Why are the shops shuttered in Cleveland Park, Washington D.C.?

The Washington Post reports that the “once-vibrant” enclave of Cleveland Park in Washington D.C. has been steadily losing local businesses. The most telling casualty: the  closing of a Starbucks in June. The mile long neighborhood is bordered by Connecticut and Wisconsin Avenues and is close to The National Zoo.

While the recession may seem a likely cause of shrinking business, the most contentious factor is a 1989 zoning law that limits restaurants and bars to 25 percent of the area’s total linear store frontage. The limit, meant to encourage grocery stores, dry cleaners and other everyday services, hurts business activity, according to commercial property owners who claim the commercial stretch is well suited to bars and less-so to small stores.

According to one property owner, 95 percent of the leasing inquiries for the now-vacant Starbucks and consignment stores come from restaurant entrepreneurs. And they are prohibited by the zoning law from entering the market.

The issue of how much and what kind of local businesses are welcome in the neighborhood is animating the upcoming Cleveland Park Citizens Association’s September 29th election. The association’s leadership supports keeping Cleveland Park unchanged. Members of Advocates for Wisconsin Avenue Renewal want higher density development and have been behind efforts to attract a Giant grocery store to the area.

In the meantime there are marginal changes in the works to help promote renewed vitality. The city has budgeted $50,000 for the creation of a Cleveland Park business improvement district in which businesses tax themselves and use the money to make improvements to the area.

Additionally, the city’s  director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs is looking for ways around the restaurant limit, e.g.  freeing up permits from closed eateries, rather than letting permits remain with the owner.