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!7th Street Liquor Moratorium 3-Year Renewal Endorsed by Dupont Circle ANC’s Close Vote

Images accompanying this feature can be viewed in the current issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

The raucous years of 1989 and 1990 — when Dupont Circle with its popular and well-known bars and restaurants were the Washington metropolitan area’s epicenter for gay and metrosexual night life — led to a movement among disaffected residents in the Dupont Circle neighborhood for the adoption of a moratorium on the issuance of any new licenses to alcohol serving establishments.

BACKGROUND

The issues raised by these residents, most of whom lived in neighborhoods immediately bordering on these popular bars and restaurants or directly across from them on busy streets, were the issues specified in the liquor licensing statute and regulations governing the operation of such enterprises and included: “peace, order, and quiet”; parking; trash collection; and the concentration or impact of these bars and restaurants on the availability of ground floor commercial spaces for neighborhood-serving retail and service businesses — grocery and convenience stores, bookstores, newsstands, clothing stores, hardware stores, plants and flower shops, bakeries and coffee shops, pharmacies and dry cleaners, beauty shops and related personal services, for example, that make city life a special pleasure.

After much divisive neighborhood deliberations, with residents at times pitted against business interests, a liquor license moratorium recommendation was adopted by both the Dupont Circle ANC and the Dupont Circle Citizens Association and subsequently promulgated by the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board for a period of five years in a so-called East Dupont Circle moratorium zone — a 600-foot radius centered on 17th and Q Streets NW. (A separate and later moratorium, still in effect, deals with West Dupont Circle.)

Since that time, the East Dupont Circle moratorium has been extended four times, each time for a period of four or five years. These extensions have generally been modified to reflect changes in the neighborhood and have included such provisions each time allowing an expansion of one or two new liquor licenses and an authorization for one or two lateral expansions of existing establishments. As can be expected, liquor-licensed bars and restaurants have come and gone during this 23-year period.

The last establishment whose noise, congestion, and police-reported incidents caused exceptional neighborhood concerns, Club Chaos, closed some time ago. So too has much neighborhood-serving retail either relocated elsewhere or closed — Universal Gear for clothing, to 14th Street; Reincarnations for furniture and home furnishings, also to 14th Street; three independent bookstores, out of business; two independent video rental stores as well as a Blockbuster outlet, also out of business; and especially missed is Angie’s New Leaf which closed when its owner retired. Two of these closures, Club Chaos and Blockbuster Video. occupied large, below grade retail spaces.

Now at 2013

The Dupont Circle ANC thus found itself faced this year with the hardy perennial of considering a fifth renewal of this existing moratorium in either its current or a modified form — or the recommendation to the ABC Board that it be allowed to lapse on its expiration date of September 23rd. The Commission encouraged the creation of an ad-hoc committee comprising the four ANC commissioners whose single member districts overlap the moratorium zone — Stephanie Maltz, Kishan Putta, Abigail Nichols, and Leo Dwyer — together with Kevin O’Connor, who chairs the ANC’s ABC and ABRA (Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration) Committee Task Force, to face this issue.

These commissioners were thus presented with the task of surveying present conditions in the moratorium zone, especially those that brought the moratorium into existence and served to perpetuate its continuance, and engaging the community — both residents and business proprietors – -to gather concerns and recommendations from those immediately and directly impacted by the moratorium. This was done in a series of three community “listening” sessions and by posting for community review and reaction draft summary reports of findings and a proposed resolution to support the extension of a modified East Dupont Circle Liquor Moratorium.

The ad-hoc committee found much the same issues being raised in 2013 as were in 1990, but in a much milder form and primarily pertaining to late-night noise levels when restaurants and taverns with nightclub-like entertainment endorsements closed. As several testified at both the community “listening” sessions and at the ANC’s August meeting, the rambunctiousness of the 1990s has matured into a more mellow, maturing nighttime entertainment scene on 17th Street, especially with the movement of much of the club scene epicenter to the 14th, U, 11th and 9th Street strips and venues. This has reduced the pressure on 17th Street.

As far as the oft-repeated assertion that the moratorium has created vacant store fronts and stifled the movement into the moratorium zone of quality restaurants, the commissioners’ own survey found no vacant store fronts except for the former Angie’s New Leaf which has now an ABC Board-issued liquor license in the name of its lessor, JR’s Bar & Grill. The only two actual 17th Street vacancies are the large, below grade spaces vacated by retailer Blockbuster that had been located beneath CVS and by Club Chaos, whose liquor license, according to ABRA, is in what is known as safekeeping on behalf of the proprietor of Adams Morgan’s Black Squirrel. Neither of these below grade spaces can truly be considered “storefronts” that would appeal to typical retailers.

Newcomers during the current moratorium period such as Hank’s Oyster Bar and Komi’s gourmet restaurant belie the notion that quality restaurants and cafés have not moved into the moratorium zone. On the question of attracting more foot traffic and increasing the availability of neighborhood-serving retail, no conclusions, other than gentrification and market forces, were offered as explanations.

The committee’s recommendations to the full ANC were for a three-year extension of the moratorium in a modified form — lifting any cap or ceiling on new restaurants and bars but continuing the prohibition on nightclubs and any new taverns.

A spirited discussion ensued at the ANC’s August meeting with most commissioners leaning toward a phasing out of the moratorium but with several recommending its demise in a multi-step process. In response to the posting of the draft resolution (visit http://preview.tinyurl.com/l4hpodw) two weeks before the meeting, 45 of 50 residents emailed their respective recommendations that the moratorium be allowed to expire, according to Commissioner Maltz.

The ANC nonetheless voted, in a four-to-four tie vote where an unusual provision in the commission’s bylaws serves, in essence, to count the chairman’s vote twice, to recommend the continuation of the moratorium in its dramatically reduced form for three years, with a subsequent revisiting of the moratorium’s eventual demise at that time. ANC Chair Will Stephens, together with Commissioners Putta, O’Connor, and Nichols voted for the moratorium’s three year extension, with Commissioners Maltz and Dwyer being joined by Mike Feldstein and Noah Smith in opposition.