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Home​NewsPacci's Says if District Denies Exception, Restaurant Could Close

Pacci’s Says if District Denies Exception, Restaurant Could Close

It looks like Pacci’s (106 13th St. SE) will not be granted permission to expand operations into the top floor of their building. Without that expansion, the owner says, the restaurant will likely have to close. 

The building’s top floor is currently zoned for residential use, although few can remember the last time anyone lived there. Owner Spiro Goldiasis has applied for an adjustment to allow for commercial use – he wants to use the top floor as a 67-seat dining room, bringing his restaurant up to 127 seats total. There are 27 seats on the main floor and 40 in the cellar.

But at a meeting March 6, the District Board of Adjustment (BZA) took a straw poll – 3 of 4 Commissioners opposed the application –despite letters of support from 80 neighbors, two local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen. 

“This property has a history of failed businesses and neglect,” Pacci’s attorney Alexandra Wilson said at the March 6 meeting. “Without the relief, unfortunately, Pacci’s would be the next victim on that list.”  

The building in 2018, when purchased by Pacci’s. File
Pacci’s, March 2024.

Technical Problems 

Goldiasis bought the building in 2018 and undertook extensive repairs to address structural damage. After a 5-year renovation, the restaurant opened in 2023 with dining on the ground floor and in the cellar. Thus far, it has been well-received; but Goldiasis argues that to be sustainable, the restaurant needs to expand. 

The building is in RF-1, a residential zone. But it has been used as a restaurant since 1991, including at various times both the cellar and the top floor. Few have survived for long since The Park Cafe (1991) closed in 2013. Both Ninnella (2013-2015) and the Lincoln Park Wine Bar (2016-2018) lasted about two years. Pacci’s says this is evidence that the site is commercially unsustainable as is. 

The main floor is zoned commercially but the top and bottom floors were residential until the board granted a zoning change for the cellar in 2021. The use variance under consideration by BZA would allow Goldiasis to open a 67-seat dining room on the top floor. 

“We’re just struggling with the whole problem we have, which is that we have to adhere to these regulations and try to figure out how to administer them properly,” BZA Chair Fred Hill said at the Jan. 31 hearing. “This is the highest bar there is —a use variance —for us.”  

Pacci’s attorney Marty Sullivan says in order to grant the variance, BZA has to be convinced that making residential work in the building creates an “exceptional and undue hardship”; that it won’t go against the intent of zoning regulations; and that changes are not detrimental to the public. 

Did Anyone Live There? 

A central question is whether the upstairs units have ever been used for residential purposes by anyone other than the owner. The Pacci’s attorney said they could not find a CofO for residential uses on file with DOB. “There is no record of anybody renting it,” said attorney Marty Sullivan.  

One neighborhood organization in opposition to the variance is the Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS), which has worked to preserve and protect the historic neighborhood since 1955. In a letter written late last year to the Office of Zoning, CHRS said there were no unusual or exceptional conditions of the property that created an undue harship fr the owner.

Pointing out the Paacci’s is locatded on a small lot on a densely populated residential block, CHRS argued that “the additional trash from expanded restaurant capacity would cause substantial detriment to the neighborhood environs.”

“The second floor could reasonably be used as a residence, which was its original and past use,” the letter concluded.

The District’s Office of Planning (OP) has also come out in opposition to the application, saying “the use variance test must be met in a way that does not harm the integrity of the zoning regulations.” At the March 6 hearing, OP Developmental Review Specialist Crystal Myers said OP remains opposed to the application.

“The main point of our argument is that we did not feel that there were sufficient exceptional situations related to the building or the property that result in an undue hardship to the owner,” Myers said March 6. “You could still do units up there; it could still be a habitable space.”  

Estimates for the costs of getting the building code-compliant for both restaurant and residential is in the $220,000 range, Pacci’s attorney Wilson noted, independent of whether anything was removed upstairs. 

“It would be a better financial decision to not do anything, because who would fund such a project?” Wilson asked. “If the relief were not granted, the option would be to leave the space as-is and eventually close the restaurant.”   

Pacci’s and nearby neighbors have argued that the top floor space is too small for use as an apartment, let alone two of them. They also argue that even a single unit above a restaurant would be difficult to rent due to sound and smell concerns, pointing out that a search conducted by a real estate agent found no residential units above restaurants on Capitol Hill. 

ANC 6B06 representative Chander Jayaraman said that he went upstairs in 2012 with the then-owner of the Park Cafe, the space was being used for appliance storage.  

Jayaraman argued that the purpose of the RF-1 zoning regulations is to make a livable community that allows for walkable amenities – amenities such as Pacci’s.  

