Tom Brown is bewildered.
One thing, however, has become clear to the well-regarded District bar operator: It’s time for the D.C. Council and Mayor Bowser to fix the city’s liquor licensing system.
Brown had invested more than four months in proactively reaching out to residents adjacent and near his planned cocktail bar Left Door when a small “citizens association” opposing area liquor licenses suddenly walked away from a consensus agreement, despite strong support among neighbors for the new business. He had long-ago contacted the group to meet over coffee to initiate discussions of any concerns they might have, even before going to the area’s advisory neighborhood commission to allow the ANC to weigh-in with the city’s alcohol board.
“It was a sneak attack,” says Brown in describing the group’s last-minute email to U Street ANC-1B demanding more operating restrictions moments before a scheduled vote to support the liquor license application for a 35-seat bar with a total occupancy of 49. The group didn’t even extend the courtesy of appearing in person to raise their newfound objections.
“What’s happening is these small groups are taking hold of the system in a way that is downright undemocratic,” Brown laments. “A minority with an agenda are exploiting a loophole in the process,” he hastens to add, “saying they’re above everyone else and get to make decisions for all the serfs and peasants.”
This time it’s about prohibiting shared trash pick-up with adjoining hospitality businesses and being forced to store refuse inside the small bar space. After that, who knows? The group, a gaggle who’ve waged battle with bars and restaurants for over two decades, might attempt additional delay utilizing a new serial objection.
The small 900-square-foot establishment is to be located on the second floor at 1345 S St., N.W., a few feet off the 14th Street commercial corridor a couple of blocks south of the intersection with the bustling U Street entertainment zone. Similar to Brown’s eagerly awaited re-located opening of locals’ socializing spot The Passenger in the adjacent Shaw area, closed due to site development, Left Door is designed to be an intimate neighborhood bar specializing in attentively concocted drinks.
Brown discovered there is little rhyme or reason, and certainly no reward, for neighborly engagement when dealing with a so-called “citizens group” determined to thwart his enterprise.
The oddly named Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance claims fewer members than live on a single side of a short stretch of street in the densely populated and vibrant Logan Circle/14th-and-U mixed-use district. SDCA became notoriously unpopular two years ago when the group unsuccessfully proposed that the city government impose a liquor license moratorium throughout the MidCity area against overwhelming neighborhood opposition.
“It seems like what they’re trying to do is stifle small businesses and encourage big-box operators who have the ability to stock a war-chest” to fight them. “Do they want a TGIF instead?” asks Brown.
“These groups put local operators at a competitive disadvantage,” Brown explains, noting the costs of lengthy opening delays and expensive attorney fees for ongoing series of meetings, negotiations and city agency hearings that force concession to arbitrary operating restrictions.
Three years ago, the D.C. Council took modest steps to reform the city’s out-of-balance liquor licensing protocols, limiting the ability of ad hoc “gangs of 5 or more” and “citizens associations” to mount independent license protests. They promised to re-visit the issue and consider further fixes.
License protests by “gangs of 5” are now automatically dismissed when a business negotiates a “Settlement Agreement” with the elected neighborhood ANC. Not so in the case of “citizens associations.”
Community input should be reserved for open ANC forums and recommendations. No longer should self-appointed arbiters have legal standing to directly intervene. Make your case publicly and persuasively or hide at home.
It’s time for D.C. Council members to move forward on implementing these overdue additional reforms.
It’s no surprise that Tom Brown agrees.