PoP-Ed: “It’s Time to Finally Fix D.C.’s Hospitality Licensing System” by Mark Lee


Photo by PoPville flickr user Eric Spiegel

The following PoP-Ed. was written by Mark Lee, Coordinator, D.C. Hospitality. PoP-Ed. posts may be submitted via email to princeofpetworth(at)gmail please include PoP-Ed. in the subject line.

“The fringe element should be taken out of the process.”

– D.C. Chef/Restaurateur Jamie Leeds, describing 7-year-long battle waged by only 5 liquor license protestors against her popular Hank’s Oyster Bar (The Current Newspapers, July 25, 2012)

Residents all over the city and local area patrons are frustrated by what’s been happening. As neighborhoods grow and residents hope for new social amenities, independent community businesses confront obstinate obstruction by small groups directly intervening in the licensing process. Now is the time to support alcohol licensing reform!

It’s time to end an out-of-balance licensing system that puts limits on dining, drinking and entertainment choices for the many by the few – slowing the city’s forward progress and hurting the local economy!

FORWARD…or…FRINGE? That’s the question facing D.C. Councilmembers beginning next week.

Small and unrepresentative groups continue to hold new and existing D.C. hospitality and nightlife venues hostage. They manipulate the liquor licensing process to coerce community small businesses into special restrictions inconsistent with city operating regulations.

The D.C. Council is currently considering changes to fix the system. They know that repairs to the law are required — but they need to hear from residents and local area patrons urging them to make meaningful reforms that offer real solutions.

A vibrant modern city needs new rules for a fair and transparent process. Reforms that take away the power of ad hoc groups of only 5 people (“Gangs of 5″) and small citizens associations claiming to speak for all. Solutions that stop these groups from causing long licensing delays and huge financial losses so they can impose special operating limits.

Real reforms will repair the system. Fairness will fix the law:

Let all voices be heard. End the unfair license protest powers of small groups and self-proclaimed citizens associations. Use the open forum of the elected Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) for community discussion and any decision to offer an advisory opinion to the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board.

Ensure city law regulates businesses equally citywide. Stop ANCs from creating their own special rules, restrictions and operating limits on their “turf” for hypothetical problems before a business has even opened. Equal enjoyment for all consumers and a level playing field for all businesses is the only common-sense solution.

Give optional licensing agreements a new name. Change so-called “Voluntary” Agreements to “Settlement” Agreements to make clear they are not required for licensing approval and to reflect their intended optional use for resolving real issues.

End lengthy and unnecessary licensing delays. Guarantee that the ABC license process is expedited in a timely manner. Make the steps more efficient and establish statutory timeframes (not just “guidelines”). This will prevent abuse of the system to threaten delays and force unpopular operating restrictions. The law should require a license decision on an orderly and predictable schedule.

It’s time to stop the ability of the few to speak for the majority — the tiny groups abusing the system and forcing unpopular restrictions on community establishments.

Hospitality businesses build neighborhoods, enliven our shared lives, and fuel the local economy. It’s time for all of us to return the favor and tell D.C. Councilmembers and Mayor Gray to finally fix the system and reform the rules.

Fairness supporters are going online at http://DCHospitality.org to add their voices in a grassroots community effort urging reform of hospitality and nightlife licensing regulations!

44 Comment

  • 1. “Let all voices be heard.” Yet, they want to end the voice of these small neighborhood opposition groups. And they want to stop ANC’s from creating their own special rules and restrictions.

    2. “What’s in a name?” Apparently, a lot. See: “Give optional licensing agreements a new name. Change so-called “Voluntary” Agreements to “Settlement” Agreements to make clear they are not required for licensing approval and to reflect their intended optional use for resolving real issues.”

    3. To take the case of Leeds, she has opened how many outposts for Hanks? It seems like she is doing pretty well and kudos to her for that. The only recent business that went by the wayside was that place in CH, I think it was called Commonwealth or something like that.

    4. Sigh.

  • yes, rules, regulations and litigation resulting from small groups of people with axes to grind can be downright ridiculous. Reform is needed.

