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.
LikeAHurricane saysJuly 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm
First the letter cracks me up with, “1/4 of one thousand”. Did you know the restaurant will fit, 1/40 of 10,000 patrons?!
Second, this location is adjacent to a corner park that is known for its daytime drinking and playground that never gets used. The city is planning on redeveloping the park, which hopefully will address some of these problems, but having these “eyes on the street” can’t hurt at all.
Alex Block saysJuly 7, 2011 at 1:35 pm
1/4 of 1000 capacity? Was it that hard to just write ‘250’?
The spillover parking argument is weak, as most spillover parking arguments are – particularly when levied in dense, transit oriented neighborhoods like this. Even if there were to be a great deal of spillover parking, the very idea that the current residents are the ones entitled to on-street parking is simply ludicrous.
I think the more concerning element of this particular protest is that Margot’s Chair has already made it through the ANC and the Voluntary Agreement process. It’s already slogged though the usual NIMBY traps. That won’t stop those who are opposed, but it does go to show the problems inherent to the process.
K. Jeffers on Cities saysJuly 7, 2011 at 11:10 pm
I think it’s sad that a diner is under the gun. People that go to the diner in the wee hours tend to be sobering up and trying to eat. They also tend to be people who otherwise have jobs who are wanting something to eat after enjoying a great night out. As a commenter has already said, it seems the problem is the park that’s got daytime drunks and not the addition of another business with paying customers.
Benjamin Hemric saysJuly 14, 2011 at 2:11 am
I think a lot of good points have been made — especially those rebutting the negative scenarios of the NIMBYists. However, it seems to me that, in some sense, perhaps the main issue is still not being addressed: more and more these days, people seem to be confusing their own personal likes and dislikes with what’s healthy or unhealthy for a cities in the longterm.Yes, sometimes a change that one may personally dislike is, in fact, dangerous to the longterm health of an urban district (i.e., it’s something that will discourage a significant number of people from investing new money or energy in the district and thus contribute to stagnation, or even a downward spiral). But, then again, sometimes a change that one may personally dislike is not, in fact, dangerous to the health of an urban district. Rather, it’s part of a natural urban growth process that gives rise to a different type of district, one that may be equally healthy, or even healthier. It’s a change from one kind of city district (one that may be appealing to one group of people) into another kind of city district neighborhood (one that is appealing to a different — and perhaps even larger — group of people).Although a number of commenters appear to have alluded to this issue, directly or indirectly, I think it’s still basically a “hidden” (or underappreciated) issue that needs to be made even more explicit than it has been, and brought even further to the fore.Benjamin HemricWednesday, July 13, 2011, 10:10 p.m.