Should 15th Street SE Remain a Commercial Corridor?

Section of 15th Street SE that is zoned commercial.

Section of 15th Street SE that is zoned commercial (Source: DC Office of Zoning)

The recent discussion of plans for 401-403 15th Street SE has re-opened an old Hill East debate: Should 15th Street SE be zoned for commercial activity? Or should it be zoned residential?

The majority of Hill East is zoned R-4 for residential use. Most of the commercial areas in our neighborhood are clustered around Pennsylvania Avenue. The exception to this general rule is a stretch of 15th Street SE between Independence Avenue SE and D Street SE, an area that is zoned C-2-A for commercial use.

For most of the past decade, residents’ experience with retail along this corridor has been negative. In the early 2000s, residents complained about crime and loitering around the now defunct New Dragon restaurant. And some residents also voiced concern that developers were taking advantage of the commercial zoning to build tall residential-only buildings along the corridor (C-2-A allows buildings up to 50 feet high compared to 40 feet for R-4).

In 2003, ANC 6B supported a request made by several frustrated 15th Street residents to rezone 15th Street SE from the commercial C-2-A to the residential R-4.  While the Zoning Commission did not change the area’s commercial zoning,  the commission and residents successfully encouraging the DC Council to rezone the corridor in the city’s 2006 Comprehensive Plan.

In 2007, ANC 6B sent another letter (pdf) to the Office of Planning requesting that the Zoning Commission rezone 15th Street SE from commercial to residential. The Office of Planning responded that the issue would be considered in the agency’s planned rewrite of the city’s zoning regulations.

Fast forward to now and the Office of Planning is preparing to present its zoning rewrite to the Zoning Commission in 2013. But does the neighborhood still support rezoning 15th Street SE from commercial to residential?

This past year saw the opening of two popular food establishments along the corridor – The Pretzel Bakery and Crepes on the Corner. The Pretzel Bakery (340 15th Street SE) has been a huge hit. And while Crepes on the Corner (257 15th Street SE) unfortunately closed, most Hill East residents I’ve talked to enjoyed having a place to grab coffee and lunch in the neighborhood. Southeast Market (1500 Independence Ave SE) was also recently sold and renovated. All three of these establishments are or were positive additions to the neighborhood.

While 15th Street will never be a Barracks Row, I can certainly envision a future time when the corridor acts as a small neighborhood serving commercial zone located halfway between the heavier retail activity around Eastern Market and the future retail activity on Reservation 13. Rezoning 15th Street to R-4 would eliminate future opportunities for restaurants, cafes and shops along the corridor.

The Pretzel Bakery at 340 15th Street SE has been a welcome addition in Hill East.

The Pretzel Bakery at 340 15th Street SE has been a welcome addition to Hill East.

Over the next 2-3 months, ANC 6B will have an opportunity to comment on the Office of Planning’s proposals for the zoning rewrite. Just this month, ANC 6B created a Zoning Regulations Review Task Force that will help the commission craft a response and position on the proposed rewrite. During this process, I plan to ask the task force and my commission colleagues to weigh in on whether 15th Street SE should remain a commercial corridor.

What do you think? Should 15th Street SE remain a commercial corridor? Or should it be rezoned residential? Post your comments below.

Note that the first meeting of ANC 6B’s Zoning Regulations Review Task Force will be this Thursday, Dec. 20 from 7:30 pm-9:30 pm at the Hill Center (921 Pennsylvania Avenue SE).

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50 Responses to Should 15th Street SE Remain a Commercial Corridor?

  1. Peter Courtney says:

    I say keep it a commercial corridor. Hill East could use more low key restaurants and coffee shops. May the walk-able city continue to grow!

    • Jim Myers says:

      Great idea, Peter. I’m all for it. But can you point out a specific address in reality on 15th Street where this could plausibly happen in the next decade or two, and where the owners are amenable? If so, let’s get on with it.

