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Posted at 2:12 PM ET, 07/19/2010

Knee-jerk liquor license opposition undercuts credibility

By David Alpert

If a sidewalk cafe is open late at night but nobody is around to object, does it make a sound? And should the local ANC just fight the plan anyway on the assumption that someone must mind?

Lydia DePillis reports a particularly contentious liquor license debate from last week's Dupont Circle ANC meeting. P.J. Clarke's wants to open a sidewalk cafe at 16th and K, a corner that's very devoid of street-level activity despite heavy foot and car traffic along two major streets just blocks from the White House.

In most of the neighborhood, alcohol-serving establishments are subject to "voluntary agreements" (VAs) contracts negotiated between neighbors and/or the ANC and the establishments themselves. On 17th Street, for example, where there are many residents across the street from restaurants, the VAs require closing the outdoor areas at 11 pm on weekdays and midnight on weekends.

Commissioner Victor Wexler, whose district includes the area, and Commissioners Jack Jacobson and Will Stephens supported letting Clarke's get its liquor license without restrictions. However, Commissioners Ramon Estrada, Phil Carney, Bhavna Patel and Bob Meehan successfully pushed for a motion protesting the application until a VA can be negotiated. Mike Feldstein abstained and Mike Silverstein recused himself as he is a member of the ABC Board, which reviews VAs and liquor license applications.

VAs are a useful tool for neighborhoods to balance the needs of residents to sleep against the value of having thriving bars and restaurants for residents to patronize. I generally support the use of VAs. However, in this case, the ANC chose to push for a VA out of what seemed more like knee-jerk opposition than reasoned needs.

In particular, there are no residents on this corner and very few anywhere nearby. According to DePillis, Carney (whose district I live in) argued that the hotel patrons across the street need quiet too, but Will Stephens, whose district encompasses the commercial area on 18th Street between S and U, suggested that the hotel patrons might also want a place to eat and drink late at night after a late flight or a long day of meetings.

In fact, one adjacent hotel told Wexler that they actually have soundproof windows because of the existing volume of emergency vehicles on both 16th and K. No hotel asked the ANC to oppose the liquor license application.

The Dupont Current's Katie Pearce wrote recently (enormous PDF) about a shift on the ABC Board under new Chairman Charles Brodsky. Previously, the Board would acecpt and enforce virtually any VA. Now, it seems to be taking a skeptical view of all VAs.

Perhaps some VAs were too restrictive in the past. In some cases, small groups of residents pushed for strict restrictions and restaurant owners felt blackmailed into accepting them. However, many other VAs are entirely appropriate, as the law's one-size-fits-all rules allowing establishments to stay open until 3 am on weekends may be right for some areas but not for others.

When an ANC takes a knee-jerk position against a liquor license with no adjacent residents and no opposition from the adjacent hotels, it potentially weakens the case for VAs more broadly. The Dupont ANC would have more credibility with the ABC Board if it pushed for reasonable restrictions but restrained itself in other cases.

Even the Dupont Circle Conservancy, the neighborhood's historic preservation organization, supported the cafe, which will take up some of the green space along 16th. Some have argued that this green space is "historic," though it's not part of the official description of the 16th Street Historic District. (Disclosure: I am a member of the Conservancy but did not vote on the resolution concerning this property as I had missed the initial presentation by the applicant.)

The Conservancy split the difference to some extent, supporting the cafe as long as it left a substantial green buffer and emphasizing that it didn't want this to set a precedent for every other establishment adjacent to 16th to get a cafe. (Personally, I wouldn't mind if other cafes appeared as well.)

As I wrote in the past, the Conservancy has generally eschewed the "allow no change" view of preservation and instead diligently differentiated between what is estimably historic as opposed to just long-standing. Of course, there's always plenty of room for debate about where to draw that line.

The more neighborhood organizations try to truly balance the issues at hand instead of being absolutist for or against anything, the more effective they are. Just look at the ARTS Overlay committee of ANC 2F, which spent months researching the zoning issues along 14th and U Streets and produced an excellent report which has gained substantial acceptance from the Office of Planning and Zoning Commission.

