Young and Hungry

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-foot radius* 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.

* * *

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-foot radius, not an 18,000-foot area.

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Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Matt Raymond (ANC 2F)

    Good post; thanks for writing it.

    I'm happy to report that ANC 2F (Logan Circle) voted unanimously tonight (7-0) for a resolution opposing the moratorium:

    The ABC Board needs to make quick work of this after its May 22 hearing, but then the discussion needs to shift. The moratorium proponents I have spoken with, including Ms. Sterling, seem to be very honorable and well-meaning people--not the caricatures some would make them out to be.

    I understand their frustrations and how they feel their options have been limited, and many of the problems they cite in the petition are indeed legitimate. (Others, however, are less so, and in any event, ANC 2F spoke with one voice to say a moratorium is the wrong answer.)

    We need to harness the energy that has been unleashed, the "silent majority" written about above, and pursue solutions to any bona fide problems, short of a moratorium. (For instance, forming a Business Improvement District like there is downtown, in Georgetown, in the Golden Triangle and elsewhere is something that deserves a serious look.)

    Matt Raymond
    Chairman, ANC 2F

  • tntdc

    Sidwell does no service with a one-sided story omitting crucial details. I don't support a moratorium but understand it's a more nuanced than Sidwell can understand.

    Chief Lanier has testified that when bars go over a certain number in a block her resources are strained. 25 of the new 50 police will be assigned to help control the U Street bar area. There have been murders at these bars almost weekly for a while now. The bars need to help cover these costs.

    Bars and usually restaurants are closed during the day and the result is a very dead streetlife during the day, often with rolled shutters over the fronts. It's not unreasonable to seek a vibrant daytime life in these areas. At present are are already many more liquor licenses in this area than in Adams-Morgan and we know how that's worked out. If anything, one could wonder if the pro-bar crowd is seeking "nothing but bars" instead of any mixture.

    Most of the problem comes from DC's total failure to effectively license bars and actual restaurants differently. There's very little resistance to actual restaurants but increasingly since the money from liquor sales is so much greater than from food, restaurants gravitate toward more liquor and less food until it's really hard to tell any difference between what were originally restaurants and bars. There never will be effective enforcement of the difference in licenses because ABRA is a perfect example of regulatory capture (as most DC regulatory agencies sadly are.)

    There's currently a limit of 50% of each block face for liquor licenses in this area. It was recently raised from 30% for the area. The 50% is about to be reached in almost every affected block. Forget a moratorium, will this limit now be raised again to 70%, to 100% of each block?

    And what of the new bars going up on residential streets in the commercially-zoned portions which were formerly small retail? Some of these are new outdoor bars abutting low-density-zoned residences on side streets. This "wrap-around zoning" into residential streets is not even mentioned.

    And the tactics of the nothing-but-bars crowd is appalling. Anyone who mentions that maybe there should be a discussion of maybe having some controls to foster a mixture is immediately tarred as a despicable luddite and retrograde to instill fear in anyone who thinks of expressing opinions counter to the nothing-but-bars party line. T CityPaper published the name and address and workplace of the person who started this moratorium. What was the purpose? To throw bricks through her window? Throw feces on her door? Show up with a noose? The pro-bar crowd gets too vicious with their intimidation of anyone wanting an intelligent discussion.

    I used to go to Adams-Morgan when there were nice restaurants there. I don't anymore because it degenerated into almost nothing but sleazy bars. At least on 14th now, we have a string of nice upscale actual restaurants opening. We'd like to keep them, hope more open in the daytime, and also have a few other service businesses. At least on 14th,it would be nice if the slide downward to more profitable, but sleazy, bars didn't occur. That's a legitimate concern but can't be discussed openly because of the viciousness of the nothing-but-bars crowd.

    There's no service in one-sided reporting either. And that's from someone opposed to a moratorium.

  • Citizen

    Moratoriums have proven incredibly divisive in the neighborhoods where they have been imposed. The Dupont Circle community was torn apart and has never recovered from the battle royale over that moratorium. They got their wish, 17th Street did not become Adams Morgan but it killed the business dynamic and these days you could bowl in 17th Street on a Friday night.

    All this because a spoiled, pushy, sociopathis woman bought a house on the corner of 17th and Q and then discovered it was noisy on the weekends. Hell hath no fury like a rich broad trying to avoid admitting to making a mistake. She maneuvered, she manipulated, she lied, she and her cohorts infiltrated everywhere and in the end she got her will done. Oh, then she moved leaving the earth scorched and the boulevard a wasteland, but she got her way. Oh, and then she died but her legacy lives on in a blighted community.

