Friday Question of the Day – Trying to Better Understand DC


Photo by PoPville flickr user ユミYUMI

Dear PoPville,

Reading the post about Red Apron butchery applying for a liquor license got me thinking about a question I wanted to pose to the community. I was in NYC this weekend and, as always, am astonished at the hordes of (seemingly) independent, unique restaurants and retailers on every block of Manhattan. It is something that we in DC don’t seem to have nearly as many of outside of small concentrated.

Now, this isn’t meant to be a DC vs. NYC debate – what we have here is completely different and I love this place and am rooting down for the long haul. Rather, I want to know from an intellectually curious perspective what the urban planning/economics/societal reason why one walkable, urban city can sustain a bagel shop and Chinese restaurant on every block but another can’t? Is it density? Lower commercial rents? Government incentives/barriers?

And then there is the followup observation I have regarding prices – I found that I could get breakfast or take a taxi in NYC for FAR less than it costs here in DC. It was amazing the price differences that I saw. So the question again is why the price disparity from what is supposed to be an equally exorbitant and expensive city to operate in? Increased competition? More customers?

If I had to venture a guess it would be a density game that we are starting to see play out in DC on strips like 14th street and H street that are going crazy. That coupled with the fact that DC’s recent development wave is happening about ten years behind NYCs. But I would love to hear more informed opinions on it.

And, really, I just want to be able to get a bagel and coffee combo delivered to my front door by a nice man on a bike like I saw happen Saturday. That would enable my weekend laziness as I settle into winter hibernation mode.

130 Comment

  • Of course it’s density. Still though, “every block” of Manhattan is a bit of exaggeration.

    • Buoyancy, not density. I always got those mixed up too.

    • I don’t think it’s as simple as saying “it’s density,” as other
      similar-sized cities to DC have a thriving small business community
      with reasonable prices ($2-3 breakfast sandwich, $1.50 coffee, etc).
      Here are some other contributing factors:

      -DC Council. Almost all are simply inept with no business experience
      or any incentive to grow small business development. Quite the
      opposite- big tax breaks to big developers and encouraging chain
      restaurants.

      -Available workforce. A lot of customer service is crappy in DC
      because of the workforce. Lots of people who simply don’t care or
      aren’t motivated, and are encouraged to not work by city policies
      (extending TANF again and again, etc.) that dole out cash for not
      working for years on end. What’s more, the city shells out millions of
      our tax dollars to “job training” unproven programs to attempt to
      teach people to be a cashier or other low wage jobs (I heard this
      yeasterday on the radio as Vincent Orange touted such programs as
      success, citing Home Depot in DC as an example of an employer hiring
      from these programs). Bad employees/workforce affect small,
      independent businesses much more than they do big chain stores that
      can take a hit and keep going.

      -DC tax policy. Most small businesses are LLCs with a single orr few
      owners/members. In every other state I know of (and for federal
      taxes), LLCs are taxed by passing the income or losses through to the
      owner(s)’ individual tax returns, and collecting any taxes or offering
      deductions on the personal returns. DC, however, require seperate tax
      filings even for the smallest of businesses which, in addition to
      rquiring about $1,000/yr for an accountant, requires double taxation.
      That is, businesses are taxed by DC once on their LLC tax return, and
      then again when any profits are collected by the owner on his
      individual return. Every other state I know of does it like the feds
      do- allow LLCs to pass-through income and expenses to the owners’
      personal returns and collect tax there.

      -Customer base. DC has a big divide that seems to be a lot of very
      poor people, and those who are making nearly 100k or more with very
      stable govt-based jobs. The working people that can afford to
      patronize businesses can afford to pay a higher price for stuff so the
      few independent businesses tend to cater to this (restaurants are a
      good example). A number of these people even look down upon
      lower-priced businesses that can cater to lower or middle class persons.

      -DC permit policies. Everyone’s heard it’s bad, and every business
      owner has the same complaints. And it’s been that way for years,
      which says a lot about the leadership of the mayor and council. Why
      risk your life savings, home, etc to open up a small, independent
      business with a high chance of failure, especially when DC taxes and
      charges you every step of the way for a bureaucracy that doesn’t help
      you?

      • Sorry about the odd line breaks & spelling/typo errors above. I typed this all quickly on my phone.

        • Can you give the code provision or regulation number that says DC LLC’s don’t get pass through treatment?

          • Yes, it’s true. DC is the only state I’ve heard of that doesn’t treat LLCs as disregarded entities to allow pass-through in taxes. As a result small business owners are taxed twice on their income. See wikipedia’s LLC page and look under “disadvantages” or refer to DC OTR’s unincorporated business franchise tax (reported on form D-30).

        • Uh, kudos to you for being able to type all that out on your phone. Wow. Talk about proficient, no make that fluent.

