March 14, 2012 at 10:35 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
Liquor license follies follow D.C. development

It’s often a simple choice for D.C. residents in neighborhoods with growing populations — street corner drug dealing or local development, abandoned storefronts or new amenities, livable avenues offering community interaction or desolate strips without eyes on the street.

Or so you would think.

That’s the battle currently being waged near 8th Street and Florida Avenue in the rapidly developing Shaw/LeDroit Park neighborhood of northwest Washington — a couple of blocks from Nellie’s Sports Bar, a block south of Town Danceboutique, down the street from the newly refurbished historic Howard Theatre and near the Shaw-Howard University Metro station and the adjacent Progression Place mixed-use 205-unit apartment and 20,000-square-foot ground level retail property with an adjoining 50,000-square-foot office building undergoing construction.

The planned All Souls Bar — to fill a modest empty space at the street corner end of a small retail strip of quaint older commercial storefronts adjacent to a CVS pharmacy, home to both a tailor shop and pizza restaurant — has ignited a liquor licensing conflict fueled by a tiny cadre of neighborhood busybodies.

A small number are opposing the proposed establishment, to occupy less than 800 square feet with a maximum capacity of only 50 seats and serving a traditional American menu. The venture, planned for the deserted space at 725 T St., N.W., originally constructed as stables and featuring an interior tin ceiling, has unleashed an all-too-common overblown regulatory brouhaha.

The conflict was aired again last week at a public meeting conducted by Myla Moss, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) member for the area. One of the most vocal objectors has been a Maryland resident whose connection is limited to his girlfriend living around the corner next to the abandoned retail space.

Most area residents, long frustrated by the neglected storefront — as well as the open-air drug dealing and evening clusters of disreputable characters ruling the corner — welcomed the news announced last October by the Prince of Petworth community blog that respected former Jaleo and Zaytinya restaurants manager David Batista hoped to open at the spot.

Fliers distributed in the area object to granting a liquor license for the restaurant bar due to its location within 400 feet of a school — the Cleveland Elementary School across the street. Normally such proximity would preclude an alcohol license for the business. However, the law allows an exception for licensing in areas where there is a prior license of the same type within the restricted zone. As a result of the property being midway between the bustling 9th Street and developing 7th Street commercial corridors and a variety of restaurants and bars, the location is fully eligible for an alcohol service permit.

In addition to legally required mantra-like objections to “peace, order and quiet,” licensing opponents claim that the business will cause harm to schoolchildren if they witness patrons seated outside sipping beer or wine with their meal, or even if they see alcohol products being delivered to the business.

Never mind that one long-time resident refers to the corner as akin to the HBO series “The Wire.” Protesting residents apparently consider visual exposure to alcohol more worrisome than the drug sales, troublesome loitering and public urination occurring on the street.

To facilitate progress and maneuver around the obstacles thrown up by neighborhood nannies intent on preventing the establishment from opening, entrepreneur Batista has agreed to revise the licensing application to initially restrict the business to a 5 p.m. opening on weekdays and defer a request for early evening outdoor patio service.

This outsized power wielded by chronic complainers confounds area residents desiring an enhanced streetscape and limits the potential success of the enterprise. Batista could also be forced to sign a notoriously inappropriately named “Voluntary Agreement” including further operating constraints.

It is long overdue for the District to reform its overly cumbersome and unnecessarily contentious liquor license labyrinth thwarting economic development and community amenities adding vibrancy and vitality to urban neighborhoods. Fairness and common sense require that the inordinate ability of so few to dictate regulatory policy and city landscapes should end.

I’m willing to bet a craft beer at All Souls Bar — if and when it finally opens — that elected city officials lack the courage to make that happen.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at [email protected].

  • The bigger question is why the pro-progress crowd in Shaw hasn’t done more to make its support for the establishment clear.

  • I would love to see a modification to the “voluntary agreements” where by each thing agreed to was given a monetary value / penalty cost, and that those proposing the agreement had to pay the value / cost of each agreement monthly to the business owner.