    However, this approach seems equally ridiculous. “It’s time for all of us to return the favor”. This is an outrageous statement. Might as well get rid of all protections! Yay!

    • Agreed. I thought this was a poorly composed PoP-ed and not a lot of thought went into some of the optics of how they’re portraying themselves.

      That said, I think it’s ridiculous that small ‘hood groups with axes to grind hold up a lot of good business development. The issue is that people who ultimately end up patronizing the business usually aren’t very vocal about supporting it during the planning stages simply because they 1.) don’t even know about it and 2.) don’t have the time to be that invested in community affairs. If it’s the same group of people lodging complaints over and over again, I hope that the city is taking note of this and discounting those opinions. I think that there is a Silent Majority out there who would oppose the actions of the small groups had they even known that they existed.

      • agreed. but that can be true about anything going on the neighbor, state or national capital. Hank’s situation seemed to be fraught with problems regarding how to effectively resolve a dispute (appropriate or not) involving a DC regulatory body and the court system.

    • Yeah, even if the overall point may be well-taken (I’m not familiar enough with the intricacies of the process to form a strong opinion either way), that sentence is kind of off-putting. Hospitality businesses aren’t enlivening our “shared lives” (they could have used an editor to nix the “enliven our shared lives” line, too) out of the charitable goodness of their hearts; they’re doing it to make a living and ideally make a profit. Nothing wrong with that at all…but I hardly think of businesses as doing us customers a “favor” by accepting our money in return for goods and services.

  • I can see that the OP here has never lived next door to a problem establishment.

    Here’s the long and the short of it – there needs to be a balance between the legitimate concerns of the neighborhood and the business owner. A BIG part of this would be helped by establishing zoning requirements for ABRA establishments. Right now, the only type of ABRA establishment with pretty intense scrutiny is nude dancing endorsements. Anything else? Pretty much fair game. Think about that last time you went out to Ibiza or Josephine or (for those of us a bit older…) Velvet in SE (replaced by one of those office buildings by the ballpark now). Did you know that type of club, a CN (nightclub) license, has ZERO restrictions about how far it must be from a residence?

    Now let’s take a minute and think about all the people who read this blog who live next to a grocery store, or a big bookstore, or any other large commercial space (which may have been a very desirable use when they bought their home). Do you want something like Ibiza to move there? Probably not… But guess what? It could, under current law. And that “Group of Five or More” protest option? That is your ONLY way to influence that if the landlord signs the lease and the ANC doesn’t object.

    I agree with the OP that the unrestricted ability to protest may be too broad. People in Brightwood really have no business protesting a bar in Adams Morgan, or vice versa. But to drop it down to 400 feet as proposed, or worse, to kill the voice of residents altogether and force it to go only through ANCs (some of which are awesome, but others of which are horrible) is swinging the pendulum too far in the *other* direction. 1500 feet is more than enough to ensure those who don’t live in the neighborhood don’t interfere, but those who do live there get a voice in what kind of environment they want to live next to.

    Small businesses are great. MOST bars and clubs and restaurants are good fits for the community they operate in, and do their best to be good neighbors and pick up trash, keep things at a reasonable volume, and even offer neighborhood happy hours (one of my favorites on the Hill offers discount drinks one night a week to “loyal locals”). Most. Not all. Unfortunately, the city has shown it is completely incompetent to deal with the bad actors. ABRA violations take OVER A YEAR, on average, to be adjudicated. And it takes dozens of violations to actually produce a penalty severe enough to make a bad actor change his or her ways.

    Lastly, I’ll part on the side of common sense. Everyone loves going to fun new businesses. I know I do. But at the end of the night, most of us go home to somewhere more than 1500 feet away. And not everyone bought a house sandwiched between two nightclubs and then started to complain after they moved in. Many residents in DC bought a home years, decades, or in some cases even generations before the business opened up. I live near a bunch of bars and clubs, and I know many of my neighbors families owned that house before the current business owners were even born.

