Young and Hungry

Neighborhood Dispute Shuts Part of Hank’s Oyster Bar Patio

Alcoholic Beverage Control investigators forced Hank's Oyster Bar to shut down a portion of its patio without warning Friday evening, pending a review of the termination of the restaurant's voluntary agreement with the neighborhood. The closure came the day before the Capital Pride parade, one of the busiest days of the year for Hank's.

To sum up, the restaurant moved to cancel its voluntary agreement, which restricted its hours and prevented expansion, when it took over the space next door last year. Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B supported the request and the ABC Board approved it, but a small handful of neighbors have since appealed the decision. While that appeal awaits a hearing, Hank's was forced to close the portion of her patio in front of the expanded space. In a press release, Hank's chef/owner Jamie Leeds called the action "unwarranted and unfair."

Leeds also posted this open letter on the restaurant's website:

Dear community member:

I am the chef/owner of Hank’s Oyster Bar, which I opened in 2005. Before opening the restaurant, I applied for an alcoholic beverage license. Although I had already made my name as a chef in Washington, D.C., and had no intention of operating a nightclub, my application was protested by certain individuals living in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. Because, at that time, the ABC Board refused to give me a timely hearing date to contest the protest, I was forced to sign a voluntary agreement, or lose the opportunity to proceed with the project. The voluntary agreement restricted my hours, and prevented me from expanding or otherwise increasing the occupancy of my business.

In 2010, seeing an opportunity to expand my successful business, I requested that the ABC Board terminate my voluntary agreement. The advisory neighborhood commission (ANC 2B) whole-heartedly supported the request. After a hearing, and a finding that termination of the VA would not have an adverse impact on the neighborhood, the Board ordered the VA terminated.

The Board then had a hearing on a request to expand my business to include the building next door, and the public space in front of it, and approved that request.

In the meantime, the few neighbors opposed to me appealed the termination of the VA to the Court of Appeals. The Court has now reversed the ABC Board, finding that not only do we have to show no adverse impact in terminating the VA, but also that we tried to work it out with the protestants by entering into an amended VA, and that we need the VA termination because of changed circumstances.

We have our hearing on these last two issues next Wednesday before the ABC Board. We are confident we will prevail, because we did try to work this out with those opposed to us back when we first sought termination of the VA, but they refused to meet. Also, since the Court of Appeals decision was reached, we offered to address their concerns with a more limited VA, but they insist we cut our outdoor occupancy by 25%, even though there have been no complaints. As for changes in the neighborhood, I am sure they are well known to you. Of course, it could take months for the Board to rule.

Last night, as a result of a complaint by the protesters, we were visited by ABC investigators. We were told we cannot use half of our patio seating area, because of the Court of Appeals decision. This happened before we even have had a hearing before the ABC Board.

If you agree that allowing a small number of individuals to dictate what happens in our community is wrong, please contact ABRA, Ward 2 CM Jack Evans, CM Jim Graham, Chair of the committee that oversees ABC, and Mayor Vincent Gray. Let them know that the ABC Board should be urged to make a decision quickly after next Wednesday’s hearing, reaffirming the termination of our VA. Also let them know that it is time to stop allowing a few residents to dictate what happens in a neighborhood, particularly when the duly elected ANC members feel otherwise. The right of a group of 5 residents to hold up a license application should be eliminated from the law. Otherwise the situation I find myself in will undoubtedly occur again.

Jamie Leeds, Chef/Owner, Hank’s Oyster Bar

Photo by Jessica Sidman

  • Lance

    Glad to see the District is enforcing the rights of the neighbors here who had an agreement with Hank's that it not expand. The press here keeps focusing on how there have been no problems caused by the restaurant. I don't see that as the issue. These neighbors agreed to the then new ABC license for Hank's and did so knowing they were signing away some of their peace and quiet. (I don't care how 'good' a restaurant with outside seating is, it still creates noise for adjoining neighbors.) And they did so with the signed agreement from the restaurant that it wouldn't later expand without their consent. An agreement is an agreement. And the restaurant should be held to its agreement. Had the neighbors instead not been willing to negotiate to begin with, Hank's wouldn't have a liquor license in the first place. I’m glad the immediate neighbors worked with Hank’s to allow it to open, now let’s hope Hank’s comes to realize that while we’re very pro-business in this neighborhood, the element that makes it a neighborhood --- the neighbors themselves ---- must also be considered and respected.

