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Adams Morgan Moratorium Zone Extension Decision Expected to be Decided by ABC Board Next Month; Strong Community Opposition Revealed at Hearing

Accompanying images can be viewed in the June 2014 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

An almost eight hour public hearing conducted by the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board on May 7, 2014, heard testimony from 27 witnesses voluminously armed with charts, graphs, policy statements, statutory and regulatory findings, and lists of the 72 liquor licensed establishments in the Adams Morgan ABC license moratorium zone which radiates for several blocks — 1400 feet — from 18th Street and Belmont Road, NW.

The ABC Board hearing brought together both proponents, with or without amendments, and opponents of extending the current moratorium, which expires this year; it has been in place since 2008 and prohibits any new liquor licenses for locations along 18th Street and Columbia Road within the moratorium zone.

A moratorium of some sort has been in place since the year 2000; this current, and most restrictive version of the moratorium, was granted by the Board in 2008 on a petition co-sponsored by the Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA), the Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), and the Reed-Cooke Neighborhood Association (RCNA). The petition was granted on the basis of the Board’s findings of a significant over-concentration of liquor licensed establishments in the moratorium zone and that of repeated peace, order, and quiet violations — both criminal and quality of life — by these moratorium zone establishments. The 2008 version also dealt with the then recent explosion of the number of taverns, from three to 15 within the zone.

In addition to live testimony, the Board received 85 written submissions for inclusion in the hearing record, many of great length. Of these, 56 were from persons who had not testified at the hearing but expressed positions or recommendations on the three or four policy questions being debated, including: (1) to extend for five years the moratorium in its present and most restrictive form; (2) to extend the moratorium but allow new restaurants with restaurant-style business plans and without nightclub-style entertainment endorsements; and (3) simply to allow the moratorium to expire.

Sixty witnesses (11 testifying at the hearing and 49 submitting written statements) expressed a preference — and all preferences were strongly and quite often passionately expressed — for extending the moratorium in its present form; eight witnesses (six at the hearing and two in writing) recommended an extended but amended moratorium, an extension which would allow for an unlimited number of new restaurants, although restricted in operation; 11 (seven at the hearing, four in writing) called for allowing the moratorium to expire. Another four witnesses, one at the hearing and three with their submissions for the record, expressed a preference for either the second option of amending or the third for eliminating the moratorium.

The May 7th ABC Board Hearing

[For background see “Adams Morgan Liquor Moratorium Expires in 2014; Extension Yet Again Embroiled in Controversy,” InTowner, November 2013 issue PDF page 1 (http://tinyurl.com/lqs8u3x); also, for a report on the ANC’s action the following month, see “Adams Morgan ANC Seeks to Further Extend Liquor Moratorium by 5 Years,” InTowner, December 2013 issue PDF page 1 (http://tinyurl.com/lvu322r).]

In advance of the May 7th hearing, pro- and anti-moratorium neighborhood forces coalesced around three major positions, the first being that led by the KCA’s indefatigable President Denis James. It demanded an extension of the moratorium without change, asserting that the moratorium had both put a lid on the nighttime and weekend violence and disturbance of the peace and pointing to a host of new retail and service businesses whose location was predicated on the storefronts made vacant by the prohibition over the past years of new liquor licensed establishments in the moratorium zone. Seventeen were enumerated, ranging from Starbucks at one end of the 18th Street strip to the emergence of a barber shop at the other.

James pointed to the close working of the KCA and individual members — both residents who live on the streets adjacent to the moratorium zone in Washington Heights and Kalorama Triangle and those with affected businesses in the zone with the District’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and the ABC Board and its enforcement agency ABRA in their attempts to further ameliorate nightlife problems.

The representative opinion of the KCA and its supporters was that the most negative thing that could be said about the moratorium was that it had only kept matters from getting worse. KCA President James presented the ABC Board with an astonishing wealth of documentation, including analytical charts and maps identifying all establishments, their types of licenses, their seating capacities, and the changing landscape of licensees over the life of the moratorium — in 2004, 2008, and 2014.

The problems identified ranged from over-concentration of establishments and the violence of crowds — both when establishments operating as clubs closed on weekends at 3:00 a.m. as well as from predators seeking drunken victims, especially on the immediate side streets, along with excessive noise, litter, public urination and vomiting characteristic of drunken crowd behavior — were once again reiterated by James and numerous supporting witnesses. KCA vowed to continue its close workings with the police, the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA), and also with the transportation department (DDOT) staff on pedestrian and vehicular safety.

James was joined in his testimony by ANC Commissioner and former KCA Secretary Ted Guthrie and KCA Vice President Robert Ellsworth.

The middle position was articulated at the hearing by a panel of ANC commissioners — beginning with the ANC’s Chair Billy Simpson and Commissioner Jimmy Rock, subsequently joined by Commissioners Brian Hart and Gabriella Mossi, who presented the ANC’s proposal for an amended extension of the current moratorium, one which would lift the prohibition on new liquor licenses for “genuine” restaurants with no nightclub-style entertainment endorsements to their licenses and prohibit promoters and pub crawls.