    I think residents should be given a voice. I think situations like Hank’s are unfortunate. But I think that’s why there is a system in place to deal with it. It’s tragic that we have people who end up in prison for crimes they didn’t commit too. But we don’t say “no DNA, no conviction” for them – we have a *system*, with hearings and a trial and a chance to have both sides heard by an impartial adjudicator. We’ve got the same thing for ABRA. It needs some changes, yes, but silencing citizens should never be part of that change.

    • The solution to this is to create a two-tiered system – one for restaurants & small bars and another for clubs/larger bars with music & dancing.

      That fact that Hank’s has been on the receiving end of so much grief is RIDICULOUS. It’s a seated restaurant with normal business hours and no music at all. There’s barely any room to stand and have a drink at most of their restaurants since it’s essentially all seated tables. For them to go through the same process and clear the same hurdles as a bar or club is just silly and a waste of time.

      • Hanks’ isn’t so innocent. I remember thinking it ridiculous that neighbors were protesting when they first wanted to open. But seeing it in operation, Hanks’ has obviously had a huge negative impact on its immediate neighbors. Patrons crowd the previously passable sidewalk waiting for tables. And Hanks’ responds by . . . expanding the outdoor area in a grab for more $ and extending a big middle finger to impacted neighbors. Yes, I know the famous gang of 5 in that case reportedly doesn’t live right next to the establishment, but I can’t muster much sympathy for Leeds given her negative impact on that block.

        • Yep. Hanks oyster bar. A real sourge on the neighborhood. And which of the 5 are you?
          I would KILL to have a place like hanks in my neighborhood.

        • Negative impact on the block? Hank’s is one of the few business that is keeping 17th Street alive. 17th Street is dying and that is a fact – and the street should be thankful Hank’s has stayed around to support that neighborhood.

        • becauseisaidso’s comment reminds me of how lucky I am to live in a neighborhood whose biggest problem is a popular and widely admired restaurant. Yes, shame on Jamie for trying to recover the lost revenue from 7+ years of battling a handful of NIMBYs with entitlement complexes, and trying perhaps to make up with greater volume for the narrow profit margins of a labor-intensive business. And what a tragedy to have a crowded sidewalk. Next stop, Calcutta! On Twitter we’d give this the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems. At least we have another complaint to add to the little blocks of chocolate after dinner instead of creme brûlée. Grievance collecting can be a rough trade for spoiled city dwellers.

    • Well said.

      And I will add: end the ability of restaurants to operate as clubs after certain business hours. (Alero on U being a prime example).

      DC has differentiated liquor licenses for a reason, no establishment should be able to hold more than 1 license.

      And just for sarcacm sake: “hospitality and nightlife venues” = liquor serving establishments. This is not a discussion about movie theaters, bookstores or opera houses.

      • True. This is not about bookstores and opera houses, it’s about something relevant. Bookstores? Seriously? Did you type your comment on a typewriter?? Surprised you aren’t also whining about hardware stores!
        No, you are right. This IS about drinking establishments. Indeed, the kind of places our country was founded in, and, which even today, with the lack of bookstores, gift shops and hardware stores, make our neighborhoods interesting places to live.

    • This is excellent, what ShawGuy said.

    • Very well put. These PoP Op-Ed’s are usually very slanted toward businesses (remember the terrible pro-food truck one?) and don’t take other viewpoints into account. I think we can all agree that the process should be fair and efficient, but all views, infusing those of the neighbors must be taken into account. Businesses should not write the rules.

    • Except you moved next to a commercial zone, you should expect it to change any time. It’s like moving next to an airport and complaining about the plane noise.

      • Sometimes areas are re-zoned.

      • Excellent point, @Anonymous2:40, except it’s not the same. It’s not like moving next to an airport and then complaining about the plane noise. It’s like moving next to a Safeway and then having it torn down and replaced with a regional airport. The problem is that many people bought homes within a reasonable distance of a commercially zoned area because, frankly, it’s hard to find a home in DC that *isn’t* near a commercially zoned area. Many “residential” streets actually have C2A Zoning, which means commercial uses are permitted, even if they had rarely been used in the past.

