An Unexpected Journey to Supporting the Moratorium

After years of discussion, and now months of official debate, the U Street liquor moratorium’s fate rests with the DC Alcohol Beverage Control Board, or ABC. This Wednesday, the Board heard public testimony – the last it will hear – on the matter, and will render a decision in the coming months. What that decision will be isn’t at all certain – David McAuley at Borderstan tried reading a few selected tea leaves – nor is it all or nothing. By statute, they can accept it as is, reject it entirely, or modify it to include geographic or establishment carve outs. It is in their hands.

“Clearly you’ve reached the threshold,” several board members told the multiple panels of proponents, but then went on to question supporters about the possible negative effects of the moratorium, and opponents about possible blind spots as to the throngs of liquor-fueled revelers every Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Of the seven board members, four were in attendance, but only two took the opportunity to question witnesses.

For supporters and opponents alike, the moratorium is an issue that stirs a lot of emotions – hopes, fears, optimism and anger. We’ve written before of the need for everyone in affected zone to make an effort to specifically listen to those they disagree with; to try, even if for a moment, to empathize with their neighbor they disagree with, to stand for a moment in their shoes. We’ve also seen more than enough name-calling and vitriol to last for several years. For those who have genuinely tried to listen and understand, thanks. For those merely interested in hurling invective and bile, you have shown your true colors.

I was a founding member of the SDCA, but soon came to realize that the group was not wholly suited for me and left. It was created in an effort to give residents – specifically, residents – a voice in a neighborhood where the ANC 1B had largely failed to do so. Along the way there have been good works and there have been errors; to the degree that I contributed to either will be judged by others.

Specifically, my partner Craig and I offered to help found the group as a way to get leverage with developers more interested, unsurprisingly so, with their own new buildings and bottom lines than the impacts on neighbors. My personal hope was to create a path to getting to yes; not just saying “NO!” to all developments, but engaging with them to craft and create the best outcomes for all. Our early work on “Wallachzilla” was a high point, demonstrating that development is not all or nothing, but best when everyone is willing to give a little.

As such, I began by thinking discussion of a moratorium was a distraction. Certainly, the idea has floated around living rooms and hearings for years, going back to the start of the real explosion of bars and liquor licenses around 2006 or so. But was this our lift, I wondered? Was this really needed?

Since my partner’s moving to the neighborhood in 1988 – when the ugly Rite Aid was actually a building that one day, with no notice, a developer decided to knock down – U Street has been a place that everyone likes to think they’ve discovered. When little more than Polly’s and Ben’s were open, it was a frontier. When 930 and Black Cat moved in, it was dangerously cool. When State of the Union and Republic Gardens opened, it was a gritty escape. When the Hilton brothers opened The Gibson, it was urban chic. All along the way, everyone who grows up, visits or moves to this special place feels it’s part of who they are and what they want.

So I completely understand that, for many of those new to the neighborhood, they feel as though they’ve discovered something new, an urban playground built and sustained in some small measure by them. And for many of those newer to the hood, a large part of that play is the lively restaurant and bar scene.

As an older (literally and also in a long-time sense) resident, I, too, think this area is special. Is it beyond great that one of the best Japanese restaurants now lives in little more than a row house around the corner? Yup. Is it ideal that we can walk to our vet, our grocery store, or a tailor in just moments? Duh. Is it way awesome that when friends visit, we don’t have to go far to find a cold one? Again, yes.

Yet, there is a but. With an ANC that largely abrogated its responsibilities in working to see that residents were represented amid the explosion of bar stools and $12 dollar martinis, residents became overwhelmed. For those who thought attending the so-called “listening session” was “a waste of time,” as one speaker stated it, imagine attending meetings every night with prospective bar owners and restaurateurs or sub-committee hearings on development and still not having half enough time to address them all.

With closing hour on Thursday, Friday and Saturday (increasingly Sunday as well) imagine your sidewalks spilling over with yelling, screaming, fighting, urinating, trash, traffic and Lord knows what else. Imagine two neighborhoods: one that looks one way in the daytime with little more than fast food (a “daytime dead zone” as someone told the ABC) and one group of faces, and another that looks completely different at night.

As the bar culture has accelerated, those residents most intimately affected by it have been marginalized; in some cases by developers, in others by an inert ANC, and most distressingly, yet others by the new neighbors themselves. “Maybe you should move to the suburbs” goes a cleaned-up comment I and my partner have heard entirely too much. Maybe people should think a little before they open their mouths.

