Letter from CM Allen to Board of Zoning Adjustment Regarding Case #20996

The following letter was submitted into the hearing record from Councilmember Allen regarding BZA case #20996:

December 6, 2023

Board of Zoning Adjustment
1100 4th Street, SW, Suite E650
Washington, DC 20024

Dear Chair Hill and Members of the Board of Zoning Adjustment:

Thank you for the opportunity to weigh in on BZA Case #20996. I am the Councilmember for Ward 6, which includes 106 13th Street, SE, the applicant property in this case. I write to urge the members of the Board of Zoning Adjustment to approve this relief request for a zoning variance on the second floor.

I rarely comment on zoning matters, but I find this to be a rather unique situation that is unlikely to find a solution elsewhere. As much as I am rooting for the success of Pacci’s and Mr. Gioldasis (“the applicant”), I write on behalf of the many Ward 6 neighbors who live near the restaurant and have been frustrated for many years with the high rate of turnover at this neighborhood location over the past decade. Since Park Café closed in 2013, there have been two restaurants that have opened and closed in this location – and many years where the building and block sat inactive directly across the street from Lincoln Park, a hub of activity and community gathering. The applicant reports he may become the third failed endeavor in the last decade if there is no change, and I find that quite credible.

As current zoning stands, this location is unlikely to be successful as either a commercial or residential venture. We have the aforementioned restaurants that have opened and closed unsuccessfully to show the challenge of operating a full-service restaurant with such little floor space. We have testimony from the applicant that renting out the second floor full-time would require substantial construction costs that would further limit the space on the first floor and could not provide enough income to make his venture successful. In addition, the next-door neighbors who have been residents for 30 years report the second floor has never had a full-time tenant who did not own or work for the restaurant beneath them.

There are a number of challenges associated with making the second floor a more viable residence. The entire building is built as a single unit. Converting it into a more attractive rental would require substantial construction. Even though the building has two entrances, it would require a reduction in the first-floor footprint to create a separate, sealed entrance for a tenant to come and go outside of business hours. Making the second-floor unit a viable residence would further undermine the commercial use on the first floor, while the applicant reports the best-case scenario for rental income does not come close to helping him break even, let alone turn a profit. Again, I do not believe the current zoning is permissive of either a successful restaurant or a residence and should be thought of as a hardship.  

Further, the restaurant operates lunch and dinner, as well as brunch on the weekends, meaning most days the kitchen is active by 9:30 am and 7:30 am on Saturdays and Sundays. I doubt tenants would desire to live above such an active space, particularly when surrounded by so many other more attractive rental options in the neighborhood. While large buildings with first-floor retail or restaurants with residential units above is a successful model, it is not an attractive proposition within a building that is functionally a single-family rowhouse.

Perhaps there was a time when property values and interest rates meant the long-time owners and tenants, Park Café, could sustain a neighborhood restaurant using only one floor, but that has not been the case for a long time now. And the years of vacancy and failed restaurants demonstrate that.

By all reports, Pacci’s has been an excellent neighbor and honored the commitments they made to neighbors when opening. They have the support of both neighboring ANC representatives and near universal support of the nearby households.

I recognize this is a nearly identical case to what was first requested by the applicant back in 2021. The main difference is that now the applicant can testify with the certainty of his experience that the current zoning is not realistic to operate a restaurant. Perhaps the initial granted relief to re-zone the basement made sense at the time when considering the restaurant had not yet opened its doors. But I understand from the applicant and from residents that the basement dining tables are not desirable to diners, who prefer to not dine at all rather than sit in a windowless basement.

Additionally, I’d point to a similar instance (Case #20489) in which the Office of Planning (“OP”) and the commission granted the variance for a restaurant situated within a similar building that was also zoned for restaurant use on the first and basement levels to use the second floor for commercial activity, as well – in fact, OP mentioned the first application in its testimony, but it did not draw a meaningful distinction as to why that case was appropriate for variance other than the existence of two entrances. They did not, and could not, point to a successful history of the second-floor rental unit being occupied, and I think glossed over the underlying challenges in this location while recognizing them in the other. As best as I can tell from reviewing the case, the key difference in that case is how much money had already been spent transforming the second floor before undertaking a zoning relief appeal. I would argue it is counter-productive to inspire would-be applicants before the board to undertake serious construction costs in order to justify a hardship variance.

Without action by this board, I am concerned we are certain to see 106 13th Street, SE continue to struggle to retain a successful occupant, meaning the space will return to long stretches of vacancy and be detrimental to the surrounding community. We have enough evidence at this point that it would not be vacant because the right business had not yet come along, but because existing zoning makes it nearly impossible for either a business or a residence to succeed.

I urge the board to grant the relief requested, and thank you for your consideration.


Councilmember Charles Allen, Ward 6
Chairperson, Committee on Transportation & the Environment
Vice-Chair, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments


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