        Personally, I LOVE being able to walk to the grocery, to a few nice restaurants, to shopping and recreation and Metro and yes, even a few neighborhood bars. HOWEVER, there is no zoning requirement, other than commercial activity being allowed, that distinguishes between a flower shop and a nightclub. If you’re allowed to have a flower shop, you can have a nightclub in that same zone. If there were zoning for late night bars and nightclubs that said “you may only operate that type of place here”, I would have drawn a big ten-block circle around all of them and told my realtor not to show me anything in those circles.

        So then, what do you do when you live near a commercial strip that is finally coming around that starts to go the way of U Street or Adams Morgan instead of the way of Barracks Row or Glover Park? You protest it. In fact, here’s a little known but completely obvious secret – the way that Glover Park and Barracks Row *avoided* becoming the new U Street or Adams Morgan? They protested. Repeatedly. And now, citizens all around the city will agree that they are wonderful places – go out, have a good time, get some dinner, do some shopping, go home. Great to visit, great to live near, great all around. 99% of citizens are reasonable people who aren’t saying “no development!”, they’re saying “we want to preserve the historic character and residential feel of a neighborhood that has been that way for over 100 years, so no, a nightclub isn’t a good fit. And neither is a factory, drug dealers, a coal-fired power plant, prostitutes, or even a regional airport.” And 99% of reasonable residents agree that they don’t want that next to their home either. That’s why airports and factories and other industrial uses are sited far away from residences, and prostitutes and drug dealers end up in squad cars.

        We expected change to our nearby commercial zoning. We WANTED change. We begged for change, some of us for decades. MOST uses are the kind of change we wanted. We want businesses that are open all day and into the evenings. But a bar or a club that doesn’t even open until 5 or 10pm and that is ONLY open during the hours we don’t want activity on commercial streets? We can, and should, and will, fight that. That is not what we wanted, not what we welcome, and not what we will tolerate. We’ve spent too much time and money to finally have a nice home to have a small business owner from outside the neighborhood come in and screw us so they can make a few bucks.

        • Again, well argued. After reading some snippy comments on PoP, it’s nice to see that there are well thought out posts.

          • Well thanks @Anonymous3:07 :) Now please, go do your part! Call your Ward Councilmember and call Chairman Mendelson and At Large Members Michael Brown, David Catania, and Vincent Orange (who all represent you as city-wide office holders) and tell them that SILENCING CITIZENS and letting industry lobbyists like Mark Lee write all the rules for the restaurant, bar, and club industry is a bad idea! Tell them that if we’re going to reform liquor license rules, we need to do it right: Distinguish between restaurants, neighborhood bars, late-night bars, nightclubs, and restaurant-by-day-nightclub-by-night establishments not just in name on the license type but in practice, AND IN ZONING. Tell them to reform ABRA so complaints are adjudicated quickly and easily, so that bad actors can be closed, not just slapped on the wrist. and good operators identified and rewarded. Tell them that one-size-fits-all of if it’s a commercial space, it qualifies for a liquor license DOESN’T WORK. Some types of licenses are appropriate for some buildings and neighborhoods and not for others.

            And STAND UP to the Mark Lee’s of the world who are trying to lobby YOU here on Prince of Petworth to roll over and say “OMG you’re so right! The Liquor industry SHOULD make up all their own rules, and we SHOULD volunteer to give up our voice in the conversation, because as residents who were barely smart enough to save a down payment, navigate a mortgage loan, and live in a community, we MUST be too stupid to know what we should and shouldn’t have in our own back yard! Thank you for saving us from making a HUGE mistake and almost preventing ourselves from experiencing the JOY turning our neighborhood into a nightclub zone!”.

            Seriously, though, please, call your councilmember and the at large guys. They need to hear from you. Because right now, I can promise they’re hearing from Mark Lee. And if he’s the only voice in the room, they’re going to think citizens must not care that we’re losing the right to control our own communities so why not take that control away if we don’t care enough to ask them not to?

          • Trust me, I wouldn’t and don’t rollover to somone like Mr. Lee’s absurd ranting. You just happened to express why not beautifully for me. Your comments were especially reasonable and a welcome antidote after noticing that there were some testy comments on other threads today. It was nice to be reminded that there are some good posts/posters on here, which I was beginning to foget.