“Your choice is either to allow for an amenity to remain, or to say: ‘you know what, we don’t care’,” Jayaraman told the BZA. “‘We’re going to let this business fail’. And that’s on you.”  

Hardship 

One issue BZA Commissioners raised is whether the top floor was previously configured for residential. Commissioners Smith and Lorna John said in removing the upstairs units, Goldiasis created a situation where he would have to completely rebuild any apartments.  “At the end of the day, we have to look to see how the application complies with the criteria for relief,” John said. “It seems to me that the hardship here is self-created.”

Goldiasis says the interior was gutted because years of neglect meant the top floor was not up to 2023 standards for basic safety. The application also argued that the previous configuration was not up to current DC residential code.  

BZA Commissioner Carl Blake vacillated. He acknowledged the power of the community voices, but remained unconvinced that the standard for variance had been met. “I am definitely in agreement with the Office of Planning… that this does not mean the criteria for approval,” he said, “even though this is what we want to do.”  

However, BZA Chair Fred Hill said he felt that the applicant had made their case that the cost of conversion to residential plus the size of resulting units is prohibitive. The track record of that building not being able to succeed as a commercial space also indicated uniqueness to the condition, he said.

“Some of those criteria mentioned do lend to the property owner having issues and having a practical difficulty,” Hill said. He cited the tremendous community support as evidence that the case would not be a detriment to the community. 

Hill asked the BZA to defer the vote to March 13 to allow BZA Commissioner Tammy Stidham to weigh in and time for everyone to consider and weigh arguments. He cautioned the public, however, that the record was closed and that additional time would not necessarily result in a changed opinion. 

Community Support  

Both ANCs 6A and 6B came out in support of the variance. ANC 6B Planning and Zoning Committee Chair Francis D’Andrea (6B04) said ANC 6B unanimously supported the application. The ANC believes that the applicant has met all prongs of the three-prong test, he said.

“It’s one of the few restaurants in a residential area and we think it adds liveliness and also provides a great community asset that, if it went away, would be a detriment to the neighborhood,” D’Andrea said. ANC opinion is by law supposed to be given great weight in considerations by District agencies. 

Neighbor support has also been considerable. In addition to the 80 letters of support received for the January hearing, many testified at the hearing. Neighbors said they were pleased to see a restaurant succeed in the space, adding that the building had been an eyesore. The restaurant use is not detrimental to the public, they told the BZA. Rather, the alley and street have been cleaner since Pacci’s opened.

Neighbor Bryan Blum said Pacci’s is a crucial part of the fabric of the community. Blum, like many others, questioned why the BZA would not grant the variance. “Why not provide them with this opportunity?” Blum asked, arguing that apartments on the top floor are not viable. 

”I’m disheartened to see that OP has recommended denial, but I hope that you will listen to the neighborhood,” said neighbor Thomas Baker. “I don’t think we should tie this restauranteur’s hand behind their back as they’re trying to succeed in a post-pandemic economy.”

When news of the possible denial spread in March, the neighbors began mobilizing on list servs, sending emails to DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson, who has oversight of OP; to the Office of Zoning and to OP’s Deputy Director of Development Review. Councilmember Allen’s office has started a sign-on letter to the BZA hoping to collect enough signatures to sway the BZA.  

In December, Allen wrote a letter urging the BZA to approve the use variance. “As current zoning stands, this location is unlikely to be successful as either a commercial or residential venture,” Allen wrote, citing the restaurants that failed in the site over the past decade and the hardship associated with renovation costs. Allen’s letter cited a previous case in which BZA the exact same variance to The Culinary District (1914 Ninth St. NW) in 2021.  

Pacci’s argues that the board is attempting to force an unworkable use on the building. “In a sense they would rather see a vacant unoccupied building than grant the variance to allow the business to succeed,” they wrote. 

OP acknowledged in their last report that there would be no harm to the public if the request is approved, they noted. “Why is it that protecting an arbitrarily overlaid ordinance on a city more important than protecting the public good when the ENTIRE community wants this application to be accepted?” Pacci’s asked. “In other words, OP’s position is to protect the integrity of zoning at the expense of the integrity and the needs of the very people it tasked to protect.” 

However, Pacci’s cannot add any further comment as the record is now closed.

The vote will now be held March 13. If the vote fails, attorney Sullivan said, they could appeal, or file a petition for reconsideration. But reconsideration can take up to a year. “By that time,” Sullivan said, “it’s possible this location won’t be in business.” 

Learn more about the Board of Zoning Adjustment and its members by visiting https://dcoz.dc.gov/page/about-board-zoning-adjustment. Reach BZA at 202-727-5471.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the comments from Pacci’s as coming from a letter to the BZA. Pacci’s has not written a letter to BZA. The Hill Rag regrets any confusion caused by our error.

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