  • HanksNotaThreat

    "signed agreement from the restaurant that it wouldn't later expand " FALSE. The original Voluntary Agreement text at link. It stipulates capacity for the existing licensed space, as all VAs do, but contains not a word prohibiting the owner from seeking to expand. Meanwhile, it appears the protestants, or a leading element of them, *may* have violated the VA themselves. Item 13 says the protestants won't hinder a relaxation of the liquor license moratorium covering 17th Street. Yet, when relaxation was considered (and eventually passed) in '09, the leading Hank's protestants heatedly objected. Additionally, you'll see in the VA silly language which hurts all good-faith attempts at good and reasonable VAs: it actually constricts what may appear on the restaurant's umbrellas. I suppose a high-end Belgian ale name, with corresponding tasteful color coordination, would have sent Dupont into perdition?

  • Lance

    @HNAT, So ... you're saying that they could expand their space ... they just couldn't increase capacaity since that was capped by the agreement. But haven't tables been added? And why would a restauranteur want to increase their rent bill if they can't increase the number of patrons served?

    Btw, that umbrella issue you raised. In historic districts that kind of signage is already prohibited. (Only specific types of signage are allowed per the guidelines issued by the Historic Preservation Office.) Maybe that language in there was simply to make the applicant aware of their responsibility to follow the law.

    Bottom line though is that if the restaurant had problems with what they were agreeing to with the immediate neighbors, why did they sign it?

  • HanksNotaThreat

    Thank you, Lance, for making clear that you support the "Christmas-treeing" of Voluntary Agreements with duplicative language to what already exists in zoning, HPRB and other extant language. It's part of the problem with Hank's protestants, and you've only underlined part of the problem with these "good faith" folks. You fail to address how they themselves violated important provisions of the Voluntary Agreement, secs. 13a and 13b. Meanwhile, you're also suggesting that Hank's should have been prevented from lateral expansion, because that would mean a net increase in customers; that would have left any operator to come into that commercially-zoned (including at the request and support of the Dupont ANC) adjoining space. That's some recipe for caring for the neighbors: an untested operator could come in, with its own separate kitchen and separate trash and other impacts, but let's hinder a tested and truly good operator from expanding into the space. Yeah, I see the logic there. Go have tea with Mallof.

  • Lance

    @HNAT, I don't see anything wrong with problem areas already covered by the law being highlighted in the Voluntary Agreement to ensure they're known about by the applicant. They're are so many regs out there that's it's difficult for operators to know all the laws. When they get recapped in the voluntary agreement, the neighbors are saying 'these are really important to us ... please be sure you follow them'. I don't see how that's a bad thing.

    With regards to that 'commercial' space going to another operator ... First off, that's irrelevant to the voluntary agreement. And what you're suggesting is actually kind of offensive. Are you saying the neighborhood should give preference to businesses already in the neighborhood and not welcome others in who want to try their luck. I.e., create a sort of monopoly ... ? Secondly, that space wasn't commercially zoned prior to the expansion. It was residentially zoned. It got rezoned for this expansion. So your whole point about another operator coming in is moot.

    Who's Mallof?

  • HanksNotaThreat

    Continues to ignore how the Hank's protestants themselves violated two major provisions of the original Voluntary Agreement.

    The point about an unknown operator being able to enter the adjoining then-empty space is anything but "moot." It was zoned commercial, including at the request/support of the Dupont ANC, and therefore could have been entered by another operator, instead of the tested and responsible Hank's -- only with a separate operator, neighbors wouldn't have experienced minimization of external impacts via Hank's sole kitchen, trash handling, etc.

