Who Fought J.R.'s? A Bar's Sidewalk Cafe Plans Split Dupont Circle

They're only 15 seats, and no one has sat in them yet, but they've caused a major rift in Dupont Circle. The first skirmish went to supporters of the tables and chairs, which would be on public space in front of J.R.'s Bar and Grill, a gay bar at 17th and Church Streets NW that is currently not licensed for a sidewalk cafe.

At its June 14 meeting, the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) voted 4-2 to recommend that the city's Public Space Committee (PSC) give J.R.'s permission to operate the sidewalk tables. At the PSC's Aug. 23 meeting, however, the permit's adversaries—including ANC Commissioner Kyle Pitsor—successfully challenged some of the contentions of the pro-J.R.'s commissioners. They also accused the ANC of violating “due process” in the June vote.

A sidewalk-use permit for J.R.'s, which opened in 1986, has been controversial since it was first proposed. Last year, the ANC voted not to recommend such a permit, and the PSC took that advice. Since then, however, the ANC membership has changed. At the PSC meeting, ANC Chairman Henry Fernandez said that the new ANC is “more diverse.”

At the time of the June 14 vote, the ANC was composed of seven white males, the majority of them gay. (One commissioner has since resigned.) But the ANC that rejected J.R.'s' cafe tables by a 5-2 vote in 1994 was also a majority-gay commission.

Fernandez explains that his reference to diversity reflects the new ANC's ideological breadth. Though Fernandez calls himself “the only Latino elected official in the city,” he says that the crucial difference is that the new ANC is more pro-business and anti-government. Several of the new members, he notes, are “libertarians.”

“It could almost be seen as a gay versus straight issue,” says Fernandez, who says the conflict could also be characterized as one pitting the ANC against the Dupont Circle Citizens' Association, or the citizens' association against local businesses. Marilyn Groves, the president of the citizens' association, testified against JR's at the PSC hearing, and Pitsor is a former president of the group.

The J.R.'s dispute echoes a previous battle over the Circle, a gay-oriented establishment near Connecticut Avenue and R Street NW that fought for (and eventually won) regulatory approval. Some saw that controversy as a gay vs. straight struggle, but opponents insisted they objected to the proposed club's size and potential for increasing neighborhood noise levels.

Before the PSC, J.R.'s general manager Eric Little admitted that the bar has created noise problems, but he said that noise was no longer an issue. Residents of nearby buildings disagreed, citing studies that indicate that the bar—without outside tables—is as noisy or noisier than those on the strip that do have sidewalk space.

J.R.'s proposed outside tables would be governed by a voluntary agreement—negotiated by Fernandez—that would limit operating hours and require that patrons order food between 7 and 9 p.m. Opponents of the plan argue that J.R.'s has not kept its promises in the past.

Resident Chuck Jones complained that after the PSC refused J.R.'s' public-space permit and ordered the bar to remove the awning and railing it had erected in public space, J.R.'s ignored the directive.

“They came into this neighborhood saying they'd be a Texas-style barbecue restaurant,” Jones added. “They've haven't served one rib yet!”

Food is an essential issue in the case of J.R.'s, which despite the “grill” part of its name is not a restaurant. The establishment is one of the relative few in the city that has a tavern rather than a restaurant license, meaning that it's not required to serve food. Few taverns have sidewalk cafe licenses, and some J.R.'s opponents contend that public-space permits for taverns are in fact not allowed by law. J.R.'s would be the first in a residential neighborhood.

At the June ANC meeting, Commissioner Brad Haransky cited Larry's Lounge, a tavern with a sidewalk cafe at 18th and T Streets NW, as a precedent for J.R.'s. Haransky, a J.R.'s supporter who lives near Larry's, impatiently insisted that neighborhood residents opposing J.R.'s outdoor expansion didn't understand the example of Larry's.

At the PSC meeting, however, Groves testified that she had investigated the examples of taverns with public-space permits cited by Haransky and Fernandez. Larry's Lounge, according to her search of PSC records, doesn't have a public-space permit; the permit was issued to Straits of Malaya, an affiliated restaurant adjacent to the bar.

Later at that hearing, Haransky admitted that he didn't know if Larry's was an example of a tavern with a public-space permit. Then he shifted to an attack on “a very mean-spirited position being taken by the residents.”

There's plenty of indignation on both sides of the issue. J.R.'s' opponents charge that ANC chairmen shouldn't be negotiating voluntary agreements with businesses, and that the ANC shouldn't have voted on the permit proposal on June 14. That meeting was two weeks before the application was referred to the commission for comment, they note, and one at which Pitsor, who represents constituents across the street from J.R.'s, had announced several months in advance that he would be unable to attend. (Erik Wemple, who represents the district that contains J.R.'s, attempted to postpone the vote and then voted against the application.)

“I originally opposed the application,” says Fernandez. “I do understand that the issue was very divisive in the past.” The ANC chairman decided to negotiate a compromise, he explains, after Wemple and Pitsor “declined to mediate this problem.”

At his urging, Fernandez says, J.R.'s postponed its application for several months. After the agreement was reached in May, the next meeting was June 14. “It was not fair to ask them to wait any longer,” he says.

“There appeared to be no reason to hurry the vote on June 14th,” counters Pitsor. “It was most appropriate to follow the accepted procedure.”

Noting that the ANC did have a copy of the application—provided by the applicant—when it voted, Fernandez says that “the ANC can take on any issue. It's legal to do so.”

Fernandez has sent letters to Pitsor and to the PSC, writing that he is “extremely disappointed” that Pitsor testified contrary to the ANC vote. “It is inappropriate for you to testify before the Public Space Committee in order to compensate for letting your constituents down through your absence at the ANC meeting,” Fernandez's letter to Pitsor chides.

Fernandez's rebuke is “off the mark,” Pitsor says. “I find it troubling...that dissent is not tolerated.”

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