  2. Carlos A. says:

    I strongly believe that 15th street should remain commercial. Part of what we’ve been seeing throughout DC is that the neighborhoods that are “walkable” are the ones doing well in the economic recovery. The purely residential neighborhoods are lagging. But that means there has to be something to walk to. The pretzel bakery, Crepes on the Corner (which seems to have closed due to personal reasons not strictly related to revenue) and the improving SE Market are signs that these spaces are capable of doing well and providing some neighborhood amenities to make Hill East more walkable. Throwing in the towel now seems short-sighted to me.

  3. Greg Daniel says:

    The corridor should remain commercial and we should think of innovative ways to encourage new restaurants that offer fresh and healthy food to move in.

    • Jim Myers says:

      I remember in about 1990 a small shopkeeper complaining that “you white people” — that was me ”are ruining business because you move into a house with one or two people that used to be home to six or seven. And we was right. In the latter 1990s, people weren’t as packed into the neighborhood as they previously had been, with people out on the street at all hours. When the 2000s hit, the streets became scarily empty, relative to the way there were earlier, but, at least, you didn’t get robbed as often as seems to be happening now. So now, a whole generation of residents like me who take up more space per capita than their predecessors in the neighborhoodhave moved in, and most of the businesses there were are gone. (Back in the day when the 300 block of 15th Street was a true “commerical corridor” there was Safeway and Pope’s Funeral Home, I believe, was located where the Payne baseball diamond is now. Why, I’ve heard stories about stores in the 100 block of 15th being looted in 1958. There was a community centered here, too, that isn’t centered here in the same way now. How many of those asking of commerce on 15th Street send their kids to Payne School? But now those people who take up more space per capital are complaining there’s not enough density to attact businesses … so they want five story buildings, mostly, it seems on someone else’s block. How about your own block? Change the zoning there. Or take in some boarders if denisty is your thing?

  4. Kathleen Siedlecki says:

    Greetings. Just wanted to say I recently came across your blog and i appreciate your efforts to share neighborhood news. I’m a resident of the 400 block of Kentucky ave and never realized the zoning mix of 15th. Think it is good for the neighborhood to allow responsible small businesses to continue there.

    Thanks for the information.

  5. It should stay commercial but then we cannot allow 50ft residential-only buildings or exceptions as the developer of 401-403 15th Street SE is intending to do.

    • bflahaven says:

      Thanks Catalin. Note that under C-2-A, developers have the right to build 50 foot residential-only buildings as opposed to 40 foot buildings in R-4. There certainly is a trade-off – we can push to rezone to residential and limit height to 40 ft. but lose the opportunity for future commercial activity, or we can keep the corridor C-2-A and allow (or “live with” depending on your perspective) 50 foot buildings. My preference is the latter.

      I am hopeful that the developer at 401-403 15th Street SE will be open to input from the community and surrounding neighbors – they have committed to community meetings.

  6. john says:

    As a newcomer to the area, I found it interesting (and surprising) that there had been a strong push to eliminate the commercial zoning, but I think I can understand the historical motivation. My inclination is to keep it as is and hope some successful retail/food services come in–I love having H St and Barracks Row nearby but would prefer a few nearer options as well. I guess one’s opinion may depend on whether you are optimistic that the Stadium Armory metro area will be redeveloped in a smart manner and Hill East’s comeback will continue or if you are cynical based on history.

  7. Alex B. says:

    Absolutely, commercial zoning should remain.

    Please note, ‘commercial’ zoning is not really commercial zoning, it is mixed use zoning. And mixed land uses are what made the Hill a great urban neighborhood. I would also support the relaxation of rules against corner stores in residential zones, too (again noting that ‘residential’ areas of the Hill were never solely residential.)

    I also welcome the general increase in density that this zoning category allows – the type of 4-5 story development with retail on the ground floor is an excellent infill addition to the neighborhood. Of course, specifics will vary by project, but the concept is a good one.