      • I disagree with you on the income thing. DC has tons of upaid interns, non-profits and NGOs with low pay, and Hill staffers earning $30k/year – all people who generally appreciate small or unique businesses but don’t have loads of disposable income.

  • Density. Especially the really cheap stuff, you need lots of sales thus lots of people to make it work.

  • Manhattan poulation density: 70,000/sq mile. DC: 10,000/sq miles. That’s the reason right there.

  • Of course it’s density.

  • people move here, not because of the cultural, exciting and overwhelming gravitational pull of the city, but because of solid, mainly risk averse jobs.

    • Or jobs in their field (like mine, engineering) don’t really exist in NYC.

      But also, some of us prefer smaller cities that don’t have the density of NYC.

  • Yep, density. Which is why after visiting friends in NYC I can’t wait to get back to the “calm” of DC. Drive over the Brooklyn Bridge on a Saturday at noon and then do the same over the Memorial Bridge in DC. NY is a giant sea of people, every day and at all hours. I hate it, but know that’s my personal preference and other people love NYC.

  • 8It’s 9 million people vs. 600,000…

  • Yeah, I agree with everybody that it is mostly the density.

    2 other factors that I think probably play a role are:
    1) The distortions that result from DC being a major office district, but a midsized city. Downtown office rents are the highest in the country outside of Manhattan. They crowd out other uses like local retail.

    Seattle/Boston/Philly have densities far closer to DC and yet do a better job in the retail/cafes/etc department.

    2) While NYC stumbled in the 60-80s, DC completely collapsed and continued to struggle through the 90s. Most of the organic retail was killed on during this period.

    Personally, I

  • northeazy

    I am originally from the Bronx, in NYC and I have lived in DC for three years (I hope the burnishing of these credentials supports the following statement). The reason is for the difference of affordability is not density (density is rendered negligent by the increase in shops per sq. mi.) but income! With the exception of the Wall St titans and Mid-Town lawyers, NYC is basically filled with low-to-middle income people. These people also have families, and live on budgets. Meanwhile, in DC, most people are over-paid, under-worked single white kids from the Heartland with way too much disposable income. Take a trip out of the NW and I can assure you that you can find a $1.99 egg sandwich and .75 cent cup of coffee. But are you willing to go to Minnesota Ave to get it?

    • Yep, this. We really don’t have middle class families here.

      • Of course we have middle class families here. Most of the hispanic families in Columbia Heights or African American families in SE or Anacostia are middle class. There are a lot of middle class families that work for the government and own houses in DC. A lot of them have moved out of the city but outside of NW, there are a lot of families here. I think the key is look beyond just the white folks in NW.

        • Most of the black families in Anacostia are NOT middle class. You need to get out more.

          • Obviously you need to get out more. Me and my neighbors would disagree. There are plenty of middle class African Americans in SE. Please refrain from generalizing.

      • yeah, that’s not true.

      • -1. Of course we have middle class families here, and we have hard-working professionals. In fact, most everyone I know in DC is working his/her butt off in the nonprofit sector.

        We stay in DC because it’s POSSIBLE in DC for middle-class folks to buy a real row house with a little yard (go Petworth!).

    • This is a huge part of it. So many people with disposable income in this town who don’t blink twice about paying ridiculous sums for everything. How many times have you seen a six pack of Sam Adams for $10 in DC? Lots. They charge it because they can get it.

  • San Francisco may be a better point for comparison. The city is only a little bigger than DC, yet it has a lot more going on in the eating/shopping/street life department. DC will never rival NYC, nor should it. But, I would love to see DC rise to SF’s level in the next 20 years or so. The current virtues of being the capital city with SF’s urban amenities would be a pretty sweet combination.

    • To what seems to be the theme of the answer to the original question…SF is also a densely populated city, though in square miles is rather small. In fact, in the US, SF is second to NYC in the density department. It think it’s been said throughout this thread, but cities that have it going on generally are densely packed with people who have diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. They live, work and play in the city. Also, these cities have diverse economies, with centers in finance, government, health care, entertainment, etc. DC is indeed ethnically diverse. But, arguably, people either have large incomes or small incomes. In other words, there is a large gap between “the haves” and “the have-nots.” And, though DC’s economy is not entirely government centric as many people believe, it is not very diverse either. You need creative types to balance out all the Brooks Brother suits. And you need more people that work with their hands rather than sit behind a computer screen all day. And you need middle class families move back to the city. Not JUST young singles and college kids.

