Housing Complex

Out, Damned Spot! How D.C.’s Onerous Parking Requirements Slow Development

The opening of the Anacostia Playhouse could be delayed for months because of fine print in the parking requirements.

Last Wednesday, representatives of the Office of Planning held a private meeting with developers and community leaders in Anacostia to discuss how to create a bustling retail zone in the Ward 8 neighborhood. Assisting them was something called the D.C. Vibrant Retail Streets Toolkit, a document prepared for the Office of Planning by the Bethesda-based real estate and design firm Streetsense that serves as a step-by-step guide to attracting desirable shops and restaurants, using successful streets in other cities as models for D.C. communities. Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, the Toolkit says, could be a model for Capitol Riverfront. Boston’s Charles Street might inform Georgetown. Main Street in Philadephia’s Manayunk, Pa.’s can inspire Brookland.

And Anacostia? The Toolkit suggests East Davis Street in Culpeper, Va.

Culpeper’s downtown, according to the Toolkit, was “dormant for decades” until a community effort “helped this isolated, rural community capture unmet retail demand in Central Virginia.” The effort seems to have paid off: East Davis Street, on just two blocks, boasts two antique stores, three gourmet food shops, an art supply store, a wine store, and a half-dozen gift and accessory stores.

In other words, East Davis Street has exactly what Anacostia lacks: retail.

The discussion at last week’s meeting, according to several people present, quickly turned from positive vibes to finger-pointing. The problem, participants argued, isn’t as simple as mimicking the economic-development strategies of other cities; rather, it’s partly attributable to regulations from the same city government that says it’s working to promote growth in Anacostia.

The central issue is parking. The neighborhood is transit-rich and pedestrian-friendly, with a compact downtown served by a Metro station, numerous bus lines, and a Circulator route. Yet according to the city’s zoning code—which dates back to 1958, when public transit had fallen out of fashion and automobiles were ascendant—retailers there are required to provide on-site parking for customers, regardless of the customers’ need or the retailer’s ability to meet it. As a result, several businesses interested in opening in Anacostia have changed their minds or been forced to endure long and expensive delays while they apply for special exemptions.

It’s a challenge that’s playing out across the city, with some developers opting to apply for exemptions from the parking minimums, which are usually granted, while others are discouraged from undertaking projects. But it’s a particularly acute problem in Anacostia, where retail is sorely needed and the market is still sufficiently unproven that developers are reluctant to take risks on ventures that could lose money. A requirement to build parking or apply for a variance adds an extra expense that can scare would-be retailers away—particularly when there’s not even space on site for parking, a common scenario in the historic neighborhood.

Exhibit A is the Anacostia Playhouse. The former H Street Playhouse, which is in the process of moving from Northeast, is supposed to host a show this spring and participate in two festivals in June. But city regulators recently slapped a "Stop Work" notice on its door for doing interior construction work without a building permit, which it can't get because it doesn't meet the parking requirements.* The holdup has taken its owners by surprise; the space’s low-bulk commercial/light manufacturing zoning requires it to have one parking space for every 10 seats of capacity, or 15 spaces—and it does. But the parking lot is across an alley and technically on a different tax lot. So the owners have to go through an appeal process; even if they’re successful, they might not be able to open before October, leaving them and their scheduled performers in logistical and financial straits.

“The city gave $200,000 in a grant to renovate [the Playhouse space],” says Duane Gautier, CEO of the nonprofit ARCH Development Corporation, referring to funding last summer from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities; ARCH also provided a $50,000 interest-free loan to the Playhouse. “So basically one part of the city government is hurting the other part of the city government who wants this done quickly. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Or take the vacant America’s Furniture building on the 2000 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. The building once housed a bowling alley, before becoming a discount furniture store. It’s a property with obviously high potential, given its downtown Anacostia location and its 10,000 square feet of space on each of its two floors. Its owner, the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, has been approached by multiple restaurateurs interested in moving into the space, according to Four Points Development’s Stan Voudrie, who has a hand in many Anacostia projects. (FSFSC Executive Director Perry Moon did not return several phone calls.) But parking regulations have gotten in the way: In the low- and medium-density commercial zones that comprise much of downtown Anacostia, retailers in excess of 3,000 square feet must have one parking space for each additional 300 square feet.

“There were a number of restaurant operators that looked at it, and the challenges are, to get a restaurant by right, you have to provide parking on-site,” says Voudrie, who attended the meeting last week. “Well, that building covers the entire lot.”

The PNC Bank next door has a parking lot that it’s willing to let its neighbor’s customers use, Voudrie says. But that doesn’t help with the rigid city regulations that require on-site parking.

