Housing Complex

Who Said People Don’t Care About Zoning?

Should there be more restaurants like this one in Cleveland Park?

I know, I tend to write a lot about the city's zoning code. But hey, people are passionate about this stuff—enough so that they go to great lengths to rig poll results on the subject.

Last week, the 12,956-member Cleveland Park listserv's moderators posted a poll about a hypothetical change to the neighborhood's zoning. "The current zoning overlay," the poll asked, "has certain restrictions in it, including a limitation on the number of restaurants in Cleveland Park. Do you favor or oppose changing the restriction that limits restaurants in Cleveland Park along Connecticut Avenue to 25 percent of 'linear street frontage'?"

The moderators typically keep their polls open for a week, but they shut it down early when they detected something strange going on: Someone was trying to game the results.

"Fortunately," the moderators wrote, "we have the tools to detect when and in what direction the results are being skewed. Over the course of two hours yesterday afternoon, a new dummy account was created about every 5 minutes and each one immediately voted in favor of keeping the restaurant cap."

Apparently, this isn't the first time someone's tried to cheat in a Cleveland Park poll; the same thing happened in 2006 on a poll of Ward 3 D.C. Council candidates.

Skewed or not, the results of the poll are worth examining. When the poll was closed, the tally was:

I support leaving the zoning overlay as is, 108 (34%)
I support changing the zoning overlay to allow more restaurants, 199 (62%)
I'm undecided, 14 (4%)

But the listserv managers were able to detect when the cheating began. Before that point, the count was:

I support leaving the zoning overlay as is, 83 (28%)
I support changing the zoning overlay to allow more restaurants, 198 (67%)
I'm undecided, 14 (5%)

I'll readily admit that I don't know much about this particular issue. But it fits into the broader debate in Ward 3 about development. Typically, when a hot-button development issue is on the table—say, oh, a new residential building in Tenleytown without any off-street parking—the loudest voices belong to the anti-development crowd, while a few meek pro-development folks insists that the silent majority is on their side.

Now, the 12,000-plus people on the Cleveland Park listserv may not be fully representative of the broader neighborhood population, but the vote was more than tw0-to-one in favor of the pro-development position (before the dummy votes starting coming in). And listserv moderator Bill Adler—who himself supports the revision to the zoning overlay—says that's not unusual.

"We've conducted a number of polls over the years on development issues, including the Giant supermarket, removing the service lane on Connecticut Avenue between Macomb and Ordway Streets and Cosi," Adler says in an email. "The poll results definitely show that Cleveland Park Listserv membership favors development—or at least on these issues, by at least a 2 to 1 margin. On the Giant supermarket debate, Cleveland Park's longest running show, now over, the margin was nearly 5 to 1 in favor of the Giant. There hasn't been a single development or growth related issued on which our poll results have favored a more conservative 'don't build it' view."

Adler believes the vote here does reflect the presence of a "silent majority" that might not show up to all the contentious ANC meetings.

"Many of our list members are young, busy with work, have little kids or are otherwise unable to attend community meetings where a small number of neighbors, usually a few dozen at most, gather to vote and express their views," he says.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • DC Guy

    This sounds a lot like the Cleveland Park Citizens Association which cancelled what was going to be a contested election, only to hold it months later, after they could organize and ensure the old guard slate would continue to run the organization.

    I guess the adage is true, the less something means, the more it is contested.

  • Alf

    A heaping of salt is warranted about Mr. Adler's "polls." First of all, the "Cleveland Park" list serve has little to do with the neighborhood anymore. Its 12,000 plus subscribers span much of NW, if not DC. (Witness the same day inquiries about nannies in the U Street area, etc.). That's fine, but in zoning matters what one thinks often depends on where one lives -- particularly where planning and zoning impacts are greatest. The purposes of the overlay were to achieve a diversity of "neighborhood serving" businesses in the Connecticut Ave. commercial strip, and not have it become a largely, if not exclusively, a bar and restaurant "destination" a la Adams Morgan. Second, it recognized that the area has NO off-street parking and that a mixture of restaurants and commercial businesses would smooth out the demand for on-street parking -- rather than concentrating it in the evening, which is typically the peak demand for both dining patrons and neighborhood residents who are returning home from work. Today, there are a number of restaurants, some quite good, at different price points, but there are also other small shops that give the area a diverse character and some of which (tailors, shoe repair) serve neighborhood residents who might otherwise have to drive or take a bus to areas further out. The greater distance one lives from the Connecticut Ave. commercial area, one is less likely to value having a diversity of neighborhood serving retail and not be directly affected by parking and other impacts. Given the geographical reach of Adler's list serv, it is not necessarily a reliable indicator of Cleveland Park sentiment and certainly not scientific.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    Zoning is a blunt tool. It works best when concerned about physical design. Therefore, zoning for specific uses is only as good as the differences in the spaces they need: e.g. a good residential space is different from a good retail space.

    It is not a good tool at the fine-grained manipulations that many citizens would like to use it for (like chasing the Adams Morgan boogeyman away), as the physical space required for a shop is more or less the same as that required for a restaurant. There are specific changes better governed by the building code, not the zoning code.

  • DC Guy

    If you like nail salons, tanning centers and cell phone stores, then Cleveland Park is the place for you.

    I highly doubt any of those establishments are really neighborhood serving. To boot, lifestyles have changed. Many more people prefer to eat out or carry in. Cleveland Park can use many more places that cater to this segment - a segment which wouldn't add more cars to the neighborhood.

  • Alf

    DC Guy --

    The evidence doesn't support your point that more restaurants don't add more cars/parkding demand. A couple of years ago, the steak restaurant sought a valet parking permit (despite being able to secure the requisite number of off-street spots). They said, although they are located just steps from Cleveland Park Metro, their customers demanded parking. The problem is, that there are no public or private garages anywhere in the CP commercial zone that can handle cars at night.

  • Alf

    Meant to write that the restaurant in question sought to have a valet parking program, but couldn't secure enough off-street spots as required by DC's regulations.

  • DC Guy

    What I am suggesting is that the addition of a couple of additional carry out type places, sort of like Fresh Med, won't significantly add cars to the neighborhood while at the same time adding to the food choices for residents who want them. A breakfast/diner type place would e nice too.

    However, the restrictions in place are not helping by forcing landowners to rent to nail and tanning salons - which are pretty much not neighborhood serving and do little to add to the human streetscape.

  • Alf

    DC Guy,

    I agree with you that take out or food establishments that do more of a trade during the day are not the concern.

  • DC Guy

    Great! So support changing the rules so there can be more options for residents in the neighborhood.