  • Not every SF neighborhood is densly packs with cafes, etc. Have stayed or walked through places near Van Ness, Little Tokyo, Western Addition, etc. very different from the usual visitors SF and not nearly as many shops. Seattle has neighborhoods which have lost life like Capitol Hill and areas that lack density like Lake Union. NY has deserts in terms of cafes on every block—the Empire State area, Wall Street (despite new residential), and parts of the Upper West Side. Also, DC was a provincial backwater until about the 70s–a border town, perhaps more southern than Baltimore, but one where the small European ethnic communities were receding and immigration from Latin America (not mention Asia) hadn’t happened. It’s never had very good delis, only a few passable old school Italian places, little in teh way of Continental/French and missed most of the food fads pre-Thai & Vietnamese. It’s never had the music or theatre culture of cities like Chicago, although there’s more going on now than 20 years ago. DC & NYC–apples & oranges, ditto DC & SF.

    • I take it you’re not into punk, because DC’s scene is (was) undeniably an influential force.

      • DC was influential, yes, but New York gave us the Ramones (amongst others). I think Rich’s “DC & NYC–apples & oranges” argument applies here too, doesn’t it? (Not an expert so feel free to educate me.)

        • DC has never been a much of major force in pop music despite the desperate attempts at saying otherwise–its like the small townish pride in Go-Go. Seattle, the Southern rockers from Georgia/SC, the Athens Georgia bands, in a more niche way Minneapolis–all much more important than DC has ever been. Cleveland was a great incubator of local and out of town acts through the 70s and early 80s perhaps because it had the highest album consumption of any music market in the US. Mainstream acts like Springsteen and more niche acts would play there in small venues years after they had stopped doing it elsewhere.Plus you had people like the Pretenders.

    • I would agree with your basic premise but do keep in mind that DC was not a provincial backwater town until the 1970s. Its population actually peaked in the 1950s, when it was the nation’s 9th largest city (basically equivalent to where Dallas is today). One might actually argue that it became much more provincial during the 70s and 80s, and is just now (in the last 5-10 years) experiencing a resurgence.

      But yes you are right that very few cities have the kind of retail density that the OP perceives. In most parts of New York there are not bagel shops on every corner. Maybe there are bagel shops every few blocks in the most densely populated areas of Manhattan.

      • You’re right that DC had had its ups & downs. So has New York. But it’s a common myth that DC began to rebound only recently, as you mentioned, in rhe last 5-10 years. DC had its nadir in the late 80′s & early 90′s, but positive change started by the mid-90′s. development of the Verizon Center (broke ground in 1995) brought the Caps & Bullets back to downtown & revitalized Chinatown. Mayor Williams’ term also saw marked improvement on development & the economy. The seeds for all of this were planted almost 20 years ago, so while the newcomers to the city have helped to pick up the pace of change, it’s shortsighted to ignore all that went before.

    • Flat wrong about music & arts. Visit U Street sometime. Learn about the Harlem Renaissance (hint: wasn’t just in Harlem).

  • DC is like a small rural town compared to NYC. One of the nice things about it here. You can hear the trains and planes from just about all points east of Falls Church and west of Cottage City….

  • Population fluxuation/density certainly has played a roll. But, one has to remember – DC is a city in recovery, having never fully recovered from the devastating riots in the 60s before being decimated by the crack epidemic in the 80s. That coupled with the ensuing crime wave precipitated by the recession during the 70s and 80s drove many from the city and left what was once a thriving middle class population to lose their homes and businesses. DC has only really begun the process of reclaiming and revitalizing this “lost city.”

    • Most if not all American cities were convulsed by riots in the ’60′s and the crack epidemic – DC is not unique in this respect.

      I grew up/went to college in a large NE city and, until I read a lot and talked with a lot of people about urban planning and history, I thought my city was unique in the decline through the early ’90′s. I’ve since learned that most major American cities (and a lot of non-major ones) have followed a very similar pattern. So, it’s not DC-specific.

      I could go on and on but will stop there. :-)

    • Disagree. Almost all residential areas of SF would fit under our Height Act limit. Even many residential areas in NYC (East/West Village, Brooklyn). You can get a lot more density in DC without changing the Height Act.

      • But look at the housing prices in SF! Not sure that’s a model example to look to. The prices seem to reflect their own density/zoning/height issues (I believe in SF that some of the restrictions are due to earthquake concerns). Relaxing height restrictions here would definitely increase density and housing stock and lower DC’s housing prices. I guess the argument comes down to which is more politically difficult: infill development or getting the height restrictions changed. I’m more inclined to changing the height restrictions, as I think they make zero sense in many of DC’s neighborhoods that don’t have a view of the mall/skyline.

      • I live in the West Village, and more than half of the housing there is in buildings too big for DC. There are some big ass apartments, and even smaller buildings are 4-6 stories instead of 2-3 in equivalent areas like U St. East Village is even bigger.

    • It’s not so much the Height Act as it’s the overly restrictive zoning. Much of the city is zoned for maximum heights that are below what would be permitted under the Height Act. Loosen zoning restrictions and you can fit a lot more people on a given plot of land.

