A controversy in DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood exemplifies the common clash between NIMBYism and the achievement of Jane Jacob’s ideals. Some residents are opposed to a new proposed diner, Margot’s Chair, that would be open 24 hours a day. The owners already have three well-loved restaurants in DC, but passionate protestors wrote an inflammatory letter disparaging the change the diner will have on the neighborhood:
While 11th Street has a host of small, unique, charming and creative business’s that give our neighborhood its own unique mystique – scaling up to a 24 hour business and a capacity of 1/4 of one thousand inside (not including outside – that permit will be applied for later) is pushing the envelope of the small Hip Strip we as residents have come to enjoy [sic].
As a former resident of this “Hip Strip,” I agree that the diner would continue the pattern of change that gentrification has brought to the neighborhood, a change which is of course subjective. However, a 24-hour restaurant would bring improvements to public safety that are about as objectively positive as changes to urban development can be, in line with the development that Jacobs advocates in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Her work clearly refutes three of the protestors’ criticisms of the project.
1) While this area already has several restaurants and bars, a 24-hour diner would fill a different market niche and attract a different crowd, particularly in the mornings. Jacobs explains that one of the most important safety features a neighborhood can have is a mix of homes and businesses that lead people to be on the sidewalks at different times of the day. This diner would provide “eyes on the street” in exactly the hours when they are most needed in a neighborhood that struggles with crime (Chapter 1).
2) The protestors claim that this project needs dedicated parking to avoid putting increased parking pressure on locals. Jacob’s explains, however, that the only way to reduce traffic and parking congestion is not to cater to cars in new development. This area is very well-served by buses, Metro, and bike lanes, and is in a densely populated neighborhood where many could walk to the diner. By not making it easy to park at Margot’s Chair, the owners would be inherently encouraging their customers travel to the diner in ways other than driving (Chapter 18).
3) Finally, if Margot’s Chair is anything like its proprietors three other restaurants, it will serve as a primary use in Columbia Heights, perhaps more so than any other restaurant on 11th Street. While the protestors seem against drawing more outsiders to the neighborhood, Jacobs demonstrates that attracting non-residents to a neighborhood is crucial for its vitality (Chapter 8).
Entrepreneurs who are free to cater to market demands can create the type of neighborhood that Jacobs advocates, so long as the political process does not prevent them from doing so. At this point, it looks as if the protestors’ motion to prevent Margot’s Chair from receiving a liquor license has failed, so the project is likely no longer in jeopardy. The issues that theses residents raised are common complaints though, and NIMBYists too often prevent the fruition of such projects.