“This is a big challenge for builders and for proprietors and retailers because it puts a limitation on our ability to attract businesses, particularly sit-down restaurants, which require a certain number of parking spaces,” says Akaii Lineberger of the advocacy group River East Emerging Leaders, who was present at last week’s meeting. “I think that’s something that really needs to be addressed as we try to attract a broader base of proprietors to the area.”

Businesses can still move into Anacostia without building parking spaces, but they need to apply for a special variance from the Board of Zoning Adjustment, a long and costly process whose prospect can scare potential retailers away.

“You have to go to BZA and get a waiver, and for a lot of people that’s expensive and difficult,” says Voudrie. “It’s a whole application process, and it takes a couple months, and you usually have to hire an attorney.”

Voudrie is frustrated that the rules don’t have the flexibility to allow for parking on neighboring lots. He argues that businesses should be able to open without a variance, or “by right,” if they can provide the parking, even if it’s not technically on the same lot.

“It should be just by right if you say, ‘Here’s my plan, and I’ve got an agreement with a parking lot down the street, and I’ll have valet service,’ or whatever,” Voudrie says.

As it turns out, the scenario Voudrie is advocating will likely be a reality soon. The Office of Planning is currently shepherding a rewrite of the city’s zoning code through the approval process. As currently written, the new rules, which could go into effect as early as late 2014 (or possibly much later), would remove the minimum parking requirement for buildings within half a mile of a Metro station or a quarter of a mile of a high-capacity bus line. Much of Anacostia would be exempt from the parking requirements.

But in the meantime, as Anacostia struggles to attract retailers, the impending zoning changes aren’t any help. In the absence of a retail boom, what predominate are boarded-up buildings and social-service organizations—some of which are subject to less stringent parking requirements than retailers and attract impoverished and in certain cases drug-addicted clientele whom neighbors don’t always welcome with open arms.

Until the new zoning code is in place, the city should grant relief from the parking requirements. The Office of Planning has supported expedited Board of Zoning Adjustment hearings for parking variances, but the rules don’t allow expedited cases to displace previously scheduled cases, and city rules also require a minimum of 30 days’ notice before any public hearings, so even the expedited process can be quite slow (and still likely requires a lawyer).

There are a few possible fixes. One would be a rule change to allow for parking on neighboring lots if on-site parking is impossible. Another, Gautier suggests, is to give businesses a certificate of occupancy while they’re applying for a variance, so as to speed up the process. Simplest of all would be to stop enforcing the regulations. Gautier says that in the past, when he told city authorities that one of his businesses would be taking up 100 percent of the lot and couldn’t provide parking, they didn’t press the issue. An explicit policy of nonenforcement until the new code takes effect could be enough to reassure would-be Anacostia retailers.

But one way or another, in a neighborhood that the new zoning code will officially recognize as not dependent on cars, outdated parking regulations shouldn’t be allowed to prevent an influx of badly needed retail.

* Due to a reporting error, this story originally incorrectly stated that the "Stop Work" order was issued because the parking requirement wasn't met. In fact, it was issued because the work was being done without a valid building permit, which couldn't be issued because of the parking minimum.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Brian Townes

    Ridiculous. Were the parking requirements not disclosed during the leasing process? Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing? When is the OP ruling on the 'nonenforcement' or other possible fixes?

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  • Skeptic

    So we have a theater owner who willingly rented the required parking spaces but failed to realize that they were on a separate lot, so she needed to go to the BZA. Fair enough, could easily happen. And it sucks, though it's not an argument against parking minimums.

    But then she waits four months into her six month rent-free period to start construction, doing so without a building permit. At which point a stop work order is issued and she finally applies for a permit. At which point she first learns about the BZA issue -- something she could have known about four months earlier had she applied for the building permit when her lease began. Now the wait for a BZA hearing date will hold up construction for months, putting the theater at risk.

    I can see how this is an argument for applying for building permits as early as possible. I can maybe see how this is an argument for expedited DCRA or BZA processing of certain kinds of cases or for allowing parallel processing (using denial of certificate of occupancy rather than denial of building permits) as the mechanism for enforcing complaince with zoning regs). But I don't see how it's an argument for doing away with parking minimums.

    Note that the minimum here (1 space for every 10 seats) assumes that the vast majority of people coming to the theatre (which includes performers and other employees as well as audience members) will not be driving. And it clearly wasn't a deal-breaker for the theater owner, who rented the parking at the same time she rented the building.

    For the theater's and the community's sake, I hope this can be worked out quickly. But it seems disingenuous and a bit exploitative to spin this situation as an example of why people should support the zoning rewrite.

  • Skeptic 2

    By the way, there is no such thing as a "special variance". The story confuses "special exception" (which is relatively easy to get but time consuming) with the much tougher "variance" process. Rather than completely do away with the parking minimums, maybe an expedited special exception process would be a better solution to these types of problems.