  • History. DC used to businesses much like NYC did. Then the riots happened, and the drugs happened, and crack happened and the city all retail packed up and left. When DC reopened for business, the country had changed a lot.

    Of course, chain stores have invaded NYC as well. Look what happened to Times Square, to Union Square, even to Williamsburg. We live in a different America. It’s just that YC has held out for longer.

  • It’s all about the density of the population in the city. We have approximately 600,000 people who are actually residents of DC’s 68.3 square miles, while Manhattan alone has 1,600,000 residents in it’s 22.96 square miles.
    The entire population of the DC metro area is 5.7 million, while the entire population of the NY metro area is 19 million.
    Obviously, if there are more people living in an area, the area can support many more businesses.

  • While density is certainly a factor, most independent businesses are priced out of opening in DC due to an incredibly cumbersome permit process. Building permits for this. Liquor permits for that. Pepco. Etc Etc. And we all know that DC bureaucracy moves at slower than a snails pace so the acquiring of these permits takes months on months. New businesses are practically required to have tons of capital in the bank in order to even make it through the months before they can open. It makes it significantly harder and takes longer to turn a profit. It’s why most new businesses we see are chains and restaurant groups. It’s the only ones who have the access to all the short term capital needed.

  • “It is something that we in DC don’t seem to have nearly as many of”

    You know what we also dont have nearly as many of?

    People.

  • The question is partly based on the perception of white, NW dc though. I think it’s number of people and income both – Census QuickFacts has DC/NYC as median income 58,000/55,000 and per capita money income as 42,000/30,000 … I couldn’t tell you the difference between these two measure but 42 thou. and 30 thou. is huge.

    DC has a ton of rich people who come here and probably make more when they do so they’re willing to pay – especially in the parts of the city this OP is probably basing the observation on.

  • Ryan Avent (late of DCist) wrote a great piece for the Times a couple years back about jobs and density, but it’s easy to see a similar connection with price and variety of, in his example, Vietnamese restaurants.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/opinion/sunday/one-path-to-better-jobs-more-density-in-cities.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  • I wonder how much has to do with zoning. In San Francisco (which in many neighborhoods has roughly the same density as DC) nearly every neighborhood in the city has a corner store every 2-4 blocks, selling milk, eggs, bread, basic produce, etc. Even in the fancy neighborhoods. It looks like DC is just starting to take steps to allow corner stores in residential areas.
    http://www.dczoningupdate.org/faq.asp#Will there be transit zones in low-density residential areas?
    http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2012/02/resurrection-corner-store/1308/
    http://greatergreaterwashington.org/tag/corner+stores/

    • D.C. has corner stores. The problem is, they’re not corner stores selling groceries; they’re mini-marts selling junk food, lottery tickets, and (depending on their licenses) beer/wine.

      • True. There are plenty of places in DC to get cheap eats. If you like eating liquor, lottery tickets, chips, and soda. And if you’re downtown, you can get hot dogs, half smokes, chips, a soda, a FBI hat, and a USA tie; all for under $10.

  • Population density is the only reason. When you have 6 or 7 times the population density, there is more available disposable income to support more retail. Full Stop.

    Taxes or Permitting has zero to do with it, as anyone who thinks commercial, business or construction licensing in NYC is easy, or straightforward has clearly never done it.

    DCRA is generally a poor agency, although they made vast improvements under the Williams and Fenty terms, but generally the people who post on POP about “permitting issues” have zero experience doing it and would be having the same problems anywhere else.

    As for the cab discussion, we have the most unregulated cab system in the western world. It has been “whatever the cabbies want” for the past 3 decades. Hell, it took 3 mayoral terms to finally get meters in cabs in DC a few years ago.

    The cab system sucks because we allow them to suck, and the taxi drivers, the vast majority of which are not District residents, make their campaign donations to whatever Vince Gray like stooge is in charge at the moment and they are left alone.

  • Having lived in both places, I’ve wondered about this for a long time. I’m curious — how much of it is due to zoning or similar restrictions that keep retail and residential separate? In most neighborhoods in Manhattan, you either have residences and retail on top of one another (literally), particularly on the Avenues, or you have residential streets within a block of lots of retail. DC seems to have retail etc concentrate in small chunks, and then huge swaths of residential-only neighborhoods.

  • I think North Capitol is a good lens through which to ask this question. A beautiful street with a lot of commercial space, and a lot of yuppies within 5 blocks, yet full of boarded up storefronts. Why wuoldn’t the rents adjust downward until it became economically efficient to open a store like a bagel shop? I think it’s a combination of commercial rent control (landlords dont want to get locked into low rent), greed, lack of faith in police/government (business wont invest in marignal areas because the city doesn’t police well, slowing gentrification), and DC’s generall bad business and tax climate.

  • my question is for those who wish to open up various retail store. why haven’t you? what holds you back?