  • This is just the latest chapter in a story that has been going on for years. When I lived in Logan Circle and kept my blog up to date, the inherent ridiculousness of many of these liquor license protests were a frequent subject of debate. Simply, the entire voluntary agreement process needs to be overhauled. I don’t know of a single restauranteur who has objected to reasonable terms stipulated in VAs related to noise, garbage, parking and other quality-of-life issues. But the fact that a mere group of five residents–in a neighborhood home to thousands–can essentially hold hostage a restauranteur via the VA negotiation process needs to end. Nevermind that the overwhelming majority of neighborhood residents may support the restaurant and the granting of a license; practically anyone can derail the process, for practically any reason. There are many guilty parties here, but ultimately I fault ABRA for giving a venue and a voice to what typically amounts to a handful of people who have little other to do than file what frequently amounts to frivolous objections to an alcohol license that the restauranteur otherwise should have a right to obtain.

  • The blame for this absurd VA system lies with the District Council. Reform was attempted in 2003, but the Council would yield only in increasing the minimum number of neighborhood residents required for a “protestant” group from 3 to 5. Big whoopee, that. A mere handful of residents can, all by themselves, hold a restaurant’s liquor license hostage, until the restaurateur gives in to their demands.

    We argued that such ad hoc neighborhood groups should not have VA power, and VAs should instead be administered by ANCs, which are more representative of neighborhoods, which meet in public session, and which are answerable to the voting residents of a neighborhood. Then-Councilmember Sharon Ambrose objected to that, arguing that ANCs represent too large an area, and not just the immediate neighbors of a restaurant.

    It’s an election year, for at-large. Demand that your Councilmember support a serious reform of the VA process, which many people admit is abused. Where do the candidates stand on this issue?

  • Yes, and a small little sit-down pizza resturant called “Manomale” (i think) is trying to open on 12th St NE in Brookland is having the same troubles. Can we plase revitalize this area with small locally-owned businesses. People are screming “no way!” Meanwhile, let’s not talk about the intoxicated people that buy “singles” at all the nearby “quicky marts” and then smash the empty bottles on the sidewalks and throw the can’s in people yards.


  • While I totally support this bar going in, I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. VA’s are helpful as a way for neighbors and businesses to work out agreements that recognizes the rights of both to co-exisit in the same community. While someone mentioned that tons of people from all over the comunity might support another bar, in fact, they don’t have to deal with the noise, trash, or fights that have occurred with some establishments. It is only fitting that those that will be impacted the most (nearby residents) have a greater say than the college students from Georgetown (or College Park).

    Sure, I bet there’s a better way to go about this, but just letting business interests trump those of residents, it is the way to go.

    That being said – I hope All Souls Bar is able to work someing out with it’s Neighbors (DC neighbors that is!)

  • You’re all wrong. This comment that I’m copying from Left for Ledroit says it all as far as I’m concerned:

    I know some of the parents at that school. They are not at all happy about the drug dealers around the block and if they win this battle that may very well be their next fight. For the time being, I think they feel that the city doesn’t really care about them or their kids. The city not only does very little about the drug dealers and other illegal activity that may be happening around their school but is also willing to put a bar which is state-sanctioned adult-only activity right across the street from where their kids spend most of their day. This blog suggests that their neighbors to the south in Ledroit Park don’t care either. But because they are a hardy bunch, as you put it, they will fight the battles they can win and will voice their opinions and their concerns about the community that they call their home.

    Speaking for myself and not the parents, I don’t understand this commitment to ignoring a relatively basic zoning ordinance. The zoning law that prohibits bars and liquor stores from being within 400 feet of a school is in place for good reason. Jurisdictions all over the country have these laws. No doubt they had them in your home town and they were probably enforced there. Yet at 8th and T Streets NW in the District of Columbia we should be ignoring this law because there’s a liquor store that’s already technically within 400 feet of the school. Could it be because the kids at the school are black and brown and we don’t care as much about black and brown kids as we do about bar owners who have a shot of making more money or their relatively wealthy and privileged customers who don’t want to have to walk a few blocks to find a drinking establishment that’s more than 400 feet walking distance from one of DCPS’s very few award-winning, multi-lingual schools? You would be a more responsible neighbor if you were fighting against the illegal activity around the school instead of pushing to allow a bar to be established across the street.

    I’ve been covering this on, where I think my pro-parent bias is pretty clear.

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