Life is Good With Neighborhood Retail

Much of the political structure in Washington DC seems to be in the grips of a perverse terror that someone, somewhere, might try to open a business near to where potential customers live. Meanwhile, people spend a lot of time wishing there were more things to do and places to shop. Excellent local blogger 14th and You observes:

Imagine strolling through the leafy streets of Georgetown, Shaw, Capitol Hill or other DC neighborhoods. Rather than having commercial corridors expressly laid out along only a handful of specific streets and blocks, picture those shops, restaurants and other businesses interspersed within residential areas. Impossible to imagine in DC? Most likely, but it’s something that you encounter frequently within even the toniest areas of London. In the middle of Chelsea, which contains some of the most expensive real estate in the world, you’ll find commercial strips lined with pubs, restaurants, supermarkets, bookstores, homewares and more. It’s not considered scandalous to locate a pub at the corner of an otherwise residential street. It creates a far more vibrant neighborhood, and not to the detriment of the people living there.

In DC, zoning laws make that idea prohibitive, and what the zoning laws don’t cover ANC and neighborhood groups do in their zealousness to protect residents from interspersing residences with commercial activity. This isn’t a call for unfettered development everywhere in the District mind you, but rather a call for a more sensible adoption of DC zoning laws — as well as local neighborhood opinion — that would ease the nearly complete prohibition of commercial development in otherwise residential sectors. This type of zoning leads to vast swaths of blighted commercial corridors (found in certain central DC neighborhoods) and contributes towards more residential neighborhoods being underserved by commercial activity. Finally, such development also encourages cohesiveness and a greater sense of community within neighborhoods, where the corner cafe or market down the street becomes an additional focal point to residents of the neighborhood.

I really and truly wish libertarians would spend more time working on this kind of issue. And I also wish that ordinary people would think harder about these kind of regulations. I’m a big government liberal. I believe business regulations are often needed. But still, there ought to be a presumption that people can do what they want. When “do what they want” turns out to be “emit tons of air pollution that’s devastating the planet” then in comes the regulation. Or when it turns out to be “make highly leveraged bets that, if they lose, require a government bailout” then you turn to the regulators. But “one guy who lives on the block would prefer to see the restaurant located somewhere else” is not a particularly compelling rationale. In a crowded city, it’s not possible for everything to be exactly how everyone wants it to be, so the current dynamic in a place like DC winds up just favoring stasis and nothing ever changing.