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Dupont East’s Liquor License Moratorium Set to Expire in March; Opinion Divided on What Next

By Anthony L. Harvey

[Note: Photographs accompanying this news story in the print edition can be viewed in the full PDF copy in the Current & Back Issues Archive.]

Knives remained sheathed as 50 residents of the East Dupont Circle neighborhood gathered on February 2nd in the basement meeting hall of Foundry United Methodist Church to argue the merits of extending the current liquor license moratorium prohibiting new licensees or the expansion of existing licensed ABC establishments on 17th Street between P and S Streets, NW and adjoining street stubs.

This was a thoughtfully structured “listening session,” even-handedly chaired by Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner Jack Jacobson, featuring a panel of both fellow ANC commissioners and the representatives of three “stakeholder” community organizations. Persons attending were provided with copies of the existing moratorium’s seven pages of single-spaced and densely worded text issued by the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (ABC) in early 2006 as a three-year extension, with amendments, of the original 1990 decree.

The resultant session was relatively lively, albeit unusually calm given the harsh and usually angry expressions verbally articulated at previous meetings by partisans on all sides of this continuingly contentious issue — one which sets an absolute limit of 22 ABC licensees in the moratorium zone and prohibits any expansion, either laterally or vertically.

Supporters of the moratorium — stipulated in the existing order to expire on March 23, 2009 — also view the present number of seats for the licensed establishments as a moratorium-like cap on the maximum number of patrons in alcohol serving bars and restaurants covered by the order. Hours and other operational restrictions above and beyond those stipulated in law, ABC regulations, and the language of the moratorium order are imposed on licensees by so-called voluntary agreements which have become de facto requirements for receiving licenses, their renewals, and certain endorsements and amendments to those licenses.

Representatives from the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA), the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association (DCMAP), and Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets (HDCMS) deflected most issues directed to them by asserting, as did the ANC commissioners, that their presence was primarily for the purpose of hearing the community’s expressed feelings on the moratorium extension issue. They did, however, broaden the discussion to include their concerns for retail vitality on 17th Street and, as passionately noted by ANC Chair Mike Silverstein, for the feared adverse impact on 17th Street businesses by the up-coming, and long awaited, 17th Street streetscape improvement project.

Expressions by attendees seemed evenly divided between those recommending the expiration of the moratorium as either no longer needed and being a continuing negative interference on the vitality of 17th Street’s commercial strip and those asserting that the moratorium has served, and should continue to serve, as a bulwark in the maintenance of the balance between residents and alcohol serving bars and restaurants on the street.

Underlying issues were infrequently mentioned, and only George Mallios of Trio Restaurant and the Fox and Hounds — among ABC licensed proprietors was present — and only to listen, Mallios replied with a smile when asked to speak. DCCA members were well represented, and spoke strenuously of their support for extending the moratorium and of their opposition to any increase in the number of so-called licensed seats and any lateral expansion of existing establishments. Nothing was said of their fierce opposition to existing tents and structures housing sidewalk café seats in so-called public space and their continuing attempts to push back this use of public space and further restrict licensee hours of operation, especially from Church to Q Street and around the corner on Q.

Further, although the desire by the owners of two especially acclaimed restaurants, Komi and Hank’s Oyster Bar, to laterally expand their successful businesses were referred to by ANC commissioners, no mention was made of the long-standing expressions of desire for expansion by the Trio, Fox and Hounds, JR’s, Annie’s, and Peppers (now Jack’s). Opponents of new licenses and such expansion asserted that ABC licensees drive retail establishments out of business. No one mentioned the “out of business” status of Club Chaos and the long time Casa Pena food store. The presence of five or six vacant store fronts, and the reasons for their vacancies, were variously discussed and supported with anecdotes. It was further asserted that two ABC licenses were not being used.

Moratorium supporter Robin Diener, who with her partner Mark Jenkins are long-time residents in the 1600 block of Corcoran Street, and who also directs the Ralph Nader Library Renaissance Project from the Carnegie building at 16th and P Streets, called for a comprehensive planning effort on the moratorium issues, characterizing the existing moratorium as a blunt instrument. Rob Halligan, former DCCA president and ANC commissioner, reminded the group of efforts three and four years ago to find a mechanism other than a moratorium to achieve both community retail “amenities” and the structuring of a balance between night life establishments and neighborhood-serving retail businesses. Tenty-five year Dupont Circle resident and well-known political activist Peter Rosenstein, while praising the conciliatory approach of the new DCCA president Joel Lawson, challenged Lawson’s assertion of being the “residents’ representative”; rather, Rosenstein observed, he represents only a very small number and further asserted that most residents want the moratorium lifted. And, indeed, many others who were present testified to just that.

In subsequent conversations with former ANC Commissioner Dennis Bass, who chaired the Commission when the moratorium was first established in 1990, Bass recounted to this reporter the ANC’s primary concerns 20 years ago, the first of which being that of the sudden expansion in the late 1980s of ABC licensees on 17 Street. This, concluded the ANC at the time, was a consequence of the street being the easternmost boundary for such establishments. That, observed Bass, has now passed, with 14th Street now experiencing a similar expansion. Concentration — or density — and the adequacy of caps on the number of licensed seats, however, could still be a concern of the community over such effects on parking and neighborhood “peace, order, and quiet,” Bass further observed.

Commissioner Jacobson, who is chairing the ANC’s ad hoc committee on the East Dupont Circle Moratorium, concluded the meeting by encouraging further community comments by email or by telephone to the ANC through Wednesday, February 11th when the full Commission will take up the matter at its regularly scheduled monthly meeting.

How long, however, the moratorium knives remain sheaved is anyone’s guess.

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Dupont ANC Acts

As we were going to press, the Dupont Circle ANC at the end of its February monthly meeting voted unanimously to request that the ABC Board grant a 30-day extension to the March 23rd Moratorium expiration date. Commissioner Jack Jacobson announced that a second community “listening session” will be scheduled for the first week of March. For date, time and place, email the ANC at 2B@anc.dc.gov.