The dining staples you'd expect to find on the street or in diners are becoming more and more upscale in the District of Columbia. What does that signal about the city to its longtime residents?
As new bars and restaurants continue to open along the 14th and U Street corridor, some residents complain that their neighborhood is awash with liquor licensed establishments. The Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance has requested a moratorium to cap alcohol service in the developing community. But other residents argue a moratorium will hinder the growth of this vibrant area. Kojo discusses the possible effects of the pending regulation.
- Michael Hamilton Founder, In My Backyard DC (IMBYdc)
- Joan Sterling President, Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance
- Martin Austermuhle Producer / Reporter, WAMU.org
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a thriving neighborhood with restaurants, bars and nightclubs packed to the rafters every weekend with diners and late night revelers. The few remaining vacant lots along 14th and U Street Northwest are being filled out with luxury condos and still more restaurants and bars. In short, the U Street Corridor is booming, fueled in no small part by the 100-plus liquor-serving establishments and businesses. But has the U Street Corridor gotten a little too, well, boozy?
MR. KOJO NNAMDISome residents have asked the city to stop issuing new liquor licenses and limit the number of bars and restaurants. They're tired of the noise and commotion and the crime that sometimes come with all the late night partying, and they're alarmed by the direction of development in the neighborhood. Joining us to talk about all of this is Joan Sterling. She is founder of the Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance, SDCA.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe's lived at 13th and S Street Northwest since 1997 and has brought forth the 14th and U Street moratorium request in an attempt to regulate the kind of development taking place in her neighborhood. Joan Sterling, thank you for joining us.
MS. JOAN STERLINGThanks for inviting us. We're glad to be here.
NNAMDIMichael Hamilton is founder of In My Backyard, a group which opposes the moratorium, says the SDCA's reasoning behind the request is unfounded, paints an inaccurate picture of the neighborhood. He lives a quarter of a mile from the proposed affected area. He lives in Columbia Heights. Michael Hamilton, thank you for joining us.
MR. MICHAEL HAMILTONOh, thank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Martin Austermuhle is with us. He's a reporter and producer here at WAMU 88.5 and wamu.org. Martin, thank you for joining us.
MR. MARTIN AUSTERMUHLEThanks for having me.
NNAMDILet's start first, Martin, by explaining what a liquor license moratorium is and who it will affect.
AUSTERMUHLESo the basics of the moratorium -- of any moratorium are, and they're currently five in effect in D.C., is that the city says for a specific geographic area, they're not going to issue anymore licenses. So they're going to say, if you want to open a bar, you want to open a restaurant, you want to open a tavern or a nightclub, feel free, you can't just serve liquor. So those are the basics of it.
NNAMDIWell, this is an area that was in a state of decay for decades, but few corridors in Washington, D.C., have been transformed as thoroughly as U and 14th Street. A lot of different drivers of this growth, nightlife is clearly one of the main factors that makes it happen. But why would residents want to clamp down on these licenses when the neighborhood is being revived in the view of some people? Joan, you proposed this moratorium, but you say it isn't really about alcohol at all.
STERLINGNo. It's really for us, about the bigger question of development and what we need to have in our neighborhood. We've been struggling with the issues for years. And after repeated attempts to address some of the issues surrounding the alcohol licensing through enforcement means we've sort of ended up at a last resort of requesting a moratorium. Our bigger issue center around development in the area and the services that the community needs to build a sustainable community for the long term, not just for the short-term nightlife entertainment crowd.
NNAMDIWe're interested in having you join this conversation. You can call us at 800-433-8850. If you're a business owner, what do you think? Is the U Street moratorium necessary? If you happen to be a long-time resident, what do you think about this neighborhood? Is it becoming overdeveloped, taking away from the charm of the historic neighborhood? 800-433-8850. You can send email to us at email@example.com. You moved into this neighborhood in 1997, 16 years ago. Talk a little bit about how, in your view, or well, in reality, it's changed.
STERLINGOh, clearly, it's changed significantly, and everybody who's been in the neighborhood can see that. There's been a lot of new development. Much of it welcomed -- much of it encouraged by the neighbors who live there at that time. And we worked hard to bring good development into the neighborhood. There are certainly new projects in the neighborhood.
STERLINGThere are more people coming to the neighborhood and plans for even additional development to come. But with that comes some negative results. And that is the overconcentration of alcohol-serving establishments to the exclusion of the other services that we really need for sustainability.
NNAMDIMichael, what do you say to long-time residents who say, you've only been here 2 1/2 years, why should you even have a say on what the neighborhood should look like? You just got here.
HAMILTONWell, I think it's a pretty common thing to hear when someone feels like losing the merits. You try to attack the person himself behind the arguments. But I represent a group with about 642 members here in D.C. It's open to anyone who lives within the boundaries of the District. The membership is pretty diverse.
HAMILTONWe have people who've been here their whole lives who -- people who have been here for 15, 20 years, some people in U Street, in Columbia Heights and all over. So it's a pretty broad thing. Most of the members are -- I mean, all of our members agree that the moratorium doesn't represent them, and it's not what they are going for.
