Should the Road to the White House be Paved with Sidewalk Cafes?
Quick, think: What's one of the only north-south avenues in northwest D.C. to have no sidewalk cafes at any point along its length? That would be 16th Street, the "road to the White House," mostly populated by churches, grand residences, and institutions of this or that–certainly not sullied by the noshing crowds.
That's set to change with the arrival of P.J. Clarke's, an iconic New York grill, at 1600 K Street. The previous occupant, Olives, tried to get a sidewalk cafe there six years ago, but local organizations resisted on the grounds that it would take away green space on an iconic boulevard.
Because it's in an historic district, the application for a sidewalk cafe has to pass muster with the District Department of Transportation's Public Space Committee and the Historic Preservation Review Board, which takes into account the opinion of the local ANC as well as the Dupont Circle Conservancy. The P.J. Clarke's team has to do the rounds of all of them.
The Dupont Circle Conservancy is willing to give them a chance–but only once. At its meeting this week, the group unanimously passed a resolution that reads, in part:
“We consider green space to be a significant element in this historic district. But this is a one-time opportunity where a sidewalk café might work because there is such a large expanse of green before the building. Therefore, we support the concept with the following caveats: We do not see this as a precedent for sidewalk cafes on 16th Street, given the street’s importance leading to the White House. We strongly request that the area left for grass along the sidewalk be six feet, not two feet, in addition to the surrounding hedges.”
So, not too much skin off P.J. Clarke's back–just anyone else who might try to open a sidewalk cafe on 16th Street later.
Things started out well at the ANC meeting Wednesday night. A smiling P.J. Clarke's executive, flanked by her lawyer, assured commissioners that there would be no rowdy kids (their clientele is more the 35 to 55 year old businessman) and no live entertainment ("just our regular Frank Sinatra").
But the commissioners still found a part of P.J. Clarke's sidewalk cafe to quibble with: Its plan to stay open until 2 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on weeknights. ANC 2B has a policy of keeping outdoor cafes to 11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends, especially in residential areas.
16th and K Streets isn't exactly a residential area. But it is across from a few hotels, and Commissioner Phil Carney raised the concern that there were still people trying to sleep there. Chairman Will Stephens countered that travelers often would rather have a bite to eat after a long day, and that night time commercial activity on the street would make him feel safer. Nevertheless, the ANC voted to protest the license at ABRA subject to the negotiation of a voluntary agreement, which may curtail its hoped-for late night hours.
This probably won't become much more of an issue in the future, considering the paucity of eating establishments on 16th Street. But in principle, would L'Enfant really have minded having an activated streetscape? Would that have marred the dignity of his design? Goodness knows that his native Paris–even the Champs Elysees–has plenty.
Photo of the Champs Elysees in 1972 via flickr user annecyhs.