D.C. Official: Outdoor Seats At Pizza Place Will Mean Rapes And Murders
When a Washington neighborhood commissioner staged a nighttime surveillance of a Northwest pizza place and put the resulting video up on YouTube to prove what a threat to public safety an outdoor ping-pong table posed, the image of a ping-pong ball rolling out onto Connecticut Avenue was chilling enough.
But this week, that same commissioner, Frank Winstead, ratcheted up the scare rhetoric in a big way: At a meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3F Monday night, in front of the largest crowd in the ANC's history, Winstead accused the owner of Comet Ping Pong of seeking to turn this quiet stretch of Connecticut Avenue in Forest Hills into a haven for rape and murder.
The crowd of about 100 residents--mainly fans of the pizza place--fell into an uproar and drowned out Winstead following this exchange, which you can hear for yourself on the audio recording of the meeting:
A supporter of Comet addressed the commission, which was considering owner James Alefantis's application to extend his opening hours deeper into the evening, provide musical entertainment inside his restaurant, and add a patio for outdoor seating out front. The woman asked the commissioners why they would want to restrict Comet and other local businesses so that she has to travel 25 blocks away to find a late-night place for food and drink. "Why am I denied the privilege and the pleasure of a venue less than a block and a half away?" the resident asked.
Winstead, who has taken it upon himself to act as the guardian of clear and quiet streets in his section of Northwest Washington, replied: "Safety. James is trying to turn this into Adams Morgan, with the murders, the rapes...." At this point, the crowd's roar overwhelmed the commissioner's remarks.
But Winstead wasn't done. Twice more during a 45-minute debate on the merits (and technicalities) of allowing a restaurant located on a commercial strip well apart from any residences to serve its loyal customers deep into the night, Winstead took off on Alefantis. He accused the owner of "filling up his fat wallet." Then Winstead started yelling about Alefantis spitting on customers' food. "He's lying, cheating!" the commissioner shouted.
Commission chairman Jane Solomon kept trying to rein in her wayward colleague ("Frank, that's not helpful"), but it was rough sledding for a while.
In the Forest Hills-Tenleytown area, the idea that a restaurant might stay open late, provide entertainment for its customers and--horrors!--even let folks sit outside on a summer's eve is a shocking invasion to some residents. But for once, the District's byzantine form of neighborhood democracy--which heavily favors the tiny group of people who despise any street life, cling to the notion that they live in a suburb, and have nothing better to do than attend ANC meetings--produced a result that reflects the wishes of the great majority who choose to live in the city expressly for the busy street activity Alefantis seeks to foster.
By a 4-3 vote, the commissioners approved everything Comet Ping Pong's owners sought. The eatery, if the city's alcoholic beverage control board agrees, will now be allowed to stay open till 2 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on weekends instead of until midnight. And Comet will be allowed to sponsor musical events as well as put up outdoor seating on the sidewalk where the ping-pong table stood until Winstead asked the D.C. government to have it removed. (Ping-pong tables will remain in the restaurant's large back room.)
"I don't think I've ever seen that much support for any establishment before," says Mital Gandhi, a commissioner who led the push for more lenient rules for Comet. Gandhi says the community made its distaste for Winstead's actions and words quite clear. "The whole crowd was just booing this guy. They were all disgusted."
Under the new agreement, the ANC has given Comet the leeway it needs to serve its customers and make a profit, and has made certain that neighbors are protected by getting Comet to hire a security person to assure that those leaving the restaurant late at night are quiet. "There is a balance with everything," Gandhi says. "I'm happy we found it with Comet."
Opponents of the new rules for Comet accused the restaurant of breaking its current restrictions by hosting bands before getting city permission to do so. And commissioner Cathy Wiss--who said she supported expanding Comet's hours because her younger neighbors want to be able to eat and drink at a place that's open late--nonetheless fretted that letting Comet stay open could "disturb the peace. We have gangs of American University students that walk down the middle of my street at 2 a.m. Fridays, Saturdays, yelling, screaming, singing, and my sense is that they've been out drinking somewhere," she said.
The trials and tribulations of life in leafy upper Northwest simply never cease to amaze--imagine, college students singing on their way home late at night. Could there be another community in the nation wracked with such problems? A ping-pong table on a sidewalk, a pizzeria that wants to put up outdoor seating, and of course, all those murders and rapes that naturally follow if people are permitted to dine after midnight. Surely there must be some solution to these urban ills.
I'm thinking, you know, checkpoints or something like that.
By Marc Fisher |
June 18, 2008; 7:25 AM ET
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