Engaged community members have sincerely offered alternatives to a moratorium to address the problems. More lights, more police, faster response by ABRA, taxi stands, an assertive enforcement of the arts overlay are several that were offered just Wednesday. And these are by and large good ideas: more police? Yes, please. More traffic lights and taxi stands? I’ll take two.

But none of these things will happen anytime soon. In the meantime, the neighborhood is to simply accept more talk, more hearings, more time ticking by month by month, more exhaustion until finally nothing happens…and more and more liquor licenses. It was interesting that on my ABC panel, evenly split between proponents and opponents, none of those opposition voices could say there is the possibility, even theoretically, that there may come a time when possibly there are too many bars and restaurants for the neighborhood.

There are, and we have reached a kind of tipping point in that matter. A few will not be satisfied until every door and shop finds fabulous food and creative cocktails, but I think cooler heads understand that a neighborhood is more than just a playground. It is for everyone: senior citizens, young couples, children, visitors, singles and group homes – everyone.

The changes of even the past three years we intimately feel here, and we are overwhelmed. I don’t like the idea of a moratorium – even though it can last as little as a year and be elegantly nuanced with lots of carve-outs – but I like less the idea of the specialness of this neighborhood, our neighborhood we all share, draining away into a boom-and-bust, only for some mono-culture fueled by liquor.

ABC member Mike Silverstein repeatedly pointed out, “I don’t think you could say U Street is going to hell in a hand basket.” No, Mr. Silverstein, nobody is saying that. Not me, not the proponents, not those who’ve had rocks thrown at their children’s windows by drunks nor those who wake each weekend to find someone has defecated in their yard. (Full disclosure: Mr. Silverstein and my partner Craig are old friends who clearly hold each other in high regard.)

What we are saying is that we are overwhelmed, and there is nothing that can help us catch our breath other than the moratorium. That is our reluctant plea: please help us now before we lose any more of our shared special neighborhood.

For the record, the three community organizations directly affected by the proposed moratorium – the SDCA, the Meridian Hill Neighborhood Association, and the Dupont Circle Citizen’s Association – have all voted to support the moratorium.



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10 responses to “Onward

  1. ” but I like less the idea of the specialness of this neighborhood, our neighborhood we all share, draining away into a boom-and-bust, only for some mono-culture fueled by liquor.”
    I think this is an important statement. Monoculture is bad for the environment, be it farming or streetscapes.

  2. Kathy

    I lived not a few blocks off of U when I moved to DC in 1980. I remember the only time I felt safe walking the streets after midnight were after a massive snow storm that had closed down most of the area. It certainly has changed, and although I only visit now, having moved out of the area a decade ago, I do admire the work that’s been done to make the area more liveable. Just wish it wasn’t now so liveable that people can’t afford to live there anymore.

  3. Pat

    Respectfully, Doug, your pro-moratorium stance has been crystal clear since you first posted on the subject over a year ago.

    In any event, having lived a block behind you for the last two-and-a-half years, I strongly disagree that this neighborhood is a “mono culture.” I haven’t needed a car for virtually any purpose since moving here, and that says it all. I walk to the grocery store. I walk to the bank. I walk to the dry cleaner. I walk to the drug store. I walk to get my hair cut. I walk to the dog park. You name it, I can walk there. I’m betting this wasn’t true 10, 15, or 20 years ago in this neighborhood.

    It is, of course, also true that, in addition to everything else that the neighborhood now offers, it’s also a weekend destination for revelers. But this isn’t anything new; to the contrary, it’s merely a renaissance of what U Street used to be. Before the riots ushered in a decades-long period of crime, decline, and population loss that made it affordable for you to move in, U Street was the epicenter of weekend night life and revelry in this city. Sure, there are offenders who need to be reigned in, but throwing out the baby with the bath water through a moratorium? That makes no sense to me, just as it doesn’t make sense to the vast majority of your non-SDCA member neighbors who did not vote for Dan Wittels as our ANC rep.

    I suspect that an interesting conversation that I had the other day — with a neighbor who’s lived on the 1300 block of T Street for 50 years — sums up pretty well what most of us are thinking. I ran into him at the Whitelaw Market and introduced myself, and here’s what he had to say: “I’ve lived here when it was good, I’ve lived here when it was bad, I’ve lived here when it was real bad, and I’m still living here now that it’s good again.” His only complaint, he added, was parking.

    I’ve since successfully lobbied our ANC rep to get more “no parking” signs put up on our block. Here’s hoping they make a difference.