  • There’s some history here too. I was born 6 months before the riots. Much of the DC I grew up in was underused, a relic of the riots and urban decay. The suburbs exploded with development during this time while the city slipped backwards.

    I volunteered at Martha’s Table when I was in High School and there were crowds, literally packed solid, of heroin users and dealers on the 4 corners of 14th and Florida. 14th street was a butt of jokes as in “I saw your mama on 14th street.” Streets we stroll along merrily now, past million dollar homes, were decrepit and very scary.

    To my eyes, the recovery from that difficult history has come at lightning speed. We’re not NYC but, until recently, we never aspired to be.

  • Sounds like a mixture of stupidity and perception. Manhattan has a million plus people daily in the matter of a couple blocks. You can have a shitty restaurant and still somebody will still come in. Every meal I have had in NYC was crazy expensive. Food or cost of living is in no way cheaper, with that being said you can always find a diamond in the rough for cheap eats. Being in property management I can say that NYC is the only market crazier than ours.

    • i find eating out in nyc to be cheaper than dc. actually, much cheaper.

      • Stop eating on K st…Plenty of great cheap eats in DC. The whole Eat-Well program, Graffiato…Plenty of great cheap eats. Food costs are no higher in DC, if you are eating locally grown food. I have never left NYC thinking, “Wow, what great deals!”.

        • nice assumption. no, i never eat on k, or even particularly steep places. but i do go out in chinatown, u street, and h street, and capitol hill a lot.

          i spent a week in midtown Manhattan earlier this year and i spent way less on food that i would in dc if i had to go out for each meal. brooklyn and queens are even less expensive.
          beer is cheaper too. cocktails, not so much.

          • I lived on 32nd for 3 years, I wouldnt say food or beer was any cheapers. Kind of your standard $5/domestic bottle. I think the dive bar scene is better though. DC has some cool little spots though, like U st, Columbia Heights. It would be interesting to see some statistics though. I feel like DC is based more on the business lunch/dinner

          • Capitol Hill? Shoot me in the face. So basically within the confines of uppity white comfort.

          • pro,
            stupid racial remark.
            i’m judging the prices of going out to eat in midtown nyc and dc. where do you eat in midtown? i picked the kinds of things i like. just like i do when im in dc. thai, japanese, pizza, etc. where are you eating in dc thats so cheap? when i pick a thai place in dc, the average plate is 10-11 bucks. in nyc i found it to be cheaper. sushi is definitely cheaper. pizza slices are cheaper. i found beer to be a few dollars cheaper in nyc at comparable places. and i’m talking about the present. this year.

        • Anyone unable to find lunch in NYC under $7.50 has no business talking about NYC like they know it.

          • Feel free to go back.

          • exactly. all i’m saying is going out to eat on average is cheaper in nyc. fools don’t know their shit when they talk otherwise.

          • Spot on. NYC has better food at a better price. I think if we had an answer to the reason for that, it would be a good answer for the original poster’s question.

          • Yup. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to eat and drink well in New York City. I’ve found lots of nice bars where I can drink better beer cheaper than in many of parts of DC.

  • it’s not density. thats a ruse.
    towns with less density have diverse retail as well.
    it is very clear to anyone paying attention that dc can support far more retail than it has.

    • Okay, fair enough, DC could support more retail than it has, but that circles us back to the original question – why isn’t there more retail, particularly neighborhood scale? What’s holding us back?

  • the longer i live here the more i realize just what a unique and bizarre city dc is. comparisons to others places just don’t cut it.

  • I’m still amazed by how many retail establishments are everywhere in the suburbs, but totally absent in DC proper. Good riddance, most people on here would probably say – I’ve never seen vitriol like the infamous phantom Olive Garden received, and the battle over Wal Mart continues. But I still have to wonder if our persnickety nature towards chain retail in particular contributes to an overall climate that is considered hostile to retail of any kind. I’m not saying that chains are necessarily good, more that diversity of retail has the potential to create a virtuous circle.

    • Despite all that, the chains continue to pour in. Stopping a walmart is different from stopping a pret a manger or something. That’s what’s really different from NY – obviously they’ve had a huge chain invasion too, but you can still find a ton of those generic delis, chinese places, and bagel shops. That just doesn’t exist here, for so many of the reasons covered above.

  • Historical reasons matter too. NYC was a major port and growing financial center just as telecommunications began, which became a self-reinforcing reason for rapid growth. I think that has left an imprint on NYC culture, and interacted with the various waves o immigration that are also a distinctive piece of its history. Likewise no one in Boston is a Puritan with a buckle in their hat, and the Haight isn’t filled with flower children, but historical experience lights a fire that gets passed torch to torch. Leadbelly used to sing that DC was a “bourgeois town” almost 100 years ago, and being seat of government gives DC some of its attributes (good and bad).