      • You must be a newbie and unable to fathom that many people have lived in the same place for decades, and laid the groundwork for businesses to be viable in their neighborhoods. Did you know that Paul McCartney used to be in a group called the Beatles?

        • Too many Anonymous posters. Nice – inspires confidence. My last msg obviously directed at Anonymous complaining about people moving next to existing businesses and complaining.

    • Nicely said. I was part of a small neighborhood group 15 years ago that spent years getting rid of a couple of early trouble-generating clubs pretending to be restaurants on 14th street, totally unpoliced by ABBRA. Neighbors are still thanking us. We also brought in Whole Foods and will claim major credit for starting the good revolution on 14th St. So, it’s pretty funny to hear people “who are too busy to be active in the neighborhood” (most of whom don’t live in the neighborhood) tell us to move if we don’t like their thirst for unlimited, unrestrained nightlife everywhere.

  • Lets adopt this new policy and turn 11th street into AdMo. Wait….

  • Instead of focuing on ABRA, which is a fairly well-run organization, the ire should be directed at DCRA. The DCRA permiting process is one of the worst in the country. What holds up most new businesses is waiting on DCRA to issue a building permit, which is required for even the most basic renovations to a commercial space. It’s not uncommon to wait a year for DCRA to issue a building permit for renovations to a restaurant.

  • As someone who lives nearby a restaurant that wants to expand their hours, it’s not like the hours or alcohol or the patio’s are the central issue. But, try getting these erratically run small businesses to upgrade their HVAC systems so they don’t sound like jet engines, or maintain clean, secure trash bins. Independent small businesses ought to be more responsible overall to their impact on neighbors and if they can’t bear that responsibility, I’m sure there are some suburban strip malls where they could set up shop.

  • I realize that as a restauranteur your primary goal is to make money, but the issue is not so cut-and-dry. Just because the majority of the community does not take issue with some of your practices does not automatically mean that there is not a problem.

    I’d be curious to see how such matters are handled in other cities that are similar in size and demographics to DC.

  • Anyone else think it’s funny that the 3 stories above this are about 1 new restaurant, 1 new brew pub and a neighborhood pizza place getting a liquor license?

    Not that it’s perfect but clearly there are new places opening all of the time. As usual, the hyperbole ruins what could have been some thoughtful points.

    • PDMtP

      In Mt Pleasant, not so much. Just as the issues raised by the businesses are not uniform, neither are the neighborhoods and self-appointed neighborhood associations.

      • The pizza place is Radius in Mt. Pleasant.

        I am aware of the problems with Mt. Pleasant, my point is that the hyperbole makes people shut down. Why not recognize that the process works in some place but doesn’t in others? Why not recognize that sometimes community groups have a point? This is so over the top and makes it seem like if we all don’t chip in to help businesses secure licenses to run a club across the street from our houses we are horrible people. I am just pointing out the irony.

  • Mr. Lee’s screeds against individuals in residential neighborhoods who may have legitimate reasons for limiting the noise and disorder associated with late-night saloons (the Hank’s Oyster Bar example he constantly cites is hardly typical) are a regular, and unwelcome, feature in the Washington Blade. I’m not sure why PoP needs to give him an additional forum.

  • clevelanddave

    If I and my four neighbhors own houses next to a commercial building and that owner/rentor wants to turn it into a nightclub or a bar or a brewpub should I not have a big say into the hours of operation and if they should be able to serve alcohol as well as make other requests so that the peace and quiet I’ve had continues?

    If I live in an ANC and there were say five establishments selling alcohol within a few blocks of where I live it is not reasonable that I and those who live nearby should be able to restrict the hours and the number of additional establishments that serve alcohol nearby?

    I’m not sure that the licencsing process is geared towards this and I’m sure it is more bureaucratic and complex than it needs to be, but the objective should be that those who live and own property nearby have some control as to what goes on so their quality of live is preserved.

    I for one would take five Hanks selling beer and wine over the racucous and loud (if fun) Standard, but this screed is no solution.

