ANC 5E Chair Bradley A. Thomas: “Why Protest the Republic Cantina Liquor License Application?”

57 N Street, NW

“I am Bradley A. Thomas, Chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5E and the Commissioner who represents Single Member District 5E, the SMD which includes the unit block of N Street, NW, where the proposed new restaurant, Republic Cantina, seeks to open. For the past four days, I have been reading e-mail messages and comments on the Prince of Petworth blog [Ed. Note: To clear up any misunderstandings, since 2013 this website has been called PoPville as illustrated in the logo and URL.] regarding ANC5E’s protest of the application for a Class C liquor license recently filed by the proprietor of the prospective new restaurant. The comments I have read, in general, reflect a misunderstanding of both the process of an Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) protest and the factual background pertinent to this particular application. In the course of my responsibilities as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, I don’t usually respond to blogs but in this case, since many of the comments have cast my colleagues on the Commission in what I believe is an unfairly harsh and demeaning light, I felt compelled to do so at this time.

Let me begin by saying that some of the comments I have read criticize the ANC’s action by suggesting that ANC5E is standing in the way of much needed development and that the ANC somehow prefers blight, crime and gun violence to neighborhood progress. Those who take that position seem to believe that if the Republic Cantina is not allowed to open, on the terms it has proposed, then the Chapman Stables site at 57 N Street, NW, will continue to remain in blighted condition and the neighborhood’s desire to have a family style restaurant where neighbors can dine and fellowship with each other will be thwarted. Neither is the case. To begin with, the Republic Cantina is not the only family style restaurant planned for the Truxton Circle Community. There are actually several in the pipeline right now. The one that is likely to open long before the Republic Cantina is built, is the Great American Bistro, at 1545 New Jersey Avenue, NW. I mention that restaurant here because the way its proprietors have gone about securing the support of ANC5E stands in stark contract to what has occurred with Republic Cantina. At the same meeting where our ANC voted, unanimously, to protest the Republic Cantina liquor license application, we voted, also unanimously, to support the BZA variance request to allow the Great American Bistro to open with full indoor seating. What’s the difference you might ask? Community engagement. In the case of the Great American Bistro, the proprietors spent the better part of a year holding focus group meetings and speaking with nearby neighbors and religious institutions to find out what neighbors wanted and what concerns they might have with a neighborhood restaurant. Then, they went before the Bates Area Civic Association and a meeting of Single Member District, ANC5E05, where attendees voted, overwhelmingly, to support their plans.

By contrast, the applicant for the liquor license at 57 N Street, NW did not do any community engagement. The first either I, as the SMD Commissioner, or the members and officers of the Hanover Area Civic Association (HACA) heard of it was when ABRA sent out the notice indicating that a license had been applied for and that we had about one month to file a protest. The ANC5E protest has nothing to do with blocking development on that block. In fact, ANC5E last year, after a year of engagement between the Chapman Stables project developer, HACA and the ANC, voted to endorse and support the development. The developer presented extensive plans showing precisely what would be included in the development. Those plans were for a multi-unit condominium project and indicated that there would be a small coffee shop and other minor retail establishments. HACA debated and reviewed the plans, including provisions for parking spaces on site, and eventually came to an understanding and agreement with the developer, after which, ANC5E, with HACA’s support, voted to support those plans. Never was a 100 seat, full service restaurant and bar a part of the plans. While it is unclear whether the blame lies with the proposed restaurant’s proprietor or the developer who may have enticed the restauranteur to enter into a lease without full disclosure of prior community discussions, to many in the neighborhood, this appears to have been a clear case of bait and switch. If plans had changed, the proper protocol would have been to come back to the community and ask for community buy-in. Instead, as I indicated, a little over two weeks ago I was informed that the applicant is now seeking a liquor license at that location. At that point, the only mechanism for engaging the proprietor on behalf of the community was to file a protest. A protest, is not the end of the discussion, it is the tool for opening the discussion. Once a protest is filed, the parties have to engage in constructive discussions geared toward reaching consensus. If no consensus is reached, a hearing is conducted by the ABC Board and that board, not the ANC, decides whether to grant the application and, whether to impose any conditions on the license, if it is granted. Again, we should not have had to file a protest because, as was the case with the Great American Bistro, the proprietor should have engaged the community before applying for the license.

ANC5E continues to support the development of the Chapman Stables project. That property is going to be developed and the blight that has plagued that block for years will be gone, whether or not this new restaurant with its liquor license is a part of it. What we don’t know is whether these new plans are what the majority of neighbors want or not. To begin the process of making that determination, HACA is planning to hold a special meeting, sometime within the next two weeks, to give neighbors the chance to hear the proprietors plans and be heard on neighbors concerns.

As far as the parking issue is concerned, that one point has been blown completely out of proportion. An ABRA protest is required to cite a few very specific basis in order for the protest to be deemed valid. Those basis are 1) harmful and negative effect on the peace, order and quiet of the neighborhood, including noise and litter, 2) detrimental effect on parking, vehicular traffic and pedestrian safety, and 3) impact on property values. ANC5E included the first two grounds in our protest letter. We didn’t include the third grounds because we didn’t feel there was any good faith basis to state that property values, at a site which is already under development, would likely decline as a result of the restaurant being opened there. Whether the other two grounds can be established can only be determined through the process of community engagement.

As soon as HACA sets the date for the special meeting, I will be sure that the community is informed. It is important that we have full engagement. I am confident that ANC5E will support the community in whatever decision it reaches. Having worked with this particular composition of commissioners for the better part of a year now, I can say, unequivocally, that every one of them is a dedicated public servant who works long hours, attends numerous meetings every month, and stays on the front lines of public safety, sometimes at personal risk to themselves, all for absolutely no compensation and often, without even receiving a word of thanks from those they serve. They do what they do out of a sense of duty and commitment. We voted to file this protest because we believed that, under the circumstances, failing to do so would have been a dereliction of duty. The reality is that if we had not filed the protest, the license would have been granted with no community engagement, no input from neighbors and no restrictions of any kind, even if certain restrictions were warranted. Then, if whatever came to the site turned out to be detrimental to the community, ANC5E in general and me, as the SMD Commissioner in particular, would have been soundly, and rightfully, criticized for not taking any action to inform or protect the community’s interests. As commissioners, we in ANC5E acted in the best interests of our constituents and will continue to do so as this process moves forward.

I conclude by asking that readers of this blog do two things: First, keep an open mind about issues affecting the community as often first impressions can be misleading. Second, participate in the dialogue in a constructive manner with the understanding that we can disagree without being disagreeable. My grandmother used to say “you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” Let’s all go a little easier on the vinegar and try to sweeten the pot we call community with just a taste of honey. In the final analysis, we all want the same thing. A safe, peaceful, vibrant neighborhood to call home. ANC5E will continue to work, every day, to make that a reality for the neighborhoods we represent.”

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