    And if you're hung up on the fact the ANC supported commercial zoning for the adjoining space out of some preference for Hank's, well, I'd call that a good and pragmatic move that minimized impact on neighbors. And I'd call that something that happened in anticipation of relaxing the moratorium -- the same moratorium relaxation that the Hank's protestants pledged, with signatures, in the original VA, to support, despite turning around like a scorpion's tail and opposing.

  • Lance

    @HNAT, Why do you keep asking me whether the Hank's Protestants violated any provisions of the voluntary agreement. I haven't a clue. (I'm not one of these protestants.) And besides that isn't germaine to the issue. Just because you breach one part of an agreement, doesn't give me the right to breach another part of it. It's kind of like '2 wrongs don't make a right'.

  • HanksNotaThreat

    If you "haven't a clue" when the text is at the link above, and everyone in the neighborhood knows Hank's protestants were involved in heatedly opposing the moratorium relaxation -- despite pledging with their signatures to support that relaxation -- all in a case that hinges on the "good faith" of the parties to the VA, then yes, you "haven't a clue."

  • Lance

    @HNAT And if you're hung up on the fact the ANC supported commercial zoning for the adjoining space out of some preference for Hank's, well, I'd call that a good and pragmatic move that minimized impact on neighbors.

    Isn't this a violation of some laws ... if not ethics? That sounds like the 'old DC' where patronage and 'you wash my hand and I'll wash yours' was king. I'd hoped we'd gotten beyond those days.

  • Lance

    I haven't a clue if any of these protestants opposed the relaxing of the moratorium (which incidentally I was in support of. And would have preferred to see its complete doing away with instead of the half-way measure.)

  • HanksNotaThreat

    Lance your active imagination is showing, saying it was somehow a "violation of some laws" for an ANC to support a zoning change, and then to label it as "patronage" when that is defined--inasmuch as civic corruption is concerned--as "the power to make appointments to government jobs especially for political advantage." I'm not sure how this zoning clarification provided anyone on, or connected with, the ANC a city job. As for your claims this was an example of "you wash my hand and I'll wash yours," how exactly did anyone on or connected with the ANC personally benefit from this zoning clarification? Empty teabagger rhetoric, applied to a debate over a simple oyster restaurant. Nice.

  • Lance

    @HNAT, If you didn't mean that the ANC had given special preference to this applicant, then you should have made that clear. What you wrote indicated otherwise. ANCs cannot use their position to reward their friends by giving them preference over others. That is unethical and most likely illegal.

  • Lance

    In any case, as you say it is a debate over 'a simple oyster restaurant', and I'm sure it'll get settled when the parties involved actually sit down at a table and discuss the matter. From what I understand, that's the whole issue here. The applicant never bothered to discuss altering the voluntary agreement with protestants ... or so the protestants claim ... and the DC court which reviewed the appeal apparently agreed since they remanded the case as invalid lacking that required step. If the parties on both sides just both showed some good faith and sat down with each other, I'd bet this would be quickly resolved.

  • HanksNotaThreat

    What you termed "patronage," i.e. the ANC acting in a manner supportive of a wildly popular, and consistently responsible restaurant, backed by a vast majority of the ANC's constituents...I call democracy.

  • Lance

    What I call true democracy is where the rights and obligations of individuals aren't determined by a popular vote but instead by laws and ethics.

  • HanksNotaThreat

    What I call illogical selective outrage is when someone lauds the process for the decisions they like but apply wildly baseless accusations when it decides otherwise.

  • tyh

    the neighbors truly need to get a life. how is hank's oyster bar controversial? it's not, but some bitter residents truly have nothing better to do than prevent progress.

    why would you live in the neighborhood if you have such a problem with a simple expansion? move to Foxhall - its much more peaceful there, but wait, then you all won't be able to attempt to destroy people's successful businesses.

    you mean there are people on 17th street that want to stay up past 11:00 and drink outside? An outrage I say! Lets call the ANC immediately! And file something in court! because we cant figure out what else to do with ourselves.

