivoli it could make the guys hanging at the now dead space feel less comfortable. And I believe the unused handicap ramp may be removed as part of the sidewalk cafe design. If Z Burger would also make an entrance where the steps are, then the guys would not be able to claim that area, as people would be coming and going.

    An occasional free burger, a little compassion, and they might also turn pests into the best guys to watch their back.