  • SG-DC

    Maybe this is a dumb question, but isn't there a solution in the space between unlimited new alcohol licenses and a moratorium? Why does it have to be one or the other?

  • tntdc

    Charming. Sidman refuses to publish my comment trying to lay out a balanced view of both sides but then immediately publishes one referring to Marilyn Groves, the recently-deceased former president of DCCA as a rich broad who was sociopathic, pushy and a liar.

    Does no one with an IQ north of 100 still work at CityPaper?

  • Jessica Sidman

    @tntdc Your comment went straight to the spam filter, so I had to take it out. We don't censor comments.

  • Jessica Sidman

    Also, for anyone interested, I wrote a story back in October about how restaurants decide when it's worth opening for lunch:

    The tides are definitely changing on the 14th Street corridor when it comes to being a lunch destination. Since that story was published, Matchbox and The Pig have started offering lunch. Le Diplomate, Ted's Bulletin, and Bar di Bari will all be open from breakfast when they open later this year. Once there's a critical mass, I imagine many more will follow.

  • Left for LeDroit

    @tntdc Ironic that you say,

    I don't support a moratorium but understand it's a more nuanced than Sidwell can understand.

    But then you add the outrageously incorrect assertion that

    There have been murders at these bars almost weekly for a while now. The bars need to help cover these costs.

    You say there's a homicide every week at U Street bars? Can you show us the data to back that up? Where's your alleged "nuance"?

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  • tntdc

    The recent series of murders and shootings at the U Street bars has been been reported in the main stream press and so has Chief Lanier's testimony. A moratorium would not solve this but it needs to be mentioned and considered by any story on the issue. Ignoring the issue for good PR is irresponsible.

    A general moratorium is a blunt instrument that doesn't solve a lot of problems but there are alternatives. Personally I think that a moratorium on more than a certain number of new nightclub and tavern liquor licenses while allowing unlimited new restaurant liquor licenses makes more sense.

    But ABRA also needs to better enforce the restaurant license requirements. Otherwise you get caught in the downward spiral Adams-Morgan experienced with first nice restaurants which turned into nice bars and then turned into no-so-nice bars. It's great to be the current "in" spot but it's also nice when an area loses that distinction to maintain the level of niceness it obtained.

  • Citizen

    @Left for LeDroit

    tntdc belies an "opposed to a moratorium" stance by continuing to spread and expand the lies and half truths
    this Wallach Street crowd has hobbled together to support their thinly veiled attempt to impose their will on the community at large. I was at the listening session when that clown asserted that those opposing the moratorium were waging a "jihad". This is the level of their discourse.

    Make no mistake the Dupont moratorium bunch are all over this effort. Look for the yahoo waving the "ANC 2B Chairman Emeritus" business cards if you don't believe me. Just because she is now dead does not mean that Groves was not a sociopath, she had no sense of right and wrong when imposing her agenda on the community. She pushed her way into a leadership position through hook or by crook (almost destroying DCCA in the process) and when she had obtained her solely selfish objective she moved on. She lied with an alacrity that would make Dick Cheney, Rummie, Condi, and Karen Hughes jealous. Her dying did not make her a nice person and it did not undo the damage she had wrought in this community.

    Interesting tntdc inadvertently exposes its true colors and shows its hand in the subsequent post. While not supporting this moratorium, which is now sure to go down in flames, the door is left open for a new and improved moratorium. This was a tactic of the Dupont moratorium crowd too. They would simply wear you down.

    Its too bad they haven't spent their energy building a responsive, tactile, effective process for weighing in on the number and quality of licensed establishments such as exists in Logan Circle ANC 2F. That would have required real work and involvement on the part of many and how much more fun it is for the "anti jihadists" to wield a cudgel.

  • Left for LeDroit


    I'm still having trouble verifying your claim about weekly homicides on U Street. I'm looking at MPD's own Crime Map to search for homicides with 1,500 feet of the 1400 U St, 1300 U St, 1200 U St, and 1000 U St. The only homicide that comes up in the past year is on 9th St.

    The crime map says they have mapped 99.08% of reported crimes, but maybe they're wrong or maybe these "weekly homicides" you allege are part of that unmapped 0.92%. Help me understand, since you claim such a nuanced understanding of this matter.

  • Mrs. D

    I would show up at someone's door with a noose, but I'm too busy getting drunk...

  • Guest

    Sterling seems to not even know her own neighborhood at all.

