Friday photo: Be careful what your zoning asks for

In the Penn Quarter neighborhood, as Mark Jenkins wrote in the Washington Post, “arts spaces are mandated by zoning, yet the arts scene is hard to find. Nearly a dozen exhibition spaces populate the area… most don’t have access to the street and aren’t clearly identifiable from outside. They are in lobbies or tucked away in office building interiors.” Here’s one, Terrell Place at the prime corner of 7th & F, that’s not entirely hidden — but also not exactly shouting its noble story to the public. Yet it’s somewhat striking in that it wastes what could be prime retail space across from the National Portrait Gallery and the Verizon Center arena.

The “arts” designation for the “Gallery Place” neighborhood was intended to foster a vibrant community of commercial art galleries alongside working artists, all in the shadow of the Portrait Gallery. Yet instead, there are scarcely any commercial galleries, which require considerable staff investment, and instead many pointlessly large office building lobbies which feature above-average displays of plop art. Perhaps some lawyers and lobbyists have their lives slightly enriched by walking past these paintings, but the general public now derives scant benefit.

The designation is so broadly written that at least two suspiciously spacious bars on E Street — Penn Social and Hill Country Barbecue — both owe their existence to the “arts” requirement. I’m glad that Penn Social has room to spare; it’s a reliable go-to for large events that might not otherwise fit into such a convenient downtown location. But was that really the intent of the zoning?

The situation illustrates the difficulty of trying to define great places, which depend upon a lot of “we know it when we see it” subjectivity, through legal means like zoning. Now that quality retail has emerged as the prime placemaking amenity — anywhere can have open space, but retail’s a lot more difficult — it’s also become something worth subsidizing for its placemaking value. Yet before you can subsidize something, you have to define it.

Doing so will be fiendishly difficult for public entities like municipalities, which will also run into arguments about whether retail is a public good or a private good. However, it should be easier for private entities seeking to cross-subsidize across revenue streams.

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One thought on “Friday photo: Be careful what your zoning asks for

  1. Thank you for bringing attention to this matter. PQ residents have not only commented but raised numerous concerns as to how certain bar owners have been able to “get around the arts zoning requirement.”
    Referring to “Penn Social owes its existence to the “arts requirement” this statement is not really accurate. The space currently occupied by the sports bar has a “preferred use zoning requirement” and mandated use as a “theater/performing arts venue.” The Cert of Occupancy on file for Penn Social at DCRA reads: Approved Zoning Code Use: Theater, including motion picture or performing arts.”
    After plans to house the Washington Guild Theater didn’t materialize, the space sat vacant for years due to the “performing arts” mandate.
    In 2010 John Xereas presented a business plan to Boston Properties for a comedy club. He was introduced to Geoff Dawson who had been looking at the space for some time but could not fulfill the “arts” mandate. The comedy club business plan satisfied the ‘theater/performing arts” requirement and a partnership was formed. Shortly after the comedy theater opened, former partners Geoff Dawson and Marjorie Heiss removed him.
    A lawsuit was filed and upheld on the counts of: breach of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing, unjust enrichment (LLC) and cyber squatting. It was a business plan for a comedy theater that now allowed defendants Dawson and Heiss to initially secure an “arts” space now known as Penn Social and described by patrons as “a young, drunk, bar scene.”
    The designation of “arts” is not broadly written; the fact is DC officials faced with questions about how and taverns/bars occupy “arts zoned spaces” refer to the “arts” zoning as broadly written. This is not the case with Penn Social which was specifically designated to house a “performing arts/theater venue.
    I hope your articles sparks interest in how and why DCRA, DC Council Members, (Jack Evans Ward 2) and ANC2 tasked with enforcing zoning, licensing and other ordinances have failed to do so, including how another space zoned for the arts” (Iron Horse, another Dawson bar in PQ) was able to obtain a tavern license.

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