  • Mario

    Hanks has enough outdoor seating, that's the bottom line. I imagine the only reason Hank's bought the new space was because of it's patio potential.
    Having been around since 2005 like you claim, you should know full well how longtime residents of 17th St and Q St feel about patios. I don't care if you're Michel Richard or Mother Teresa, you will ALWAYS run into opposition when expanding patio space in a mostly residential area. And affiliate yourself as much as you want with 17th St, but you're on Q, and there's hardly any other businesses on that block...for a reason. Quit whining.

  • HanksNotaThreat

    The space next to Hank's had been zoned and used as commercial for many, many years, briefly lapsed, and its commercial standing was restored with support of even the ANC. A restaurant has the right to go into empty commercial space. Quit whining.

    Another licensed establishment nearby, on a side street, brought chaos, multiple visits by DCMPD, multiple citations by ABRA, eventually a full DCMPD raid regarding drug sales, and more, and the Hank's protestors never said boo. Quit whining selectively.

  • Mario

    Hanks has every right on the world to go into an empty space, just not OUTSIDE of it. And that's the sense of entitlement you just can't seem to get over. Buy the whole damn block, but outdoor seating must be limited.
    BTW, drugs on R St = good; oysters on Q = bad.

  • Lance

    @HNAT "The space next to Hank's had been zoned and used as commercial for many, many years, briefly lapsed,"

    I've heard this claim repeated many times. However, this property, up until recently, was always zoned residential. I.e., ever since zoning was established in DC (I think in something like the 30s or 40s), this property was zoned residential. So, for something like the last 70 or 80 years it was residential. Why would you consider that a 'brief lapse'. (And we have no clue as to what it was used for before being zoned ... though I would guess residential since had it been in commercial use at the time zoning was instituted, why would the commercial zone stopped at the building next door ... and not extended one building over ... ? ... Unless it was residential).

  • HanksNotaThreat

    When you write "we have no clue as to what it was used for before being zoned" please speak for yourself. I've lived in this neighborhood for a long time, a very, very long time, and the space was used commercially. It even had commercial facade that was decoratively boarded over. The ANC got it right, the bldg had been commercial for many years in usage, and the building is zoned commercial. That argument is over. It's commercial, period, full stop, point blank. But trying to reopen old wounds seems a habit near 17th now doesn't it.

  • Lance

    @HNAT ... "When you write "we have no clue as to what it was used for before being zoned" please speak for yourself. I've lived in this neighborhood for a long time, a very, very long time, and the space was used commercially.

    Wow .. Given that zoning started in DC in 1920 ... that would make you pretty old if you remember it pre-zoning code.

    Even the current owner (whose family it's been in since the 50s) has never made the claim the he remembered it being used commericially. As he told me 'we mainly rented out the apartments, although occasionally we'd use some of the rooms there to store things from the restaurant.'

  • Progentrification

    Hank's should be allowed to expand, as long as they follow inclusionary zoning and set aside 10% of the expanded patio space so people will have the opportunity to come, sit, and purchase food at below market prices...but then those people won't show up, so the chairs will just sit empty.

  • Big Ant

    You would think the neighborhood would want Hanks to expand and stay but I guess not.

  • Bruce Majors

    "Neighbors" sure is a vague category. Anyone anywhere can smite a successful enterprise out of envy, thereby creating even more unemployment in DC for people without the credentials to be employed as a 'crat.

    I love Hank's but I will only go there when the weather is good and I can bike or walk. I forgo DC dining often because of DC's insane parking and traffic regulations and ticketing and its deliberate and planned parking shortage. Willow, Boulevard Woodgrill, Bethesda Restaurant Row and all the Asian and Latin eateries in NoVa often get my dollar, because I can park safely and cheaply nearby.

    Anyone actually harmed by Hank's, for instance by noise pollution, could simply be compensated financially, after proving that they are actually being harmed, or having some other form of redress (sound proofing, limited hours, tenting, a canopy). Until then, I want reparations from all the DC busybodies whose whining harms my soul. They should all be forced to buy me lunch at Hank's just because they are so heinous to have as fellow citizens and neighbors.

  • Jim

    @ Lance. In commercial real estate, yes. You should, and have every right to, give preference over some to a business with a track record such has Hank's.