Last Call: What Would the U Street NW Dining Scene Look Like With a Booze Moratorium?
There wasn’t an empty seat in the Thurgood Marshall Center two weeks ago, as more than 100 people crowded in the gym-turned-public hearing room.
Rarely do neighborhood meetings draw even half as many people. But nothing gets residents riled up like alcohol. The evening’s topic, which had brought together leaders from the U Street, Logan Circle, and Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commissions: a liquor license moratorium around 14th and U streets NW that could potentially change the face of one of D.C.’s hippest and fastest-growing neighborhoods.
Leading the charge for a moratorium is the Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance, whose president Joan Sterling took the mic first to talk about the parking, noise, and rat problems that she says have accompanied a barrage of new restaurants and bars in the past couple of years. She called for more retail diversity: grocery stores, hardware stores, movie theaters, galleries, Urban Outfitters, an Apple store. “These are all businesses that will improve the daytime foot traffic and strengthen the neighborhood more than strip after strip of taverns,” she said.
Other moratorium supporters warned that without intervention to stop nightlife growth, the neighborhood could become “the next Adams Morgan,” and one man attacked the opposing effort as a “pro-business jihad.”
But opponents of the moratorium outnumbered the supporters six to one. They queued up in a line that snaked across the room to make the case that a cap on liquor licenses would kill the neighborhood’s vibrancy and that restaurants and bars have done nothing but improve safety and lure boutiques, markets, and other attractive retailers.
If you just looked at the attendance numbers, the evening looked like a win for those opposed to the proposed booze moratorium. History does not favor them: Only one moratorium proposal has ever failed in D.C., and most of the existing ones are renewed year after year. But given the city’s influx of young people, increased density, and the political involvement of restaurant and bar proponents, you can’t help but wonder: Are moratoriums on the way out?
Banning new liquor licenses near 14th and U would change the epicenter of restaurant development in D.C. The proposed moratorium covers a circular 1,800-square-foot area* encompassing more than 100 alcohol-serving establishments. While they could keep their liquor licenses (and alcohol-selling grocery stores could still come in), no new drinking spots would be able to open unless another one left and sold its license.
Moratorium supporters envision a more diverse retail landscape where small daytime businesses have room to flourish. But opponents say the neighborhood’s restaurant and nightlife scenes would become stale with chain eateries and high-volume bars taking over any liquor licenses that become available. And as for the destination restaurants that remain? Well, it probably won’t be any easier to get a table.
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Five neighborhoods already have active moratoriums on new liquor licenses: Glover Park, Georgetown, Adams Morgan, Dupont East, and Dupont West. The limited licenses in those zones means bar and restaurant owners can get away with selling them for large sums. In Adams Morgan, a liquor license goes for $50,000 to $70,000, says Perry’s and Mintwood Place owner Saied Azali. Georgetown BID CEO Joe Sternlieb says he’s seen people try to sell liquor licenses in his neighborhood for as much as $100,000, but most go for $40,000 to $75,000. In nonmoratorium zones, restaurants and bars don’t buy liquor licenses; they just pay the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration annual licensing fees between about $1,000 and $3,000, depending on their size.
Sheldon Scott, a spokesman for the ESL restaurant group, which owns Hanoi House, Marvin, The Gibson, Satellite Room, and American Ice Company, says a moratorium could make the group’s liquor licenses worth a small fortune. But he is more concerned about the neighborhood turning into an “urban strip mall.”
“The landlords are still going to go to the highest bidders, and the highest bidders won’t be mom-and-pop daytime businesses,” Scott says. “It will be corporate. It will be the McDonald’s and the Subways and the Starbucks that can afford that square footage.” Scott says “turn and burn” bars that bring in big profits with high-volume booze sales can also get away with paying expensive liquor license costs. Given the low profit margins on food, many restaurants cannot.
