Business popularity poses unique challenges, but nothing like obstacles to conducting commerce in D.C. One innovative local enterprise faces the burden of both.
That’s what Ilya Alter and Dmitri Chekaldin, co-owners of third-season Dacha Beer Garden and chef-enhanced eatery in the developing Shaw neighborhood of Northwest Washington, have discovered. Alter often hears comparisons between the Soviet bureaucracy of his and Chekaldin’s childhood and the byzantine and bewildering business licensing process in the District.
Most of the eye-rolling in the neighborhood, however, is due the endless loop of regulatory hurdles the duo have faced battling a cadre of cranks opposing emerging amenities welcomed by the many. It’s the local lore for which the city has become notorious and perplexes Shaw residents who have witnessed neighborhood vitality diminished elsewhere by similar obstinacy.
Since transforming a paved-over chain-link fenced vacant lot eyesore known for drug dealing by opening an attractive and inviting summer garden space in September 2013 at the corner of 7th and Q streets, the two learned doing business in D.C. isn’t easy or encouraged. They fended off skepticism from wary observers who thought the still-shabby Shaw area a tough spot for success.
What surprised them was immediate neighborhood patronage beginning opening day. The outpouring of community support wasn’t prompted by advertising, Alter recalls, noting the initial lack of even a website. Now they have an online petition to counter the few, but vocal, objectors complaining about the venue’s popularity and what they argue is “all about the ‘N’ word: noise.”
The problem for license protesters, besides being outside mainstream opinion, is Dacha has never been cited for violating the city’s low-threshold noise ordinance. Sound engineers who have surveyed the site and adjacent alley also found full compliance.
Dacha has, however, been cited for having too many customers comfortably ensconced within the decorative wrought-iron fencing and garden plantings of the commercially zoned corner lot.
That is what most upsets advisory neighborhood rep Alex Padro, who opposes the venue’s application to update total seated-and-standing capacity based on the higher allotment of an upwardly revised permanent certificate of occupancy. The owners also plan investing $2 million to construct an adjoining three-level building for a full-service restaurant, also increasing occupancy.
Alter and Chekaldin, MBA graduates in corporate jobs, decided to “think outside the box” in contributing a community asset and creating new careers. That required the same of city agencies, as the then-novel operating model wasn’t an option to check on government forms.
Classifying the concept and determining initial space-based usage took months of discussions with city agencies and proved difficult from the get-go. Now a mind-numbing serial-issued array of both differing occupancy and licensing numbers is a point of contention with a small “citizens group” and advisory neighborhood commissioners in ANC sector 6E.
They have targeted a business that waived standard operating hours when applying for a liquor license to alleviate nighttime noise concerns. Open only until 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, no music or amplified sound is offered. Yet what Alter characterizes as a handful mostly a city block away claim unacceptable conversational noise.
Padro, spearheading the fight, complains about daytime noise on weekend afternoons. Residents either scratch or shake their heads.
Dacha supporters live nearby, even across the street, and hundreds of Shaw residents have petitioned for greater allowed occupancy. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board will consider the application this summer – along with an ANC protest if they back Padro, and the protesting citizens association.
D.C. residents clamor for roof-deck bars, sidewalk patios and outdoor venues that fill up as quickly as hospitality businesses create them. Demand for outdoor spaces to socialize soars in a densely populated urban environment.
Instead of allowing licensing revisions to languish for months or be rejected due only objection by a few, city officials should streamline the process and consider prevailing opinion.
So far, D.C. has failed to do both.