    • bflahaven says:

      Good point Alex – commercial zoning is mixed-use zoning. I also support allowing corner stores in R-4. Residents should note that these stores would have a number of limitations (no cooking on site, limited hours, limited size, etc.).

  8. Gary Gorski says:

    Please leave it as a commercial corridor. I think that over time, we could have some great local businesses open.

  9. heather says:

    It should be commercial but I agree with Catalin regarding opposition to 50ft residential buildings that do not integrate with the neighborhood. The pretzel bakery and crepe venue have been great additions to the neighorhood and blend in, keeping with the architecture, flow and environment of the Hill. In addition, we’ve had the success of the martial arts center (2 locations in the zone due to the structural issues with the building at 401-403 15th).

  10. Nick Burger says:

    Another vote for this area to remain commercial. As you describe, Brian, we have the beginnings of an interesting and exciting pocket of commercial activity, and it would be great to see it have the chance to grow.

  11. David Healy says:

    Of course, it should not be commercial. Commercial in this city does not mean restaurants, bars, convenience stores or neighborhood retail. Commercial means office space.

    • bflahaven says:

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t think more office space would be bad for Hill East – and you are really talking about a limited amount of office space on this corridor. We need more daytime and pedestrian traffic to sustain retail in our neighborhood. That is why developing Reservation 13 is so critical.

      • David Healy says:

        Yes, and Reservation 13 is only a short walk from 15th street and anybody with a serious business plan would locate in Reservation 13.

  12. Lauren says:

    While I am concerned with “shadier” establishments on 15th street, I love the pretzel bakery. My hope would be that as plans for reservation 13 start being finalized, perhaps more serious establishments would be interested in opening on 15th street.

  13. Ari says:

    Another vote for commercial. Love the Pretzel Bakery and would welcome any other useful establishment that made a go of commerce in our neighborhood.

  14. Jennifer says:

    I am in favor of retaining the commercial zoning.

  15. Peter says:

    Should absolutely remain commercial, in the mixed-use sense. Also, hoping for coffee shops/lunch-time dining establishments will mean more failed efforts like Crepes on the Corner. There isn’t the lunch-time office crowd demand to make it viable.

    With so many residential/family blocks throughout the surrounding neighborhood, one would think that the proximity of the school and park would make this corridor an ideal location for a cluster of daycare centers.

  16. Daniel says:

    I also support keeping zoning as is, even if it means office space. But I would like to hear more from those who support changing to residential. I get the feeling that there’s more to the story from those who support change to residential. What are they concerned with and what in their mind is the worst case scenario?

  17. Heather A. says:

    Absolutely it should remain commercial.

  18. Sarah says:

    I am also in favor of 15th Street remaining a commercial zone.

  19. Erik says:

    Also in favor of commercial.

  20. Mike says:

    Its a good question, but a bit vague. I see a lot of people picking commercial, but you kind of taint the process by mention Pretzel Bakery and Crepes on the Corner. Sure, either of those on the ground floor of a mixed use building sounds great. A daycare makes sense, of course there are already some in the general area. But what if it was an ugly office building with no parking and a Dunkin Donuts on the ground floor? Or the current plan of 50 foot condos? Or a bar/club that people get out late and make noise? Or some random failed business and the area sits vacant more often than not? Or worse of all, some shady establishments like before? Commercial or residential, much depends on the execution by the developers.

    • bflahaven says:

      Thanks for the comment Mike. And you make a good point – keeping an area C-2-A doesn’t mean we are going to get the retail we want. And as I mentioned in a previous comment, there is a trade off involved.

  21. jpb says:

    I agree with the idea of keeping it commercial, in theory, but would favor low-rise mixed use over the type of 50-ft condo tower which is currently allowed, and which is completely out of scale with the rest of the adjacent streets. Furthermore, the zoning can only do so much. As the last poster suggested, just because it’s zoned commercial doesn’t mean we’ll end up with the casual eatery or quaint coffeeshop that so many residents say that they want (myself included). The zoning designation alone can’t make these places appear. Which prompts the question, what can be done to make this kind of site more attractive to the kinds of vendors that we, the neighborhood, would like to see in that location? Are there any sort of tax credits or other concrete incentives which could be made available that might offer some sort of allure to this kind of location? What information exists out there on potential vendors, and what THEY are looking for in a site? It seems prudent to find this out in a meaningful way rather than us guess at what we think that they want (and get it wrong). Let’s ask them, and then give it to them.

