VIDA Fitness owner David von Storch knows a little bit about the District’s arcane liquor licensing process.
When he opened the fondly recalled former Dakota nightclub and restaurant in 1987, popular with gay and lesbian patrons, it was the first establishment granted a license under revised city regulations that created the inappropriately named “Voluntary Agreement” process granting extraordinary powers of intervention to the few. Incredibly, to this day as few as five people forming an ad hoc protest group can halt the licensing process and force a business into negotiations regarding any aspect of operation.
The process forces businesses to capitulate to the demands of small and unrepresentative groups and/or an Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) in order to successfully seek licensing approval without delay or denial — regardless of city law. Applicants oftentimes throw their hands up in the air and surrender.
(Full disclosure: I worked with David at Dakota as marketing and public relations director and was the producer of two weekly gay nightclub events at the venue.)
Now the respected community businessman and recent Capital Area Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (CAGLCC) Excellence in Business honoree, having long ago disengaged from operating nightclub venues, faces opposition to his licensing application for the nearly completed $15 million renovation of the fourth of five upscale full-service fitness and spa locations in Washington – in the commercially zoned property at 1612 U St., N.W., which formerly housed a Results gym.
The Dupont Circle ANC – and more ominously, a small citizen license opponent group – have both filed protests seeking to deny VIDA a liquor license for the facility’s private rooftop heated pool and unique lounge-style relaxation area offering members an escape to a sophisticated “urban oasis” with food and beverage service and recorded ambient “chill-out” music.
This latter group of random self-identified opponents David refers to as “neighborhood provocateurs” have proven themselves bent on inflaming others and doing anything possible to deny licensing.
At a recent public meeting with nearby residents, he was “given no credit as a longstanding community businessperson” and responsible operator, openly disparaged without justification. The level of intensity from the license opponents and their willingness to “oppose a liquor license for any reason at any time” left even David “startled” – mitigated by subsequent expressions of support by a number of those in attendance embarrassed by the outrageous behavior of a small gang of their neighbors.
According to David, the ultimate goal of some is to radically reshape the project — with or without a liquor license — despite that this is only the latest in a long line of acquired license approvals and compliance with all city regulations, codes and standards, or the fact that the facility is located in a commercial and entertainment district.
The pool, on a 10,000 square foot rooftop well above nearby buildings and to accommodate a maximum of only 299 persons, is nearing completion and is to be available for use only by members purchasing a facility upgrade and their guests during warm weather months.
Already, approximately 850 of the 1,000 available pool level memberships have been pre-sold among the projected 5,000 total gym memberships.
And — guess what — about 80 percent of those members live in the neighborhood’s zip code, with a total of nearly 90 percent living in the Dupont Circle and Logan Circle areas.
Compare that to the 18 citizen protesters standing in the way of David’s license application.
Unfortunately, this is how the city government regulatory approval process continues to be conducted in D.C.
It doesn’t matter that the president and founder of Urban Adventures Cos., a lifestyle enterprise that established VIDA Fitness with Aura Spas, Bang Salon and Capitol City Brewing Co., along with the new 901 restaurant in Penn Quarter that held its grand opening a week ago, has been a successful local business operator for the past 25 years.
Nor does it matter that David employs 2,000 people and significantly contributes to the local economy and city tax revenues.
It’s a helluva way for the city to manage economic development and encourage the creation of neighborhood amenities popular with the overwhelming majority of residents yearning for a more vibrant urban environment.
And it should end.
Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.