[from December 1999 issue]


Last month in this space we commented, with approval, on at-large Councilmember David Catania's "comprehensive" ANC reform bill which he had recently introduced. In our view, as we stated, the bill's most outstanding contribution to good government is the linking of increased ANC clout in the regulatory process to a requirement for adhering to the rules of administrative due process. (See, November editorial by clicking link here for prior months.)

We used as "Exhibit A" the handling of the JR's Bar & Grill application to the ABC Board for an amendment to its license to permit increased capacity by expanding into the former Angie's New Leaf store immediately adjacent to its 17th and Church Street premises.

As we were preparing for press, the applicant was facing its first round with the ABC Board--the so-called "roll call" protest meeting at which time opponents could (and did) make known their objections.

We have reviewed documents filed by a group of about 160 opponents, led by the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA) First Vice President, and joined by what appears to be most of that association's "heavy-hitters," as well as the chairman and most members of the Dupont Circle ANC and myriad other residents, a goodly number of whom are active members of the DCCA.

Their petition in opposition raises a number of objections which we believe are not supported by fact and ought to be dismissed by the ABC Board.

First, they aver that the "establishment affects peace, order and quiet in the neighborhood." This is lifted from ABC Board "boiler-plate" language which is a catch-all generally applicable to establishment attracting drugs, prostitution, brawling or other crimes against patrons and neighbors. There has never been any police report that we have been able to find that would support the contention that JR's Bar & Grill has an adverse impact on public safety or welfare. To the extent there is the potential for noise coming from within the establishment, the management quite some time ago spent a good deal of money to construct sound barriers. The result is that noise simply does not emanate from its premises.

It should also be pointed out that in its meeting last month, no ANC commissioner even raised an issue with respect to conduct by the management or its patrons; in fact, there seemed to be consensus that JR's is a well-run place and the commissioners appear to have acknowledged JR's as a good neighborhood business citizen.

Second, it is alleged that JR's "adversely affects ... parking and vehicular and pedestrian safety." While parking is always a problem in all of DC's popular neighborhoods, that is more a result of the newer and more affluent residents who have brought with them more automobiles.

But, JR's has anticipated the potential for possible increased parking pressures and has stated that it will provide for valet parking. That ought to satisfy the doubters just as a similar pledge did when the same issue was raised in connection with the ABC application by The Circle bar on Connecticut Avenue a few years ago. If such a solution satisfied regulators three blocks to the west, it ought to in this case.

Third, the opponents claim JR's "adversely affects real property values." That is a canard if there ever was one. All one has to do is review their real estate assessments. This very allegation was publicly bandied about over two years ago, and was addressed in a report in this newspaper at the time. We interviewed several leading realtors, and they were all unanimous in their assessment that real estate values in the Dupont East neighborhood had skyrocketed and that the 17th Street strip was a significant factor.

We reported that Tutt Real Estate's Bernardo Gonsalves observed, among other things, that the neighborhood's location and the number of restaurants and the vibrant night life on 17th Street were two of Dupont East's biggest draws. Further, he said, "I think that 17th Street has become an exciting corridor and that has helped to influence the market substantially." Broker Jeff Brier, then of Long & Foster and now with Pardoe, shares Gonsalves' assessment of the market. Brier, who has been selling property in the area for over 18 years, told The InTowner, "I have people actually saying that [they'll buy in] any of the blocks along the 17th Street corridor."

Fourth, the opponents claim JR's "contributes to over-concentration of liquor establishments in the neighborhood." We presume this complaint is related to the desire for "greater retail diversity," buzzwords we hear a lot. We are not sure what sorts of retailers are not moving onto 17th Street because of the presence of the ABC-licensed establishments. In fact, we cannot get a good answer from people we speak with when we ask specifically, "What kinds of stores should we have that we now don't have?"

Of course, people will also want what is, from a business point of view, unrealistic--like a Barnes and Noble (although we have several outstanding large bookstores within a very few blocks of 17th Street, more than most neighborhoods). We have a supermarket and a better one to open in a year just two blocks east; we have a fabulous hardware store, a Blockbuster plus two independent video stores; two eye glass stores; a huge drugstore; a card and gift shop; a shoe repair, three dry cleaners and the only self-serve laundry in the entire Dupont Circle area; a flower shop; a home furnishings store; a casual clothing store; a specialty food store that carries an excellent selection of quality breads and pastries; two liquor stores, one of which carries a first-class wine selection as does the specialty food store also; a picture frame store; a bank--how many residential neighborhoods in DC can claim a bank!?

We are hard-pressed to think what we're missing. Oh yes, a post office. We even talked with the Postal Service a few years ago about that, but they said no go. We had two wonderful independent bookstores on the strip, but they did not get the level of neighborhood support to allow continuation in business. One of them, Neil's Books, got most its customers from other neighborhoods. So much for loyalty to neighborhood retailers. Same was true with the beautiful orchid store.

Now, if there are retailers who are so anxious to move onto 17th Street, why has the former Randy's/Palmer's space remained vacant for so long? Our analysis is that this perceived need is not real. We have virtually everything we need, and there is no evidence that use by JR's of the former Angie's space will ace out some other retailer.

One last comment: The DCCA has complained that JR's Bar & Grill is the only establishment on 17th Street having "a tavern license and is not required to serve food." While that is technically true, the manner in which the statement was published is disingenuous at best. For the record, and in fairness, it must be reported that JR's also holds a valid restaurant license, meets all the city's strict requirements that attend such a license, and, further, the establishment operates a high-quality food establishment from 11:30 in the morning to 7:00 in the evening and gets a nice luncheon clientele who appreciate the very attractive menu and the beautifully prepared soups, salads, and sandwiches, all under the supervision of a first-rate professional chef. A glass of Kir or a cold draft of beer with such a lunch in their bright and airy premises is pleasant indeed. They are as much a legitimate restaurant as any other restaurant in DC that does not serve an evening meal.