    • Peter says:

      The incentives are called customers. Five story well-designed condo buildings may not match the nearby blocks but neither would a viable quaint coffee shop, because those require enough people living nearby to keep them in business. We can’t complain about the rising cost of living while rejecting five story residential development that is 15 blocks from the Capitol in a 16sq mile city. This isn’t a Rosslyn-style monster it’s low-to-moderately dense urban development.

  22. Megan says:

    I am also in favor of 15th Street remaining a commercial zone.

  23. David Healy says:

    Basically what people are saying is that they would rather live in Rosslyn but somehow ended up in Hilleast so now they want to rebuild Hilleast so it can be more like Rosslyn.

    If we need to rebuilt the capital city then maybe we should just move the capital to Nebraska and start from scratch.

    • Eric K says:

      I think the jump from 50 foot buildings to Rosslyn I pretty rediculous. Rosslyn isn’t terrible because it is full of 50 foot condo buildings, it’s terrible because its full of auto-centric concrete office towers that don’t engage the street at all. If we need more density to support these small establishments (which I think we do), I’m fine with it.

  24. DavidS says:

    I’m very much in favor of exactly the type of limited commercial development that exists currently on the 15th St corridor. It’s a blessing not to have to drive somewhere to buy a quick bite to eat, and invaluable to have a “third space” to meet, see neighbors, and discuss community business. Crepes on the Corner is sorely missed!

    • Jim Myers says:

      PLEASE — Can someone on this blog tell at which exact address on 15th Street we’re going to have the place to get that “bite to eat” or “meet, see neighbors? I want these things, too, but it looks to me like 15th Street is pretty much spoken for. I can point EXACTLY to the spots were the headquarters of the drug rehab program is coming and EXACTLY where the plan to build workforce housing will NOT include retail space or an eatery. There is one empty cafe space at 15th and C. How come there’s not a rush of applicants to open up there ASAP, what with all the hunger for a cafe? Or rather, is it where were all you people when the place was actually open?. I don’t see or hear about anything coming there now. So, what existing properties do you plan tear down, now that plans for 15th and D are in the works?

  25. David Mueller says:

    As a long time resident of the Barney circle neighborhood, I strongly endorse leaving the zoning commercial. Hopefully as the area changes we will be seen as a place welcoming to more businesses, particularly those useful to local residents such as cafes, and taverns to supplement what is on 1400-1700 Pennsylvania ave.

  26. Jim Myers says:

    It would be interesting to know how many of the above commentors actually live in the area of 15th Street in question. Any at all? It was actual residents of those blocks who wanted the zoning changed to residential. While I can understand the hopes for desireable places of business that we’d actually enjoy — I have them, too — is 15th even the slightest bit practical or condusive to such ventures? If so, why haven’t such businesses already opened there? How many decades must we wait with multiple empty storefronts for the wonderful businesses to show up? I think there’s too much dreaming going on by folks who do not have to live next to the results which have tended tend to be 50-foot plus condo buildings and zero busineses. Also, I suspect that changing the zoning might not totally prohibit all buisinesses. Some could be grandfathered in, if they existed. Others might actually only have to be something the neighbors want.

    • bflahaven says:

      Thanks for the comment. Most of the commenters above are Hill East residents, and a few live on or adjacent to 15th Street SE. I agree that we need to hear more from 15th Street residents and I plan to do some further outreach. As for the last part of your comment, the Office of Planning is recommending that corner stores be allowed in R-4 areas in the current zoning rewrite. If approved by the Zoning Commission, this would certainly allow limited retail activity to occur in the neighborhood. However, both Crepes on the Corner and the Pretzel Bakery would not have been allowed to open under the proposed R-4 corner store rules since they rely on cooking on site. And I agree that the current businesses would be grandfathered in if the zoning changed.

