The announcement late last week was startling mostly for its time-capsule-like nature. The damage, after all, is a couple of decades long and old.
The Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) is poised to ask the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board to again renew the now 23-year-old “East Dupont” liquor license moratorium on the 17th Street, N.W., commercial strip and surrounding streets for three years. That is the recommendation of a draft resolution released on Thursday, Aug. 1. Little suspense awaits the outcome of a scheduled vote by the nine-member ANC at its monthly meeting next week.
While the ANC should beg the city to end a self-inflicted misery mandated long ago at the request of predecessors and a once-more-powerful citizens association, the issue stirs scant contemporary emotion. The toxic battles that tore a neighborhood apart are the remnant lore and legacy of a best-forgotten past.
Critics have long maintained that the prohibition on new eateries and gathering spots has stymied all types of economic engagement and vitality. It was hoped that the ANC would finally request the city terminate a ban supported by a vocal minority.
The welcome mat for dining and drinking establishments was yanked off the floor long ago, damaging the neighborhood’s reputation and eroding the business environment. Even the popular Hank’s Oyster Bar, qualifying for a license under a special exception, fought for eight long years against a tiny gaggle of relentless community business opponents before finally overcoming objections filed with the city and the courts.
Singularly stupid or simply sad, the current outcome still matters in one significant way. By this modern-day measure, local leadership continues to disappoint.
It’s a missed opportunity for a signal they could, yet probably won’t, send.
Instead of stringing up banners between streetlights heralding “we’re open for business again,” they’re timidly tinkering around the edges. Meekly seeking a modest modification prompted by a warning from the ABC Board at the time of the last renewal that moratoriums were never intended to continue in perpetuity, they suggest eliminating only the ban on new restaurants while maintaining all other restrictions.
Meanwhile, new retail and hospitality has located elsewhere. The ANC would rather have tumbleweeds blowing through a time warp than stare down the few remaining neighborhood nannies.
They fail to realize more than tweaking the terms is necessary to repair the area’s public image and revitalize its streetscapes. Not only to support the successful businesses that stuck it out on 17th Street, but also to encourage new enterprise throughout the neighborhood.
Ironically, the small faction that successfully pushed for the moratorium more than two decades ago recently proposed a ban for the adjoining Logan Circle, 14th and U streets, and Shaw neighborhoods. Overwhelming MidCity resident opposition has led to the expectation that the ABC Board will reject the proposal in its entirety when issuing a pending decision.
Tussling over moratoriums is a proxy battle over neighborhood growth and development. While taking root in a handful of areas in an era when anti-business citizens groups enjoyed greater influence, the Dupont Circle ANC seems determined to re-embrace an ignominious past.
Imposed in 1990 and renewed four times, most recently in 2010, the moratorium extension expires on Sept. 23. The ABC Board is required only to consider the advisory opinion of the ANC, which has no power to decide this, or any other, regulatory matter.
None of five existing moratoriums has ever been terminated. Dupont Circle has two.
The ABC Board may renew, terminate or modify the moratorium, transmitting its decision to the D.C. Council for special review. It is customary for the Council to approve Board decisions on moratoriums.
A unique opportunity exists for the ABC Board to finally end one longstanding failed experiment in arbitrary marketplace control utilizing the blunt instrument of prohibition.
Even – no, especially – if the ANC lacks the courage to recommend it do so.
Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.