September 8, 2011 | by Mark Lee
14th and U streets ‘Arts District’ blossoms into more

Washington’s neighboring Logan Circle and Dupont Circle areas are a stark contrast in business friendliness.

The Logan Circle Community Association (LCCA) and the area Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) spent the first part of the millennium railing against the initial liquor licensed establishments on 14th Street, N.W., extending between downtown to U Street. However, a neighborhood poll conducted by LCCA at the time indicating that residents longed for dining and drinking venues startled the group.

That eye-opener gradually modulated the group’s regulatory posture and influenced the closely connected Logan Circle ANC. This would estrange them from the firebrand fights fueled by the notorious Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA) and the infamously lockstep attitude of the interchangeable Dupont ANC leadership of the time. Pitched battles over proposed citywide restrictions on music and dancing, and the neighborhood’s sidewalk patio applications, liquor license moratoriums, license renewals and just about every new business proposed continued unabated to the west.

Much has changed on 14th Street since those early days of an evolving presence of pioneering entertainment businesses — including both theater and arts establishments alongside a mere handful of bars and restaurants.

A tiny cluster of hospitality businesses were anchored by the newly remodeled Studio Theatre at 14th and P streets, along with the nearby Source Theatre and Woolly Mammoth Theatre (since relocated to Penn Quarter), among others. Studio Theatre founder and former artistic director Joy Zinoman’s dynamic vision and commitment had as much to do with revitalizing the Logan Circle area as the watershed opening of the Whole Foods Market in December 2000. Additional nightlife venues, home furnishings stores, clothing boutiques and new residential unit housing developments would follow.

Long-time area residents, as well as those among the thousands of newer arrivals, joined the business community last year in pressing the District government to modify its zoning regulations and accommodate growth in the number of nightlife venues.

In the 1980s, the city designated the still riot-scarred area that runs along 14th Street, N.W., from N Street to Florida Avenue and U Street from 9th to 15th (along with sections of 9th, 7th, P and Q streets) as a unique “Uptown Arts Overlay District” and decreed that only 25 percent of the linear frontage could be occupied by eating and drinking establishments.

That was fine – until it wasn’t.

About a year ago, potential alcohol-licensed businesses discovered that only 12-feet of space remained, and the D.C. Dept. of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) announced that additional licensees could not enter the marketplace and existing licensees could not expand unless they received a special exemption from the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) – a process that, even if successful, would take months or perhaps a year or more.

The MidCity Business Association, itself launched in 1998 as the 14th & U Business & Arts Coalition, undertook a grassroots organizing effort advocating that the limit be raised. The business association argued that the zoning restriction would “stall new projects and prevent existing ones from expanding, discourage entrepreneurs from investing in the area and send a strong message to local, regional and national investors that D.C. is business unfriendly” – a well-deserved criticism of the local government.

Shortly thereafter, with the vocal support of D.C. Council member Jack Evans, the allowed streetscape percentage for utilization by bars and restaurants was doubled to 50 percent, paving the way for a number of new hospitality venues.

The maturing corridors are now attracting restaurateurs from New York and elsewhere. A growing list of new and planned hospitality businesses will inject more vitality into the already bustling area. An additional 1,300 condominium and mostly apartment units at 10 new construction projects are underway to meet demand for additional housing density.

That’s good for everyone – including an arts community benefiting from and supporting local hospitality – and bodes well for continuing economic and social resurgence befitting a world-class city that doesn’t roll up its sidewalks at night.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

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