The testimony presented by the ANC echoed many of the points elaborated by the KCA, noting in its formal resolution that Adams Morgan continues to suffer from “significant problems with peace, order, and quiet — particularly with respect to criminal activity, noise, litter, disorderly conduct, crowd control, and vehicular and pedestrian safety as well as parking problems” in the moratorium zone. Focusing on what was identified as the primary problem, the ANC’s resolution further stated that “although there are no nightclub licenses in Adams Morgan [and nightclubs are expressly prohibited in the current moratorium], multiple alcohol serving establishments in that moratorium zone have been permitted to operate as though they are nightclubs through entertainment endorsements, and the failure [by the responsible DC agencies] to enforce food sales requirements, the District’s noise ordinances, and other applicable requirements of District law.”

The ANC’s resolution, which was adopted by a unanimous vote of seven to zero, further asserted that the Commission “considers it the overwhelming shared vision of the Adams Morgan Community that the commercial district within the moratorium zone not be a club zone or entertainment district but instead should be a district that integrates quality and diverse dining complemented by moderate entertainment with local retail that respects the residential character of the neighborhood.” The Commissioners renewed their plea that the ABC Board crack down on the half-dozen “bad boy” proprietors who cause a majority of the problems. Ernest Springs, RCNA President, joined the ANC with his organization’s adoption of the ANC’s moratorium proposal.

The third position, proposing that the moratorium simply be allowed to expire and, in effect, lift all restrictions on nightclubs, taverns, and alcohol serving restaurants in Adams Morgan, was expounded on by the third panel of the morning’s opening session — a panel of a single witness — the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s Ed Lazare, author of the Adams Morgan Business Improvement District’s (BID) moratorium study and consultant to the BID’s executive board. Lazare’s BID study, which purports to be an analysis of the Adams Morgan moratorium, was endorsed by the BID’s executive committee and board and subsequently presented to the Adams Morgan ANC together with the BID’s endorsement resolution at the ANC’s December, 2013 public meeting.

Propounding the thesis that over-concentration can be a good thing and that Adams Morgan be promoted as a club zone for purposes of jobs and tax revenues and a thriving entertainment district, the Fiscal Policy Institute’s report was not warmly received by the Commission. Apparently oblivious of the fact that the production and distribution of alcoholic beverages is a heavily controlled and tightly regulated enterprise in all jurisdictions, Lazare recommended that unfettered competition be the antidote to the problems of an asserted stagnant Adams Morgan commercial district.

Lazare and his Fiscal Policy Institute are no strangers to the controversies of Adams Morgan politics, having provided a strategic endorsement of the $46 million property tax abatement for the Adams Morgan Historic Hotel project, one that was successfully resurrected by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham on the last day in mid-December of the City Council’s 2011 session.

More to the point was the eloquent and sophisticated testimony and written submission of BID co-president Stephen Greenleigh, who pointed to the observable progress by the BID in removing trash left behind by midnight and early morning drunken revelers and through the BID’s employment of off-duty MPD officers to augment police assignments providing an asserted improvement in late night and early morning street and “restaurants and taverns with nightclub characteristics” criminal violence and quality of life violations — especially those related to crime and noise. Greenleigh cited what he asserted to be findings in the Fiscal Policy Institute’s report and praised the actions of the BID in its working with MPD, ABRA, and DDOT on moratorium zone problems.

And, indeed, all three advocacy groups pointed to the need for further involvement with — and strengthening of — the annual Operation Adams Morgan program led by MPD, a program that provides intensive, hands-on crowd control and crime prevention at night and early on weekend mornings in the moratorium zone and immediately adjacent blocks during late spring and summer.

This, the fifth year for the program, is being conducted by a core task force of 20 uniform patrol officers led by Lieutenant Ashley Rosenthal with the assistance of Sergeants at the Third District and the overall direction of Captain Aubrey Mongal. The task force is assisted by other Third District officers in the surrounding neighborhood and, where possible, the “drink and duck” DWI patrol units and the District’s city-wide summer crime preventive initiative. Other task force resources, operating in coordination with MPD, include ABRA investigators, DDOT traffic control officers, consumer and regulatory affairs department (DCRA) noise monitoring technicians, and fire department inspectors — all for, as one ANC commissioner opined, for a five-block area with more alcohol serving establishments than on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street.

Some off-beat humor was provided in the hearing testimony and written submissions: in the first instance by ANC Commissioner Guthrie, and in the second by former commissioner Josh Gibson, who introduces himself as the founder of the BID. In the first instance, when questioned by an ABC board member about his knowledge of the responsibilities of other DC regulatory agencies, including those that license restaurants, Guthrie replied that he was aware of their responsibilities but that the problems requiring the moratorium were not caused by people over-eating and acting crazy, it was by people over-drinking and acting crazy. Gibson mystified many, including this reporter, by first offering a child’s version of a Rube Goldberg analogy to the Adams Morgan moratorium and then, continuing, asserting that “if you think about it, a liquor license moratorium is equivalent to racial profiling for businesses.” Gibson’s tortured explication of this analogy was even more puzzling.

Lanier Heights Association president and Chief Ike’s Tavern owner Al Jirikowic, notable DC thespian, seemed to endorse either the second or third proposal. Also a prominent advocate of the yet to be constructed Adams Morgan Historic Hotel, asserted by its proponents as being the harbinger of a dramatically improved Adams Morgan, he concluded the morning session by stating that Adams Morgan needed the kind of cultural change in the community that the five-star, 220-room hotel will bring. “We need better children in Adams Morgan,” asserted Jirikowic to a somewhat mystified Board

The ABC Board will issue an order containing a ruling on the Adams Morgan Moratorium no later than July 12, when the current Moratorium expires.