ANC Votes Down Liquor License for New Anacostia Restaurant
Anacostia residents who are eagerly anticipating the opening of a new restaurant on the site of the old Uniontown Bar and Grill: Don't hold your breath. The local advisory neighborhood commission voted last night not to support the restaurant's liquor license application, potentially preventing it from opening in June as hoped.
"I am beside myself, and I have been for the last 12 hours," says ANC commissioner Kendall Graham, in whose single-member district the restaurant will be located. Graham was unable to make the meeting last night, and two commissioners say they did not vote in favor of the license because Graham was not present—despite Graham's support for the measure. The vote was two in favor, two against, and one abstention.
Anacostia has sorely lacked sit-down dining options since Uniontown closed last year, months after its owner was convicted for smuggling cocaine. Neighbors have anxiously awaited its replacement and cheered the announcement last month that a new restaurant—then billed as the Cherry Hill Bar and Grill, but now likely to be the Cedar Hill Bar and Grill, a reference to the nearby area that Frederick Douglass called home—would soon be opening.
David Taylor, the attorney for the restaurant's owner, says the lease for the restaurant is contingent on securing a liquor license. The goal is to open in June, and Taylor won't rule out a June opening if the ANC approves the license at its next scheduled meeting on May 7, but he says he's "not confident about [the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration] in terms of speed. It's an agency that has a very big demand and little resources." And he says distributors won't talk to the restaurant until it has a license.
The trouble is that none of the ANC commissioners who declined to vote for the license actually seems to object to it. The ANC chair, Yvonne Moore, says she abstained from the vote out of respect for Graham; if there were a project in her single-member district, she says, she wouldn't want it voted on in her absence. Commissioner Barbara Clark tells me she voted no because she didn't have time to read the restaurant's voluntary agreement (although Graham says it was made available to the commissioners a week before the vote and displayed at the restaurant's Saturday open house) and wanted more information before approving it, although she thinks it's "a good idea." Commissioner Natalie Williams says that although she's "in full support of Anacostia and the economic development of Ward 8," she voted against it because she felt "no sense of urgency" from the restaurant operators and wasn't sure what Graham's position was.
But now that she's been made aware of Graham's support, Williams says she'll try to convene the commission again within the next 15 days to vote again on the measure.
Any delays could threaten the restaurant's ability to open in time for Lumen8Anacostia, the big neighborhood arts festival on June 22 that brings in visitors from all over the city. Graham also worries that it could scare off other potential businesses and restaurants who perceive a hostile ANC. She wants to avoid the kinds of delays that have faced the other big new neighborhood project, the Anacostia Playhouse.
"We don't want to have the same kind of delays that the Playhouse had," Graham says. "There were no valid reasons for the down votes that happened last night. This shouldn't even be an issue."
Update: To be clear, this doesn't doom the ABRA application. Had the ANC voted to support the application, that support would have been given "great weight" by the ABRA board. The ANC has missed that opportunity. Taylor says the restaurant also applied for a "stipulated license," which would allow it to open in June but does require ANC approval, according to ABRA spokesman Bill Hager. Hager says the Notice of Public Hearing for the application has not yet been issued; he expects it to be issued next Friday, April 12. If the ANC gets a motion of approval or disapproval to ABRA before the hearing, it will be considered.
Update II: Graham passes along an email she sent to Moore and Williams before the ANC meeting that she says makes clear that the commissioners were aware of her support for the application:
I just wanted to share this positive feedback in case it comes into question tonight when this new restaurant asks for your support obtaining their licenses...
This is the response I sent them today...
"Thank you, David, for the revised agreement draft. I think Saturday went very well and I heard nothing but support from visitors. It's also a plus that other commissioners also came out and were able to meet the new owners.
Due to unexpected work obligations, I will not able to make it to tonight's meeting. When they start successfully cloning humans, I'll be the first in line!
Thank you again for your great work so far. I don't anticipate any issues tonight getting support for your licenses. The community very much wants Cedar Hill B&G open and operating ASAP."
Photo by Darrow Montgomery