    • Alex B. says:

      You can’t micro-manage the business activity of retail businesses via the zoning code. It just doesn’t work. Zoning is a blunt tool.

      The kind of micro-management of the types of business you might like to see is not likely possible via any regulatory framework, but certainly not via zoning.

      Commercial zoning (read: mixed-use zoning) is a necessary prerequisite. It is not a sufficient condition for good businesses, but it is a prereq.

      Also, there is absolutely nothing wrong with 50-foot tall infill development in Hill East. Bring it on, more would be welcome. Nothing helps retail business more than a greater density of potential customers.

      • David Healy says:

        Moses did not come down from Mount Sinai with the zoning code writ from the hand of God. I suppose one persons “micro-manage” is another person’s “macro manage” but there is no reason on earth why DC or any other jurisdiction could have a zoning provision for “neighborhood businesses.” A lot can be accomplished with a well drafted zoning code; DC has never had one.

  27. Will P says:

    I agree with the majority of the commenters that the street should remain zoned commercial.

  28. rg says:

    The current Commercial zoning– really it is mixed use — is fine for 15th Street. Hill East needs more commercial within walking and biking distance and changing the zoning on that corridor to residential would be a set back. 8th Street and H Street are great, but they are a bit far flung, especially for those of us who live at the extreme south and east end of the neighborhood. The Pretzel Bakery and renovation of Southeast Market show that the corridor has potential. The fact that someone wants to invest at the corner of 15th & D and the renovation of the long-derelict building at 15th & Independence behind Southeast Market illustrate that the potential is not only there, but is perhaps on the cusp of being realized.

    As for the specific project at 15th & D, a five-story building would be much better than the one-story building that currently occupies the site. There are plenty of similarly scaled buildings sprinkled throughout Capitol Hill that not only blend in well but are part of what gives our neighborhood character. In addition, those extra four stories will mean more customers for the types of businesses many of us want on 15th Street. The one-story building that currently occupies the site hails from an era when central cities were losing population and there was no incentive for property owners to maximize the use of their property or to build an attractive addition to the neighborhood. The approach with the current building at 15th & D was clearly “let’s build the cheapest building we can possibly get away with and hope we can attract some tenants, any tenants.” Central cities in general, and Hill East especially, have changed a lot since those days.

    The idea of going from commercial to residential reminds me of a similar debate back in the 90s. Back then, a lot of people argued that the siren song of suburban shopping was so strong that 8th Street could never be revitalized as a commercial corridor and that the best solution to the disinvestment and blight that had taken over Barracks Row was to capitalize on the Hill’s slowly strengthening residential real estate market and rezone all of 8th Street as residential. Thank god that idea did not prevail!!!

  29. David Healy says:

    8th Street is not a commercial corridor. It’s become restaurant row. It’s also within walking distance of 15th Street.

    • john says:

      Paint store, 2 pet stores, grocery, 2 barber shops, home furnishings store, kitchen store (if you go around the corner), kid play center, bakery, radioshack, etc–yes Barracks Row is restaurant dominated but many would disagree it’s not also a commercial corridor.

      • David Healy says:

        Gee a paint store and 2 pet stores a kid play center. With retail like this, who needs Pentagon Center?

  30. Joe H says:

    As with nearly every comment I’ve read, I too think it should stay commercial. I’m at 16th and C and would LOVE to have more cafe’s, eateries, and shopping nearby.

  31. Kevin Ford says:

    I live on 15th St, but a tad north of the zone in question. I’d vote to leave it c-2a.

    Be sure to show the number of comments in favor of this zoning to prospective business owners looking to cater to the growing number of Hill East residents looking for establishments in which to while away their spare time.

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