That's a model other groups should emulate. Instead, Dupont's ANC took a small step backward for VAs everywhere and neighborhood group credibility with their fierce defense of nobody at all.

Continue reading this post by David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington here.

David Alpert is founder and editor of Greater Greater Washington . The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By David Alpert  | July 19, 2010; 2:12 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., Georgetown, HotTopic, Local blog network  
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As I am not a resident of Dupont Circle, I will leave the decision on the merits of P.J. Clarke's application for a liquor license to the Dupont Circle ANC and its residents. However, I will comment and challenge the comments ANCs VAs are "knee-jerk" opposition. In addition, as one who has been interviewed by Ms. Lydia DePillis and whose comments were misrepresented in an article she wrote on a similar liquor license issue in Bloomingdale, I would take pause at Ms. DePillis' recollection of events.

ANCs have a duty not only to respond to citizen protests and opposition to liquor license applications, but also to inform the community as they are sought. The fact none of the adjacent hotels objected to the P.J. Clarke's application does not override the obligation of the Dupont Circle ANC to exercise its due diligence.

Whether or not the application here; should be supported without a voluntary agreement is not for me as an outsider to decide. I offer no comments. However, as a former ANC Commissioner and a resident of the District, I feel ANCs have an appropriate position and duty to stay aware of all liquor license applications and to inform the public.

The knee-jerk reaction here was not on the part of the Dupont Circle ANC, but rather Mr. Alpert.

Robert Vinson Brannum

Posted by: robert158 | July 20, 2010 6:46 AM | Report abuse

You hit the nail on the head, Dave. One could make a similar comparison to the hysterics over the expansion of Hank's Oyster Bar on Q Street NW, just east of 17th Street.

Posted by: matthewrhoades | July 20, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

back under your bridge, mr. brannum! keep your meddling to ward 5, please!

Posted by: onthecontrary | July 20, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

My response to "onthecontrary":

It is quite clear Mr. Alpert's comments reflected an attack on ANCs across the District, not just to this single Dupont Circle ANC. While "onthecontrary" may disagree with my opinion, no rational person could view my comments as "meddling" in the affairs of this Dupont Circle ANC. On the contrary.

Robert Vinson Brannum

Posted by: robert158 | July 20, 2010 11:27 PM | Report abuse

i said - back under your bridge!

Posted by: onthecontrary | July 21, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

i said - back under your bridge!

or are you too busy keeping our neighborhoods in disrepair by preventing big bear cafe from making things better? no wonder you support vincent grey - you wish we were back in the 80s!

poverty pimps unite!

Posted by: onthecontrary | July 21, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

My last response to "onthecontrary"

I will resist the temptation to hold you down at your level of discomfort. Your basis of attack to me shows you are misinformed and refuse to get your facts correct. If you had the opportunity to ask you would have learned on behalf of the Bloomingdale Civic Association, of which I am president, wrote a letter to ANC5C in support of the Big Bear Cafe application. If you had taken the time to ask, you would have learned Mr. Stuart Davenport has thanked me for supporting his license application to ANC5C. If you had paused for just one moment and asked you would know you were and are incorrect.

Regardless of the names you call me and how often and loudly you voice them will not make them truths. It is unfortunate you seek not to learn or have decided to ignore my community anti-crime involvement and strong support for MPD.

You clearly do not know what I have done over a lifetime to fight crime, build bridges, clean neighborhoods, and to uplift the lives of young people.

The passion around the the Big Bear Cafe license application has evoked great emotion, as evidenced by the words you used against me. However, I will not go to the negative place where you are to continue in this internet conversation. At a time in the future when you walk into the sunlight; hopefully, you will realize how wrong your comments are of me and the other members of ANC5C.

I wish you peace.

Robert Vinson Brannum

Posted by: robert158 | July 21, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

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