U Street NW became ground zero in the war between NIMBYs and new development this spring. A group of neighbors known as the Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance proposed a liquor license moratorium over an 1,800-square-foot radius that included D.C.’s hottest eating and drinking corridor, with more than 100 alcohol-serving establishments. The issue brought out more than 100 people—far more than average—to a public meeting with leaders from the U Street, Logan Circle, and Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.
Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance President Joan Sterling, the first to speak that March evening, argued that the new restaurants and bars had brought parking, noise, and rat problems to the neighborhood and that a moratorium would help. She said it would also help create more retail diversity with hardware stores, movie theaters, galleries, an Urban Outfitters, or an Apple store. Other supporters warned that the U Street corridor could become “the next Adams Morgan,” and one man called the opposing effort a “pro-business jihad.”
But for every person who wanted a cap on booze-serving establishments, six more spoke up against it. “When you come after our bars, we’re really not happy,” said one opponent. A moratorium, people said, would stifle the neighborhood’s vibrancy; residents said they felt safer now that restaurants and bars livened up the streets. Local developers argued that restaurants have only helped lure boutiques, markets, and other desirable retailers.
Moratoriums also drive up the price of existing establishments’ liquor licenses—as high as $100,000. Sheldon Scott, a spokesman for the ESL restaurant group, which owns Marvin, Satellite Room, American Ice Company, and others, said a moratorium could make the group’s liquor licenses worth a small fortune, but he didn’t want the neighborhood turning into an “urban strip mall.” He argued the moratorium would only encourage corporate operations or “turn and burn” bars that bring in big profits with high-volume booze sales.
The U Street, Shaw, Logan Circle, and Dupont Advisory Neighborhood Commissions all eventually voted against the proposed cap. Even Mayor Vince Gray spoke out against it. So perhaps it wasn’t too surprising when, ultimately, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board rejected the proposed liquor license moratorium in October. It was only the second time that a proposed moratorium failed in D.C.
Five neighborhoods still have active moratoria on new liquor licenses: Glover Park, Georgetown, Adams Morgan, Dupont East, and Dupont West. In November, East Dupont’s moratorium was extended, but the cap on restaurants was lifted. Given the growth of the city’s young bargoing population, increased street density, and the activism of restaurant and bar proponents, it’s worth asking: Are moratoriums on the way out?