  • The endless comparisons between DC and NYC are so tiring. I grew up in NYC and now live in DC. They are different cities, with different histories, different population dynamics and therefore are not the same and one will never be like the other. NYC is larger, and has a higher population density. Waves of immigrants from around the world move to NYC, although with millionaire Wall St bankers and poor artists and musicians, therefore it has a diverse number of businesses to support a diverse population. In certain areas of NYC you can get a coffee and an egg and cheese for 3 bucks. But other areas of NYC are filled with chain and big box stores and tourist traps (Times Sq, now Union Sq, Atlantic in Bklyn) There’s Home Depots, Targets, Best Buys, Olive Gardens, etc. all over NYC now.

    I think people have this really romanticized view of NYC that it’s all cheap authentic ‘ethnic’ restaurants, mom and pop delis, and coffee shops but it’s not.

    I’m still a relative newcomer to DC, but to me it seems like there are cheap mom and pop coffee shops and such around here, but they are not in the neighborhoods that newcomers like myself tend to live near. Also most people move here for jobs, not for the culture of the ‘experience’ like people move to NYC. I don’t know too much of DC history yet, but seems like up until rather recently, much of the city was in a state of decay that (most, but not all) of NYC had already recovered from, affecting the growth and diversity of businesses that it could support. Just my 2 cents.

    • I’d be careful to say that DC is coming out from decay. It’s true that the city dealt with the riots in the 60s but there are many reasons for certain neighborhoods on the downswing while others are on the upswing. True really for any city. NYC was digging itself out of bad times in the 70s. So even with great cities, history tells us that it’s not without storms.

      That said, while I think that density plays a role, it’s not the only defining thing about why you can find a $3 bagel/coffee breakfast in NYC and not in DC. Although lots of socioeconomic factors come into play, I’ll make it real easy and say it’s because DC has a unique market that will pay set price that is asked. It’s amusing when people get trashed for complaining about the cost of alcohol in DC whenever a place opens up. Bars can charge these prices because they are still packed because people will pay these prices. It’s that simple. In NYC, a good cocktail at a very nice place will run upwards of $21.00. Not every place in NYC though charges $21 for a drink because not everyone could afford or would pay that price. NYC retail reflects the demographics of the city and the surrounding area better than DC does. I don’t know why but it does.

  • It’s density vis a vis height. Number of people you have living per square block. They support the businesses below them.

  • All of these long responses are lovely but, people, it’s pretty friggin obvious: Manhattan has been the financial capital of the planet for more than 100 years. SO IT HAS LOTS AND LOTS AND LOTS OF AFFLUENT PEOPLE WHO ALL LIVE NEAR ONE ANOTHER AND CONSTANTLY NEED TO BUY THINGS.

    I’m a historian so let me put it a less snarky way: What you think of as “Manhattan” has been there for at least five or six generations now. There was always something retail where that Chinese restaurant or Duane Reade is. The trendy parts of Manhattan were some of the most densely populated places on the planet 125 years ago. It’s a bit of a head-start.

    And you’re not getting a good bagel south of Silver Spring.

    • I would have agreed until I discovered hellers in mt. Pleasant. Very decent bagel indeed.

      On the broader question. The immigrants to new Netherlands (don’t underestimate the dutch influence on nyc) brought their cheap eats with them. If Ellis island was on the Potomac welcoming european immigrants in the 19th and 20th century we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

  • SF may have more corner stores because it has relatively few supermarkets … and in many areas you probably need a car to shop at them …

  • Lots of great feedback on this thread. here’s mine:

    1. Taxes – taxes are high and make investment decisions more prohibitive. I have an LLC and taxes are much more in DC than when the company was based in VA.

    2. Govt Barriers – DC is ranked as the worst place to do business in the US (ask the DC Chamber of Commerce). Given the number of independent businesses in NYC, the ease of doing business is a major factor. DCRA, OTR, DSLBD etc, are stove pipe operations and the workers are not helpful unless one is tenacious and spoon feeds the DC employees every piece of information.

    3. Density/Consumer preferences. NYC consumers are more discriminating than DC and there are more of them.

    DC is a great place to live, though starting and running a company here is not cheap or easy.

  • Lots of reasons.
    New Yorkers eat out much more than DCers.
    There is very few housing near where most people work – meaning foot traffic patterns make supporitng neighborhood breakfast places tough.
    DC’s population greatly expands during the day – ~70% vs 8% for NYC.
    DC’s sales taxes are higher than the surrounding areas.

    My biggest question with DC is why can’t you get a decen cup of coffee easily in this city? Granted, coming from Seattle I was a little spoiled but holy cow is it hard to get good coffee here – thank you Baked and Wired.