    • I’m with you. Alternatively, we could sue the business for lost property value and lost quality of life. OK, I’m kidding, only because I’m sure the bureaucracy is stacked against citizens on that. Nice to see so many sensible posts here. Gives me some confidence that DC is settling down into a pretty intelligent norm.

    • No, you should not. The law sets the hours of operation. These places build neighborhoods, and you, who chose to live in proximity to a commercial corridor, shouldn’t get to set the rules.

      If you don’t like where you live and what is allowed there, move. There are plenty of people who would love to live where you live , and embrace the vibrancy created by these establishments. It is that vibrancy which has undoubtedly created substantial equity for you if you own.

      Surely you can find a nice neighborhood with a bookstore, an opera house and a theater, and maybe even a hardware store!

      • @Anonymous1:44 – In your credit, you’re partially right. The law sets the *maximum* hours of operation. It does not define the hours a business *must* operate during. Clear case in point – some places with liquor licenses open at 10am for brunch with mimosas, other places don’t open until 10pm for nightclubbing. Saying that the neighbors can’t insist a place close before the final possible operating hour because the government allows that hour as the absolute maximum would be the same as saying the very same law you reference requires every nightclub in the city to be open for Sunday brunch (since those hours, as well, are within that range).

        As for those who “choose to live next to a commercial corridor not getting to set the rules (paraphrased)”, that’s not quite right either. In our society, we DO give rights to nearby residents on certain things. Residents don’t get to vote on if a flower shop opens nearby because flower shops are “matter of right” developments that have been determined to harm nobody, even people who don’t like flowers. Liquor licensed establishments, however, DO have the ability to bring great harm to a stable community. There’s a reason that the law (which you seem to be fond of) segregated them into a completely different class where the community was deliberately given a say. It’s like that in every single major city in the US, Canada, and most of Europe. Because that makes sense.

        And no, you shouldn’t have to move because someone wants to put in an incompatible use near your home. By that same logic, anyone should just be able to build a dirty polluting coal power plant anywhere they choose and if you don’t want to breathe in soot every day you should “just move”. Saying extremely ridiculous things like that just discredits your entire comment. The law has said *many* things are things you should just deal with or move if you don’t like it. If you’re a crazy racist and don’t like living next door to a minority, you should just move if one buys the house next door and you can’t deal. If you don’t like the political leanings of a candidate who rents campaign space next door, just deal or move. If you can’t stand seeing an unmarried couple “living in sin” in the house across the street, just deal or move. Liquor licenses, however, ARE recognized as so problematic in some instances that they are specifically carved out as a protestable business.

        And lastly, under current zoning, that nice bookstore, opera house, theatre and hardware store many of us moved next to because we liked that kind of vibrancy can be turned into Ibiza Junior with no restrictions but the protest. Eventually, you have to stand and defend your ground. We can’t all keep moving and dealing with uprooting our families, our homes, and paying real estate commissions every time some Studio54 wannabe eyes a lease in our neighborhood. Sometimes, you have to fight for what you want and to preserve a nice way of life. We do it every day with historic preservation, parking minimums, zoning law changes, public space permits, and yes, ABRA licenses. It’s the urban way of civic discourse in the city. You are welcome to participate, but you do not get to set the rules to “love it or move away” any more than the rest of us get to say “no liquor licenses ever”.

        • Not that I needed to, but again +1 on your response. Yes, I am the same Anonymous poster who has thought your comments on this particular thread have been so well said.

          The “just move” argument so often cited here and in other RE threads is plain silly. It’s easy to mumble the words, “just move” as if that were like blinking with no other IRL consequences. It’s a ridiculous and pretty meaningless argument to make when you don’t like something about where you live.

  • I’d say Mark Lee got schooled by ShawGuy today. Damn! A rare, well-thought out set of posts.

  • Well, chuckle, I see that all the panting members of the ever-so-smaller anti-amenity crowd were bored at their desktops and have time to prattle on against the general consensus that our city’s liquor licensing scheme needs to be revised. Essentially even the Council now understands that.

    Sounds kinda like what a gasping whale must sound like just before death.

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