    • Doug

      Pat – first and foremost, thank you for the civil tone and for sharing your perspectives. Really, the only thing I would disagree with is that I’ve consistently been pro-moratorium. I think a fair reading makes clear I’ve gone back and forth on the matter. Moreover, several licenses I could have protested due to proximity I haven’t, because the owners worked with us to address concerns. I really wish more would do that.
      Yes, this area has been good, it’s been bad, and it’s good again. I just think it very important to not plow everything under new and rapid development without pausing to think whether all of it is good. What was it William F. Buckley said? I guess I occasionally stand athwart development and say “Slow Down!”

  4. RL

    Hooray for a well-written piece. The other side doesn’t want to listen or understand the issues. I feel that the moratorium issue has opened the door to understanding that the businesses shouldn’t solely control what goes on in the neighborhood. Residents have made investments too and noise and nuisances are serious – and can’t be abated. They are present every day. I go to all the new restaurants and am excited about the neighborhood. But there needs to be some control of noise, and other nuisances. The blasts of voices and music from inside the establishments and from outdoor patios late at nite is inexcusable. And before you claim that I need to adjust to city life, let me tell you that the 930 Club is one of the quietest places in the neighborhood. They have the loudest music and they don’t bother the neighbors. Also Duffy’s can’t be heard all over the neighborhood because its patrons make noise inside the bar — but American Ice makes a bad neighbor with screaming and screeching from their patio until 3AM on weekends. Why does the Islander get to blast speakers outdoors until late at nite? Why do these businesses get to determine the extent of the noise – and the neighbors get put down for wanting a discussion on this? The City Council has failed the residents and there isn’t much relief. I don’t want to move. I want responsible businesses and neighbors cooperating together.

  5. dcvoterboy

    You fail to mention that every ANC affected by the proposed moratorium voted against the moratorium, and the U Street Neighborhood Association which has been around since the late 80’s choose to not support the proposed moratorium either.

    Curious to know if there is any reason you chose to not get involved with the u street neighborhood association — a community organization with over 20 years of neighborhood advocacy, great work, and much more inclusive boundaries of the greater u street / 14th street neighborhood and has been a great voice of residents over the years — and start/found a neighborhood association of only 6 square blocks — one that in turn proposed a moratorium that is actually centered outside of its own organizational boundaries (at least according to the map on the membership form…

    • Doug

      VoterBoy – as to the ANCs, yes, that’s correct. However, each ANC is a large area – meaning that those potentially far away were given equal voice with those immediately impacted by the explosion of licenses. Does anyone think Georgetown should be able to vote on Adams Morgan’s moratorium? Of course not. The farther one is from the moratorium area, the less voice they should have; that’s just a principle of local self-rule. I also don’t think I mentioned that Jim Graham has spoken in favor of the moratorium, although perhaps I did. What’s clear there’s a lot of differing opinions, and this isn’t just coming from the SDCA.
      As to USNA, I actually am a member there, and they do a good job for what they are. The SDCA, which I agreed to help launch, aimed at something very different. Like the Winchester NA, for example, it was to be for residents only – not businesses – and only for a very small area, to focus on hyper-local matters. Like I’ve said here before, I’m of mixed mind about the wisdom of forming the SDCA, but it’s now here (I’m no longer a member) and it needs to make its case on its own.
      The centering of the moratorium is a tired issue, mostly having to do with the arcane DC rules of such matters, but I suspect you really know that.
      One last note: a vote against by a political body doesn’t mean a proposal is bad, or wrong. Example #1: same-sex marriage. Some battles are worth fighting.
      Thanks for writing.

    • Actually

      The U Street Neighborhood Association did not take a vote on whether to support or to oppose the moratorium. Thus they have no position. To state that they “choose to not support” the moratorium is incorrect.

  6. Kevin

    Wonderfully written piece. I’ve lived and worked here for 20-something years and agree with all of your points in support of the liquor license moratorium. I’ve gone to many DC bars and clubs in my lifetime, but the U Street tipping point has come and gone. The noise, violence, trash, competition for parking with non-residents, graffiti and general disregard for residents in favor of tax revenue is just sad. I don’t even go outside on the weekends because it’s too obnoxious to watch people urinate and fight and drop trash anywhere they please. Clearly they’re not part of the neighborhood and don’t care about anyone who lives here. We’ve got many more apartments and condos on the way this year. We need more businesses to cater to their varied interests other than drinking and drugs. Allowing more bars to set up shop will continue to lessen the quality of life for residents whether the price per sq ft goes up or not.

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