  • Is it density? Yes. I would say density is the biggest driver.
    Lower commercial rents? It depends on where with the city and this applies to both in NY and in DC
    Government incentives/barriers? possibly though I don’t imagine that it is that different or less complicated in NYC

    Also, a big driver is that NYC has hordes of people who eat out a lot more than we in DC do. For one, many abodes in NYC are significantly smaller than here in DC which means kitchens are often miniscule. So people out more. Second, I think NYC has a longer history of many people eating out more frequently.

  • I think it’s a combination of density and of NYC having been more developed (and more densely developed) for longer.

    In 1920, there weren’t big patches of Manhattan still waiting to be developed. In contrast, much of D.C.’s housing stock either hadn’t been built or was only a few years old in 1920.

  • That coupled with the fact that DC’s recent development wave is happening about ten years behind NYCs

    This made me laugh. NYC has been a most developed city for ages and has the infrastructure to support it. DC is oranges to NYC apples

  • saf

    DC is unique. It’s a planned city, originally established for a single purpose.

    This affected, and continues to affect, our development and our identity.

    DC can’t really be compared to any other place. Our origins, our age, our original purpose, and our political situation all contribute to make us what we are.

  • Density of course, but I wonder how NY city compares to say Ballston or Crystal City in this question?

    Also, many more people in DC have cars or access to cars and will drive now and then to nearby big stores for staples – toilet paper, laundry detergent etc. In NY many more people buy all those things on foot at nearby corner stores – so there is more support for a variety of goods.

    - Lack of affordable rental housing for lower wage workers – a clerk, even a manager at Target is going to find few options – say a 2 bedroom apt. share – within a 30 min. public transit commute.

    • The population density of Manhattan is around 66,000 per square mile. Those two places don’t have that kind of density.

  • It’s not an issue of DC being less functional or capable than NYC, it’s a case of the restaurant industry being set up differently to deal with the demands of a different culture. My friends from NYC say that most apartments in NYC have very small or no kitchens. Since it is difficult or impossible to cook for yourself regularly, NYC has more of a culture of going out for all of your meals. So their food trucks, carryouts and lower end restaurants have to have cheap enough to sustain that model. Since you would be hard pressed to find an apartment in DC without a full sized fridge and oven, we don’t eat out with as much frequency as New Yorkers do. So our restaurants and carryouts tend to be more expensive, because less people are eating there every day.

  • People here keep saying “NYC”, by which they can only mean the island of Manhattan under 59th Street – that area happens to contain the largest business district in the United States. The island of Manhattan also happens to have close to a million more jobs than it does residents – meaning that every day at least a million people stream into this business district – DC for the foreseable future simply can’t come close to matching that density. That said, NYC as a whole does allow for a fair amount of mixed use zoning districts and many of the buildings where designed with retail space in mind at the street level – this does not seem to have been the case in large portions of DC. Lots of office space, yes, but not nearly as much retail space.

  • This thread has now been picked up by Matthew Yglesias. You hit the bit time with this post.

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2012/10/26/if_you_want_rich_retail_you_need_more_people.html

    • Interesting. Having lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and DC, I have to take issue with one of Yglesias’ points though: “Nobody goes to New York and wonders why there’s less ‘stuff per block’ in Brooklyn than in Manhattan.” It depends on the nuances in how you’re defining “stuff per block.” If you’re looking at it in the aggregate across all the blocks, then certainly Manhattan has much more “stuff per block” than Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, of course, there’s lower density and many more blocks that are 100% residential. However, many of those blocks are in close proximity to the main commercial corridors of their neighborhoods (Fifth Ave, Seventh Ave, Smith St, for a few examples in Central Brooklyn), which DO tend to have retail and dining that is as rich, vibrant, and varied as a typical Manhattan block; and which reflect the type of business mix that I think the OP was referring to.

      Disclaimer: I’m with the OP in NOT trying to make this a New York vs. DC debate. I’ve lived in both places and I’ve had a love-hate (or maybe love-frustration is a better term) relationship with both, for different reasons; other people are all love or all hate, and that’s cool, whatever works for them. I DO think that, even for those of us who love DC, there’s no harm in looking at appealing elements of other places (including New York, although after reading another commenter’s thoughts, I’m intrigued by the better parallel with Seattle), and asking how those could be adapted to improve our own city.

  • I would also note that New York has been able to effectively harness commuter taxes – tolls at the bridges and tunnels – as well as forcing out of state residents to pay their income tax where it is earned. As the small guy with no Congressional support – Maryland and Virginia would never negotiate to give up that revenue at this point.

    That means a small tax base pays the burden – residents and businesses. If those in the suburbs actually paid to support the city they owe their jobs to we would be having a much different conversation.

    • What about the federal taxes the VA and MD crowd pay? Does any of that go into DC? Just curious?

      • some does, of course. it’s less per capita than most states.

      • If what you are asking is do people who work in NYC but live outside of NYC (NJ, CT for example) they do have to “itemize” the number of days they are in NYC in filing their income tax. That would never fly for MD or VA residents who work in the district. This debate has been going on years here.