  • Chase

    If I didn't know better I would think this is intentional...

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    So you could say, in a way, that the folks in upper Northwest 1) fighting to keep this zoning rewrite from happening more quickly and 2) fighting to require as much parking as possible, even in transit zones, are tangentially responsible for holding up Anacostia's rebirth.

    Good job, Subarubia/Upper Caucasia!

  • http://onanov.com Donald Baxter

    Parking minimums in urban areas are planning insanity and driver further development out of high density areas and keep inner cities from revitalizing. This neighborhood should have *no* parking requirements at all and parking should be regulated by demand and priced accordingly. What is it about cars and parking that makes us this dumb?

  • Jinx

    It's my understanding th

  • Jinx

    It's my understanding that the revision of the zoning regulations may do away with parking requirements in many areas. But it's also worth noting that much of the Anacostia commerical district is within a historic district, where owners can get waivers of off-street parking and loading requirements for the older buildings.

    When considering supply and demand, and the overall viability of the retail corridor, it's probably also worth mentioning that, if the streetcar comes down MLK, it will eliminate most of the on-street parking in the commercial corridor. Some thought ought to be given to incorporating structured parking in the large projects that will eventually go up on the underdeveloped west side of MLK.


    Entitlement for the White female who has a close relationship with Councilman Wells, while the Black businesses in Anacostia, and thru-out DC can't event get parking ticket fee reduced. This Ward 6 opportunist gets free f*kng commercial rent from Mayor Gray (via our taxpayer dollars) and now she wants her friends on the council to give her more entitlements ----- emergency legislation for parking variance.

    I'm been in Anacostia for years and I've never received one dime of government subsidies and I don't know any Black business in Anacostia that the DC government has given FREE RENT to!!

    Shame on you MAYOR GRAY for disregarding the people who put you in office to appease the ones who want to replace you!!

  • http://www.anacostiaplayhouse.com Julia Robey Christian

    Hi all,

    I just wanted to offer up a few points of clarification:

    @Skeptic: We signed the lease on the building effective November 1. We applied for and obtained our demo permit in the middle of November. We started the building permit application process in December. We needed the time (between signing the lease and applying for the permit) to finalize architectural drawings as you cannot apply for a building permit without drawings.

    Neither my mother nor I have ever made this about the validity of the pending zoning rewrite and potential reduction/removal of parking minimums. Whether someone chooses to use our situation as an example in support or against the rewrite has nothing to do with us.

    @Black Biz in Anacostia: I would like to just clarify that the District government, Council, and the Mayor have absolutely nothing to do with us getting free rent. Our landlord, Curtis Properties, graciously allowed us six months free rent in order to do our build out.

    The District funding we received was a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The mission of DCCAH is to support the arts in DC.

    The emergency legislation that CMs Barry and Wells put forth seeks to provide a temporary building permit while we await our BZA hearing. We are still required to go through the BZA process and haven't tried to circumvent that. This would simply allow us to begin construction on the interior of the building, the plans for which have all been approved by DCRA.

    Lastly, on the SWO: the Stop Work Order was satisfied within a week of receiving it. However, we cannot do anything further until we have a building permit. We did have a demo permit for the demo work we were doing before we got the SWO, but we have completed the demo portion of the project.

    In general, if folks have questions or concerns, then please feel free to email me at julia@anacostiaplayhouse.com. I will be more than happy to provide any information you need/seek.


    Julia Robey Christian
    Anacostia Playhouse


    @ Julia,

    Should I attached the press release where Mayor Gray announced the city was supporting your move to Anacostia?

    If I'm mistaken, please clarify exactly what type of subsidy did the Mayor of the district of Columbia government provide you?

  • Nikki Peele

    As a representative of ARCH Development Corporation, the Ward 8 nonprofit that is administering the DCCAH grant for the Anacostia Playhouse I can confirm that the rent is not being subsidized by the District government. It is not rare for a property owner to waive rent during a buildout -- we have done so several times for projects in our buildings.

    I (a Ward 8 resident) along with with fellow businesses, organizations, and residents of Anacostia and Ward 8 welcome the Anacostia Playhouse with open arms and can't wait to catch a performance as soon as they open! They have been a wonderful community partner and we look forward to working with them more on several community projects. We hope this is resolved quickly for the benefit of the local residents and local business community who will benefit from increased foot traffic in the neighborhood.

  • Read Scott Martin

    @ Black Biz Thanks for livening up this debate. Are you able to accept Ms. Christian's offer to contact her directly or will you be identifying yourself similarly, as she and Ms. Peele did, when you continue here? It only seems fair. What is your line of work?


  • Drez

    Due diligence is the ounce of prevention.

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