November 26, 2015 at 4:25 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
Georgetown should surrender, not be held hostage
Georgetown, gay news, Washington Blade

Georgetown (Photo by Daniel Lobo; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

While the village-like historic district has retained its architectural charm, Georgetown has lost its soul.

Once a primary destination for hometown residents, the area had long been a premier shopping, dining and socializing district in D.C. Until advisory neighborhood commissioners and a “citizens group” exerted a combined influence nearly three decades ago to impose artificial marketplace restrictions that would have made Soviet apparatchiks proud.

Of notable irony, the Georgetown liquor license moratorium, the city’s very first among the very few now largely abandoned experiments in arbitrary licensing limits in only a handful of hyper-localized retail areas, went into effect the same year the Berlin Wall came down.

Georgetown became a mere victim of a failed prohibition regime once fancied by bureaucrats. One that savvier neighborhoods of Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan have been slowly shedding, although too timidly, in an attempt to undo the damage done.

All four neighborhoods with the five notorious license bans beginning 15 to 26 years ago experienced a reduction in amenities and an explosion of regret. Both engendered variable loosening of restrictions so minor they failed to revive much business investment interest. Commercially successful areas simply rejected falling for the scheme in the first place, including by overwhelming opposition in the vibrant Logan Circle, Shaw and U Street neighborhoods three years ago.

Georgetown has apparently learned little observing the ineffectualness of lifting only a little of the bans or the benefit of never having made the marketplace mistake.

A decade after the repeatedly renewed moratorium was first imposed in 1989, the Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID) organization was established for the purpose of “protecting and enhancing the accessibility, attractiveness and overall appeal of Georgetown’s commercial district.” In recent years the BID has been loudly sounding alarms that the area has become one of those places you can easily forget even exists and rarely, if ever, feel compelled to patronize.

The group has highlighted eroded economic vitality and crumbling commercial viability of a once bustling retail and restaurant-bar scene.

In September, the Georgetown BID released a white paper on the area’s liquor license restrictions, detailing a litany of market-manipulating effects that have rendered abandoned licenses available by atrophy unattractive and unutilized. The organization’s leadership sought to negotiate a deal to avoid continued opposition to ending the moratorium by the ANC and Citizens Association of Georgetown, both of which will vote this week on an ill-advised “compromise” offered to the recalcitrant groups.

ANC-2E vice chair Bill Starrels recently proclaimed that eliminating the ban would “create chaos.” He is presumably alleging destruction other than what has befallen Georgetown’s flailing retail environment.

Starrels hopes to overrule city law by imposing “cookie-cutter” restrictions allowing only restaurants, not bars, and forcing early closing hours, prohibiting alcohol service after midnight, banning amplified recorded music and other unpopular operating limits. He doesn’t seem to realize the explosion in nighttime enterprise across the city reflects strong community desire for multi-activity and late-night venues offering combinations of dining, drinking, lounging and dancing.

He’s apparently chasing ghosts from a formerly broke-down alcohol-licensing agency for which operators advocated repair to allow for more efficient and fair administration.

Starrels and “fellow-travelers” in state-sanctioned economic planning appear to have coerced a clearly cowered BID into counterproductive diplomacy with denizens. The BID has acceded to demands rendering regulatory reform meaningless and is recommending restrictions on potential licensees so deal-breaking that takers will remain flat-lined.

BID CEO and president Joe Sternlieb’s concessions on no longer advocating a clear moratorium end and endorsing ANC-negotiated bans on essential nightlife activities are shameful. It will only relegate Georgetown to continued commercial decline.

Under those negotiated terms, businesses and residents should simply surrender and refuse being held hostage. At least they wouldn’t advance the false premise city law grants ANCs the ability to superimpose blanket “policies” on permissible activities at dining and drinking establishments.

Better that one neighborhood suffer a self-inflicted demise than bring harm to others.



Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at

  • Mr. Lee was recently named the Executive Director of the DC Nightlife Hospitality Association an organization founded “by owners and operators of local bars, restaurants, nightclubs and entertainment associates. ” As reported in the Blade on 10/31/15, Mr. Lee was engaged to represent the interests of the alcohol-licensed business compromising the “city’s vibrant and growing” night-time community.” Whether you agree or disagree with the point of view Mr. Lee’s has expressed here, the fact that he is a paid spokesperson for DCNHA should have been clearly stated in his bio. He may be a “community business advocate” but that clearly was not the genesis of this op-ed.

    • But Mr. Starrels is a mortgage broker. If M Street businesses fail so more of those buildings are converted to condos, he will profit.

      • The point is that the author of this opinion piece did not disclose the fact that he is part an organization which supports the ideas he’s promoting in his opinion piece. If Mr. Starrels were the writer and had done the same, I’d expect the same standard. It’s standard media practice, in fact.

  • Now that Moslem immigrants are murdering young people in Paris for drinking and dancing in public…does the lack of drinking and dancing make Georgetown a safer place to live?

    • So Bill Starrels is a secret proponent of Sharia Law? I thought he was just a mortgage broker trying to protect his residential clients from commercial noise, even if his means to do so kills M street businesses. Which in itself seems an odd conflict of interest, a mini version of cronyist statism.

  • Can someone please explain how encouraging rowdy drunks to roam the streets at all hours of the night helps retail businesses during the daytime. It would seem to me that turning Georgetown into Adams-Morgan circa 1999 would actually harm daytime businesses, since tripping over half-eaten pizza slices and crushed solo cups really doesn’t make for a pleasant shopping experience. You can be a drinking destination or you can be a shopping destination, but when you try to be both, usually the retail businesses suffer (not to mention the poor souls just trying to sell shoes but having to fend off drunken customers).

  • I agree with everything you’re saying here . . . but I’m quite ashamed in the Blade for printing it in the first place, and more so for printing it without any acknowledgement of your position as a paid shill for the DC Nightlife Hospitality Association.

  • This writing is excruciating.

  • The good news is gay bars are already old news. Everyone is online hooking up these days and smoking crystal meth. So who needs expensive booze and cruisy bars? Come to think of it, heroin is easier to get in DC than a beer. Enjoy, comrades.

© Copyright Brown, Naff, Pitts Omnimedia, Inc. 2019. All rights reserved.