  • It is not density at all. NYC is a red herring for this kind of comparison.

    A much better comparison would be Seattle. There are a plethora of independent shops, and even independent coffee shops in a town owned by Starbucks. There’s an entire store that sells nothing but rubber stamps.

    I think the most prudent course of action is to see what Seattle does to create an environment like that. I suspect it has to do with permits, zoning, and taxes.

    From speaking with several DC small business owners who all opened several months later than they expected, it sounded like there were all kinds hurdles and red tape from DC that truly hindered them, and they said had they known how impossible it was going to be, they would have opened in the suburbs.

  • There are so many disappointing factors in Washington, DC.
    In our ‘Nations Capital’ [where we should be THE example - the model for all great cities] our local government is inept. They lack the imagination, vision + character required to support grass roots businesses, working studios + a diverse retail culture. Much of the current revitalization of DC, though exciting, lacks any diversity. 47% of all current development is purely food industry – with city sanctioned moratoriums ‘overlooked’ as they fuel local govt pockets. Just 7% of current development is for retail or “other”. Local building owners, developers + the local government are not interested in supporting or having small independent businesses — they don’t propagate the same value as the large, bar + restaurant deals provide. No body has a problem spending 12 bucks on a cocktail.
    I do not agree with the density prospective – it is all relative + DC has the population and the capability to let other businesses into the fold.
    The same is true with the Taxi community. The Taxi Union HEAVILY funds the DC govt. Their role is rather controversial – Cabbies are able to increase fairs with no accountability. Two nights ago, I was charge $7 in surplus fee’s because their were two of us – and was told that it would be even more come January. With they’re hold on the local govt, they are attempting to force alternative transportation [such as UBER] out of the city. DC Taxi Cab Union will take away free enterprise // capitalism. It’s always a joy to take a cab in NYC. They’re cleaner, efficient, friendly + oh yeah – an affordable alternative.
    Then there’s residential development. CONDOS. Evidently the great vision of our local developers is to box us all into condos – even the beautiful row homes are being subdivided into condos by homeowners + developers alike. I wonder where we’ll be able to live if we ever want something with room for Fido or little Junior in the city ??
    If we could just create a true vision for urban development.

    • Yeah, DC’s the Nation’s Capital. But, we’re a government town in the mold of Ottawa, Brasilia, Canberra, Ankara. Not a global mega cultural and commercial city like London,Paris,Tokyo. NYC

  • NYC has great public transportation and is a great city to walk in too! So there’s a lot more foot traffic. DC is terrible for pedestrians except in limited areas, public transportation is meh so most people drive.

  • Wow! So much opinion, and most of it interesting and thought-provoking. Love it!

    And I haven’t seen this much thread since John Goodman bent over to try to tie his shoelaces . . .

  • Downtown DC was not planned to be a mixed use neighborhood, so retail only caters to the weekday lunch crowd.

    The commercial corridors in the residential sections of NW DC actually are more vibrant and interesting than anything you’ll see in Manhattan which is basically an outdoor suburban mall at this point.

    Manhattan is dominated by Target, HM, and JCrew, and all of the other major corporate chain retailers. Outside of Georgetown, DC has a very high percentage of indie establishments. If you wish DC had a higher concentration of crappy chinese carry-outs and cheap bodegas, I think you should move to NYC.

    • I don’t know which Manhattan you’ve ever been to – but certainly not the one most of us think of – as in NY. Basically – you’re 100% wrong. Also wrong on DC. Every city was originally mixed-use – read some history. Subsequent eras of “city planning” f**ed with that in many ways – but – not really worth an argument here because you don’t know what you’re talking about.

  • Population: density, totals, composition.
    1. Density. Washington’s population density is considerably lower than larger cities’, and drops off considerably just a few miles from the core. The contiguous area of high population density (more or less wards 1, 2, and 6) is only a few miles across. Comparing locations in trendy neighborhoods in Chicago and DC, the 1-mile population figures are somewhat similar but the 3- and 5-mile figures are 30-50% lower in DC.

    2. Total. The metro region is large enough to support many specialized businesses, but that’s spread over quite a large area that, unlike more centralized cities, doesn’t exactly have a single focal point. DC itself is home to just 7% of the Washington-Baltimore region’s population (which, in turn, is not much larger than just New York City’s). Rather more limited transportation links magnify this: unlike Midtown Manhattan, there’s no one location where you can aggregate the entire region’s demand for a particular good/service. Instead, we have multiple competing subcenters (e.g., Chevy Chase/Bethesda vs. Tysons) which divide smaller markets among themselves.

    3. Composition. Some population groups, notably immigrants, are more likely to start small businesses. If you think NYC has a lot of small shops, try visiting Toronto sometime.

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