    "She called for more retail diversity: grocery stores, hardware stores, movie theaters, galleries, Urban Outfitters, an Apple store."

    Grocery: Trader Joe's is coming
    Hardware: There's on on P St. and another near 12th & Fla.
    Theaters: The Lincoln on U. And a movie theater's coming in the new complex near 9th and V.
    Galleries: Are you kidding me? Walk down 14th south of T. There's a ton!
    UO and Apple: Go to Georgetown. Seriously. (But really - they already have a couple locations each in the city - how much can they saturate the market?)

  • Guest

    Oh also, don't frontage limitations already solve this problem? There was an article somewhere a few months ago that the owners of that clothing store on 14th btwn U and V (I think it's called Mila) wanted to sell, but everyone who wanted to buy wanted a restaurant there, and the frontage is maxed out w/ the Hilton places and Busboys. Good example of how it's already working itself out.

  • Guest

    @Left for LeDroit Thank you SO MUCH for calling out the murder/crime claims. It's so ridiculous.

    Ironically, the most dangerous block in the area is R St. between 14th and 15th, which tntdc (who is clearly a SDCA member) probably considers a lovely quiet little block.

  • bryandc

    Certainly worth not overlooking is the nearly 1,200 signatures on the petition in opposition to this proposed moratorium, which shows even 82% of signatures are from the neighborhood of the proposed moratorium or close by, and 94% of all signatures are from DC residents.

    You can read the petition and sign here >>

  • Citizen

    Please note that tntdc has disappeared now that someone is calling out the lies and drummed up statistics. This is one of their tactics learned at the knee of " the recently-deceased former president of DCCA". Live to lie another day!

  • Economist

    Economist point of view:

    Restricting entry into liquor sales creates economic rents. Business owners will engage in wasteful behavior to capture those rents. Supply and quality will go down.

    If we did feel compelled to impose a moratorium, then licenses should be auctioned off, with proceeds going to a fund that pays for negative externalities of the bars (need for extra policing, trash pickup, street vomit cleaning, etc.)

  • Confused

    Maybe I'm not understanding something. If Joan Sterling and her group think U St. is become over populated with bars and restaurants and will like to see other business come into the neighborhood why don't they focus their energy on pouching those business to come to the neighborhood instead of trying to kill a vibrant community that has helped build this area. No one is stopping grocery stores, hardware stores, movie theaters, galleries, Urban Outfitters, or Apple from opening up stores in the area so why are they trying to stop others who are? And by the way who the hell wants an Urban Outfitters or Apple store on U St.? Move to Georgetown or Chinatown if that is what you are looking for.

  • James

    keep in mind, this neighborhood is already subject to the ARTS Overlay district, which mandates that no more than 50% of the streetscape on a block can be a restaurant or bar; this applies to most of the 14th & U corridors, and has already limited these uses significantly. So this proposed moratorium only adds another layer on top of an existing regulation.

  • Jarih

    U street great because you can go and be what you feel like. Dope, hoes, anything. Bars open till the sun comes up. Need to piss- whip it out right on sidewalk. F..k GTown, let the whitebreads have it. U Street's where its going on.

  • T Street

    Update: thankfully, last night the whole ANC1 voted 10 to 0 to oppose the moratorium.

  • Ugly Betty

    I hope the moratorium passes. I live 2 blocks below U Street and the Saturday and Sunday 3 a.m. noises of drunk people screaming, hooting and hollering as they get in their cars, turn on the music loud in hopes of trying to wake themselves out of their stupor, is ENOUGH. Then there's the trash they leave as they eat 7-11 and Mc D's in their car and then turn the waste out onto the street and flower boxes. These animals from the burbs need to go somewhere else.

  • Liz

    Why don't all these people whining move to a suburbs? I just moved to DC and find the U street area the most raw, invigorating, and diverse area in the city. Every weekend mixed crowds of white, black, Hispanic, and other minorities are interacting through art and music.... this is called DIVERSITY! The last thing this area needs is an Apple Store or Urban Outfitters. The probably just can't easily rest at their 9:00PM bedtime, knowing that the wheels of economic conformism are not churning day and night. MOVE OUT OF THE AREA IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT! LONG LIVE ORIGINALITY!

  • dcvoteboy

    @Ugly Betty: do you know that a moratorium will do absolutely NOTHING to address ANY of the issues in your post? A moratorium does one thing: limits the number of ABC licenses. A moratorium provides no new management tools or ways to manage any quality of life issues that you list above.