Among those who wouldn’t be able to afford to open in a moratorium zone: Husband-wife team and first-time restaurateurs David Greene and Rose Previte, who are in the process of opening a restaurant and bar serving international street food called Compass Rose at 1346 T St. NW. “We’re as tiny and as local as we could possibly be,” Previte says. “We could never have gone to a neighborhood with a moratorium in place ... Those are reserved for big-money operations.”
Even some established restaurateurs that already have multiple properties aren’t interested in opening in moratorium zones. Constantine Stavropoulos, who owns Tryst, The Diner, Open City, and The Coupe, says he’d avoid it, and that Tryst and The Diner would not exist in Adams Morgan if the moratorium had gone into effect there before they opened. He says the Adams Morgan moratorium has not stopped bars that neighbors initially had concerns about, but it has prohibited many new sit-down restaurants from coming in.
Michael Hamilton, who started a group called In My Back Yard to promote development and oppose the moratorium, believes the quality of the restaurants and their food would suffer in the long run. “The competitive environment over there is what makes the businesses deliver good results,” he says.
Restaurateurs who might otherwise be interested in opening near U Street may head to Shaw, Bloomingdale, Columbia Heights, or Petworth. Georgetown BID’s Sternlieb says 14th Street NW and H Street NE likely wouldn’t have opened up the way they did if it wasn’t for the moratoriums in Georgetown, Dupont, and elsewhere creating a high barrier of entry for new concepts.
But the Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance is more concerned with making sure their neighborhood isn’t overrun by restaurants and bars. “If we go at the rate we’re going now, there will be little to no street frontages that are not dedicated to eating and drinking establishments,” says Sterling, who contributes beer writing to Brewing News.
Sterling says the moratorium was the last resort for her group. While there may be other ways to incentivize businesses to come in, like tax breaks, she says local residents don’t have power to introduce those, like they do with a moratorium.
While the Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance hopes to bring in mix of daytime retailers, Sterling admits the exact type of businesses isn’t clear. “Well, you know, we don’t know,” Sterling says. “But it’s worth a try ... It’s worth trying to retain some of the businesses that are there. It’s worth trying to bring in more arts-related businesses.”
But according to JBG vice president of development James Nozar, it’s the restaurants and bars that attract desirable retail. Nozar says Trader Joe’s only got serious about coming to the neighborhood after hearing about new nearby restaurants like Matchbox, Ted’s Bulletin, and Doi Moi.
So can the opponents block the moratorium? ABRA will hold a hearing on May 22, taking into account the votes of ANC commissioners and the concerns of other residents. The Shaw ANC has already voted against the moratorium. The Logan Circle, U Street, and Dupont ANCs will vote this week and next.
The only moratorium proposal to ever fail was in 2008, when an ANC commissioner pushed to limit liquor licenses on the 800 to 1500 blocks of Bladensburg Road NE. Neighbors were concerned about loitering and crime around liquor stores, not restaurants. In fact, the moratorium supporters wanted an exception for chains like T.G.I.Fridays, Legal Seafoods, Ruby Tuesdays, and Clyde’s (none of which wound up opening there anyway).
In the past, moratorium advocates have been small but vocal bunches. “It’s always the same group of individuals who know the system, who have the time during the day to attend meetings,” Stavropoulos says. “People wake up the next day and they realize they have a moratorium.”
But moratorium opponents say the city’s demographics are changing and the “silent majority” isn’t so silent anymore. In My Back Yard has amassed about 600 members, nearly 200 of which live in the 20009 ZIP code, to oppose the moratorium. Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance has about 50 members, but Sterling believes that within the boundaries of the proposed moratorium zone, there are more people who’d like to see a limit on liquor licenses than wouldn’t.
But Hamilton argues opponents outnumber supporters 10 or 15 to one, and for a change, they’re fired up and doing something about it. As one resident said at the ANC meeting two weeks ago, “When you come after our bars, we’re really not happy.”
* CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, this post originally misstated the size of the proposed moratorium zone. It encompasses an 1,800 square foot area, not an 18,000 square foot area.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery