August 7, 2013 at 5:21 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
Dupont Circle advisory reps can’t shake the past
17th Street, Dupont Circle, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

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

  • Maybe I'm an oddball, but I moved to an in-town neighborhood so that I could be near the things that in-town neighborhoods offer. I don't see how the moratorium has done the neighborhood any favors.

  • The anti-business, anti-nightlife cranks do not speak for this 30-year resident of the neighborhood. Terminate the moratorium.

  • It surprises me that Mark Lee fails to see the striking similarity between himself and Fred Phelps – “I am 100% right! There is no room for even the slightest deviation from my position! Anybody who does not agree with me 100% is 100% WRONG!”

    Liquor licenses, like alcohol itself, can be great things for a community in *moderation*. Too much of a good thing leaves you with a nasty hangover the next day. Now, I say this as someone who does enjoy going to bars, does not own a bar or any commercial real estate anywhere, and does not even live near a moratorium zone. However, I have to look at the moratoriums in some of the more established neighborhoods and wonder how strong of an impact the 17th Street moratorium had on 14th Street and U Street happening – unable to get a license in a more popular area, entrepreneurs explored nearby areas, with amazing results. And as 14th fills up and becomes less affordable, I know there’s a lot of people over here in Shaw hoping some of that development, with appropriate restrictions, makes its way over to 9th, and then 7th. And it’s not like 17th Street is full of boarded up storefronts, either – every time I’m over there, it’s full of life and people and activity, and thriving businesses. Many, like Annies and JRs, have been there for literally decades. This is hardly a small business killer, or at least if it is, it’s not doing a very good job.

    I think Mark Lee’s pieces give the Blade an overwhelmingly negative and “I’m always a victim and being persecuted!” type of tone. I wish the editors would ask him to post at least two or three pieces a year that were positive. Or, even better, make him write an entire column on some of the benefits of restrictions on licenses (and there are, actually, many, like the spillover of development to other nearby areas that might have otherwise taken years). He comes off in these articles as completely unable to find any sense of balance in these issues, and in his view of life overall, which is sad. His “I am the only one who can be right and anybody who disagrees with me deserves to be bullied and called names” attitude is something the LGBT community is sadly already all too familiar with and something we certainly don’t need any more of in our community paper.

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