Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
A wonky Tumblr documents the city’s retail shops converted into residences, thanks to arcane zoning laws.
Stroll down the wide, leafy residential streets of the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and you might notice some peculiar details on the homes around you: oversized bay windows, decorative overhangs, corner-facing doors. These are signs of the past lives of these buildings: as shops, grocery stores, and service businesses.
“Once you start to notice the ‘tells’ about these buildings, you see them everywhere,” says Jared Alves, a D.C. healthcare consultant who serves as a committee member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) in northeast Capitol Hill. “It’s incredible—the amount of stores that have been lost and can’t be replaced.”
Alves and his longtime friend Maxime Devilliers—who works for a federal energy contractor and volunteers as an appointed member of the D.C. Transportation and Public Space Committee—started a Tumblr documenting these palimpsest-like edifices, D.C. Former Retail. The two spend weekends prowling District neighborhoods (mainly in Capitol Hill and Northeast D.C., but they’ve expanded to other quadrants), snapping pics of telling facades and checking their hunches against records kept by local historical societies.
It’s way to fulfill their own wonky interests, and also to raise awareness about what Capitol Hill’s streets used to be like: bustling shopping corridors, full of corner stores and dry goods merchants. What happened? Many retail locations automatically converted into residences when their leases lapsed, ever since that default was written into D.C.’s zoning code, approved in 1958. At the time, gas cost 25 cents per gallon, and single-use zoning was king. The fact that these restrictive zoning laws have reduced residents’ ability to walk to buy a gallon of milk or a newspaper didn’t much seem to matter.
As CityLab readers know so well, research shows that stores, bars, and restaurants mixed among residences draw more customers. As the legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs observed, they put “eyes on the street,” making the neighborhood safer and more attractive. “At a neighborhood level, the presence of a variety of small stores and service businesses contributes to the vibrancy and walkability of the streetscape,” write the economists Joe Cortright and Dillon Mahmoudi in a recent report on storefronts for City Observatory. (Compared to other cities analyzed in the report, D.C. ranked oddly low in terms of the total number of storefront businesses within a three-mile radius of the city center; this zoning law might have something to do with that.)
D.C. passed an updated zoning code in January 2016, which goes into effect in September. Certain types of stores looking to set up in residential zones will now have a little more flexibility. In turn, it’ll be a little bit easier for many residents to grab a box of pasta or a pack of beer on foot. Alves describes how some community members reacted to proposals for the new code in his ANC meetings: “Some are very concerned with keeping their peace and quiet, which I understand,” he says. “But they don’t always have much appreciation for the number of retailers that used to operate there.”