There was a time when Dupont Circle was the epicenter of commerce and residence for a more centralized and geographically concentrated gay community.
In recent years, the area acquired a distinctly different citywide reputation. It became widely known for many of the most protracted and bitter battles over commercial development in general, and bar and restaurant licensing in particular.
Fueled by a notoriously obstructionist Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) with an anti-business attitude, community discussions were unpleasant affairs. Coupled with then-significant influence of a nay-saying Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA) and a small cadre of ad hoc serial objectors to most everything new, endless infighting became the signature norm.
Largely in reaction to a waning commercial economy, the Dupont ANC has become circumspect and now embraces enterprise interest. Changing commission composition coupled with the diminished reputation and membership of DCCA, and resident “pushback” has eclipsed the prior divisiveness.
Now, as both the gay and general zeitgeist evolves eastward and spreads to additional rapidly developing D.C. locales, this Dupont legacy has filtered into the adjacent Logan Circle neighborhood like floating fairy dust. The hotter-than-the-sun commercial and residential area, and dynamic areas surrounding it in Northwest Washington, is now reaping the benefits of development once enjoyed by its neighbor.
The Logan ANC, however, is set to repeat the same mistakes that wreaked havoc next door. An illustration is its posture toward a new business planned by two neighborhood dwellers.
Seasonal Pantry market and supper club chef Daniel O’Brien and Sundevich eatery operator Ali Bagheri are both residents of the Logan-Shaw neighborhood where their jointly owned businesses are located. Teaming up to plan the conversion of a vacant 9th Street, N.W., storefront into an intimate 56-seat bar serving a rustic light menu and crafted cocktails self-initialized as A&D, they didn’t anticipate the licensing hassles that awaited.
Adjacent to the charming street-side Seasonal Pantry and in front of the alley-located Sundevich with its engaging interior in a former garage, the modest venue was destined to become a welcomed addition to the community. Located between N and O streets only a half-block north of the Washington Convention Center, this new amenity would transform an abandoned property on the still-ragged commercial corridor.
After meeting with neighbors and reaching agreement on concerns regarding noise and trash pick-up, they discovered that the Logan ANC objected. The commission was suddenly demanding “compliance” with its “policy” requiring early closing times throughout the week in exchange for not protesting the liquor license application and delaying approval.
The rationale? The ANC now demands truncated operating hours for new businesses, even in commercial zones, as standard edict. This stance circumvents citywide regulations through coercive so-called “Voluntary” Agreements.
Confronting a commonplace dilemma, the businessmen couldn’t afford continued delays. When license protests are lodged, either by small groups or ANCs, it takes a minimum of eight months to a year to resolve, costing huge sums.
The well-regarded entrepreneurs had no choice other than to cave. This concession, according to O’Brien, will cost $50,000 in lost annual revenue – a hefty and potentially debilitating sum for a small venture in an industry with tight margins and intensive capitalization requirements.
Ironically, Bagheri alone attended the monthly ANC meeting on Nov. 7 – O’Brien was a Bravo “Top Chef” competitor that evening. He was representing his multiple-award-winning establishment, while Bagheri – no slacker in garnering honorific distinctions for his popular venue – was the duo’s delegate.
Claiming “control” over their fiefdom, commissioners create differing rules for businesses within close competitive proximity while limiting local patron options. Fancying themselves “legislators” rather than the advisory body of their title, they have become sufficiently emboldened to flout abrogation of citywide law within their “territory.”
They are destined to foster and fester the discord, disgruntlement and obstacles to development that their Dupont neighbors foolishly did before them. All while city officials allow it to continue unabated without intervening to guarantee equitable and sensible application of city rules.
Bagheri, frustrated at derailment of a full opportunity for success, publicly indicated that their experience could cause them to depart the neighborhood. He says they might “relocate to another part of town that is more supportive of local businesses.”
Completing the circle.
Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.