Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Neighborhood Serving Retail Stores," The New Anti-Development Code Phrase

There's a new code phrase being used by people who oppose development: Neighborhood serving retail stores. This phrase cropped up most recently in the debate over the Giant supermarket and residential/retail development that's coming to Cleveland Park.

People who use the phrase, "neighborhood serving retail stores" want others to believe that development pushes away stores that serve the community and replaces them with nothing or stores that, well, don't serve the neighborhood. The use of this phrase is meant to scare or worry neighbors that beloved and needed stores are going to be displaced by stores that only serve commuters or suburbanites.

But in fact the phrase "neighborhood serving retail stores" is being used to mean "stores that I like." More specifically, and in the context of the battle for the soul of Cleveland Park, it means stores that 1) aren't part of a chain, and 2) have been in the neighborhood for many years. "Neighborhood serving retail stores" equals the status quo.

Cosi, a restaurant, wanted to come to Cleveland Park several years ago at Connecticut Avenue near Porter Street, but it was opposed  because it was a "chain," and therefore not a neighborhood serving store in the eyes of the anti-development group.  On both this blog and the Cleveland Park Listserv you'll find people defending a vacuum cleaner repair shop and high end furniture store as "neighborhood serving retail stores." How often does one go to a vacuum cleaner repair shop? Certainly not nearly as often as a supermarket or a Cosi. Cosi and a supermarket would serve more neighbors than a vacuum cleaner or furniture store.

The difference between a "neighborhood serving retail store" and any other kind of store is an artificial construct. Would people value a McDonalds in their neighborhood? Some would and some wouldn't. The same goes for a Home Depot, Barnes and Noble, or a Sam's Warehouse, all large chains: Some neighbors would jump for joy at those chain stores being in walking distance; others would protest vigorously. While the phrase "neighborhood serving retail store" does have specific definitions in many cities' zoning codes, it's now been usurped by those in the anti-development movement.

So beware the code phrase "neighborhood serving retail stores." It doesn't always mean what it says.


  1. I have sympathy for the anti-development crowd. When chains come into a neighborhood, you don't feel like you live __some place__. You feel like you live in a mall, a McTown.

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  3. I'd like to be able to get a decent sandwich without driving. That's worth more to me than "feeling like I live some place", whatever that means.

    (Yes, there's Vace. But I can't sit down and eat it there. And as of late Cacao makes really terrific sandwiches, but they're a bit pricey to be an everyday thing.)

  4. I also understand the concept of neighborhood retail. To me it means stores that neighbors are likely to frequent on foot. Most of CP's current retail mix fits this definition. I think it would be ashame to put something like a Pottery Barn in the Giant/Wisconsin development because it's not on a metro line and there's limited parking. On the rare occasion when I need something from a store like that, I can easily drive two miles or order it online. I would love to have a bookstore, a small hardware store, a fish market, a good bread store, a toy/craft store (yes, Sullivans). I'd prefer not to have big mall stores like Gap and Banana Republic. Just my opinion.

  5. “Neighborhood serving retail” is hardly some NIMBY code phrase; it is a basic planning and zoning concept that is contained in the DC Comprehensive Plan, which the DC Council passed and has the force of law. The Comp Plan specifically distinguishes between three types of retail districts west of Rock Creek Park: a “regional center”, like Friendship Heights, a “multi-neighborhood center”, like Tenleytown and “local neighborhood-serving retail” areas, like Chevy Chase DC or the Friendship Shopping Center, the site of the Giant PUD development. Neighborhood commercial areas are generally considered to serve an area of about 1 mile in radius, while regional and multi-neighborhood centers are considered “destination” retail districts.

    The Comprehensive Plan says that “’destination’ retail uses are not appropriate in smaller-scale commercial areas, especially those without Metrorail access.” Both Friendship Heights and Tenley have Metro stations, but the Giant site is more than one mile from any Metro stop. At first Giant said that it its development would continue as a local neighborhood retail center, but now that it has zoning board approval, it markets Cathedral Commons as an “urban destination.” Giant’s marketing materials also show “destination” retail stores like Pottery Barn and Godiva, chain retailers which are characteristic of regional centers like Friendship Heights or malls. Destination retailers typically are able to pay higher rents which tend to squeeze out smaller, local establishments. Even the former chairman of the Zoning Commission said that Cathedral Commons is “really going to become a destination” rather than the local neighborhood-serving center provided in the Comprehensive Plan.

    The choice is what is our model for our neighborhood? Chevy Chase DC, an example of a local neighborhood serving center, or Friendship Heights or Clarendon, which are regional destinations? I’d opt for the Chevy Chase DC model, but unfortunately Cathedral Commons looks a lot more like “Clarendon Commons.”

  6. As someone who used the phrase "neighborhood serving businesses" in a post to the Cleveland Park listserv last week, I am offended by having my terminology and myself so cavalierly defined. While people might disagree with my point, to suggest that I've somehow "usurped" the formal zoning definitions of the term in a blind anti-development frenzy is neither helpful nor, I believe, neighborhood-serving.

    There are very real differences among us, and they will not be resolved by fueling further acrimony in Cleveland Park.

  7. I'm tired of the self-appointed guardians of Cleveland Park such as the Citizens Association and the people suing to stop the Giant trying to control the neighborhood. Maybe they need a vacuum cleaner repair shop, but the rest of us really want a well-stocked supermarket.

  8. What's to prevent Giant from having a well-stocked supermarket now, while it plans its future development? I mean Superfresh and Trader Joes are both well-stocked, and they're no bigger or fancier than the Wisconsin Ave. Giant. I'm tired of how Giant just let what was once a good store go down hill. If Giant can't regularly stock the often empty shelves they have today, why should we think that they'll do any better with more space to fill?

  9. What does neighborhood serving retail mean tho? Apparently different things to different people. Nobody "owns" the phrase. But I'm with Herb who posted up above: a sandwich shop we can walk to would be great. A large, well-stocked supermarket also great.

    Some of the stores that I see around Cleveland Park including the tanning salon(s), the nail shop(s), the vacuum cleaner store -- these aren't "neighborhood serving retail stores."

  10. The debate over the Giant has too long suffered from false dichotomies -- it's not a question of a full-service supermarket or a sandwich shop, or about a vacuum cleaner store or tanning salons (which are in CP in great part exactly because the neighborhood can and does support them).

    The questions, as I've understood them, have principally been about the scale and ambition of the larger development plan (read: north block, etc.) and what kind of retail and commerce is necessary to support that design and return on investment. That, I believe, is where the formal issue of "neighborhood-serving" becomes most pertinent.

  11. If the community (read, the same 9 people who have opposed the Giant proposals for a decade) has supported the original proposal - the one that came before the 'full brick wall facing Wisconsin Avenue', then they would have had what they are proposing now. That they didn't and for a variety of reasons, the project was delayed, we are ultimately faced with the project on the table.

    This is a textbook case of getting what you wished for, and continuing to rehash it only make the folks who opposed this look worse in the eyes of their neighbors.

    On the "code word" front, I disagree with the premise. I think the term is ambiguous enough to not have evolved to that status - yet.