NNAMDIWell, most of us have heard of NIMBY, not in my backyard. Your organization is called In My Backyard, which is clearly a play on the idea of NIMBY. How does this organization come to be?
HAMILTONWell, there's a lot of ways built in the D.C. lot to say no to something. So if you don't like a new building, if you don't like a new bar, anything like that, all you need to do is get five people together or form a civic association, and you guys can force a legal process that takes months and months through negotiations just to get your business license and open your doors. And there aren't a lot of easy ways to say yes.
HAMILTONSo there are a lot of people who are in D.C., including long-time residents especially in U Street, who say when there's a new restaurant or a new bar, they think it's a good thing or happy to see it there. They're happy to have more options. They think it makes the community better. And so my group is just there to have people who support more options and more like the neighborhood to say, yes, we support these things and so a venue for that.
NNAMDIMichael Hamilton is the founder of In My Backyard, a group which opposes the proposed liquor license moratorium for U Street. He joins us in studio along with Joan Sterling, founder of the Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance, SDCA. She's lived there since 1997, and that is the group that is proposing the liquor license moratorium. Also joining us in studio is Martin Austermuhle, reporter and producer at WAMU 88.5 and wamu.org.
NNAMDIIf you like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-433-8850. Martin, along this corridor, the rules technically already limit how many liquor licenses can be issued on a single block. But those rules seem to be either ignored or evaded. What rules govern who can get a liquor license and where?
AUSTERMUHLEWell, so the basics of this area is that there is something called an arts overlay, and it's been there for a couple of decades, and it was created as a way to incentivize a variety in the diversity of businesses. So they wanted museums, they wanted galleries, they wanted restaurants, they wanted bars. They wanted a good mix of all of them.
AUSTERMUHLENow, over the last couple of years, what ended up happening is that the limits on the amount of bars that were allowed in this arts overlay area, which is 14th and U, roughly that area, was extremely low. So you'd have people who want to come in and open an restaurant but they couldn't because they were, you know, technically, they're over a cap for that specific block. So they managed to work with the council to increase the amount of bars and restaurants.
AUSTERMUHLEBut now the big complaint is that that the cap that it was raised to has been blown through. And that there's just more bars and restaurants that are technically already allowed under the law, and the problem ends up being that the city is just not enforcing the laws that are on the books. Hence, the idea of, listen, the city is not enforcing laws that it puts on the books. We just have to cap the number of licenses altogether because if not, you're basically getting nothing but bars and restaurants and taverns and nightclubs in what supposed to be this artistic neighborhood.
NNAMDIHow are liquor licenses obtained?
AUSTERMUHLEI mean, anybody who wants to open a restaurant, a bar can do so. They just have to find themselves a place, they have to pay a certain fee. They have to identify what type of license they want to get. It can be a restaurant, which means they serve food, and they have to serve a certain amount of food as a percentage of their revenue. You can be a bar, which is just mostly liquor. You can be a tavern, which has -- you know, you serve food and liquor, but you don't have the same requirements in terms of food sales.
AUSTERMUHLEOr you can open a nightclub. So it's just a matter of applying, and then you go through the process which an ANC can look at the application. They can give an up or down vote. It doesn't necessarily mean that the ANC has veto power, but they do have what's called great weight in deciding whether a liquor license is granted.
NNAMDIWhen I lived in that neighborhood, it was our ANC's concerns that I was involved than about liquor stores, not as much about establishments that served alcohol. Who's in charge of enforcement here?
AUSTERMUHLEThat would be ABRA, which is the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. They're the ones who dole out the liquor licenses. They're the ones who are supposed to enforce the rules on the books. They're the ones who -- you know, if you have a bar that's staying open after it's supposed to or is serving minors, any sorts of things, that's supposed to be negotiated and dealt with in ABRA.
NNAMDIWhere does this moratorium cover, Joan Sterling?
STERLINGWell, it's an 1,800-foot radius, and roughly the edges of the circle are from 15th Street to 8th Street and North to Clifton and South to R. It only really affects the properly zoned areas, the CR areas, which are really 14th U Street and some of 9th Street.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, but if you have called, stay on the line. I guarantee we will get to your calls. We still have a few lines open at 800-433-8850. Who do you think should have a say in the direction or the direction of specifically development in a neighborhood? Should longtime residents have more of a say or not? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about a proposed liquor license moratorium in the area of 14th and U Streets, Northwestern Washington. Our guests are Martin Austermuhle, reporter and producer at WAMU 88.5 and wamu.org. Michael Hamilton is founder of In My Backyard, a group which opposes the moratorium. And Joan Sterling is founder of the Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance, SDCA.
NNAMDIShe has brought the 4 Street -- 14th and U Street moratorium request in an attempt to regulate the kind of development taking place in her neighborhood. And I'm glad you focused on development, Joan, because people may get the impression that you are a complete teetotaler. You don't participate in the drinking of alcohol at all, and that's why you're opposed to this.
STERLINGWell, those people who know me know that's not actually true. I do have a second job with Brewing News, which in this area is Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, and we focus on craft beer in seven regional newspapers in an industry publication. So the real idea here has nothing to do with preventing people from getting their alcohol. With 120 licensed establishments, I don't think there's much in the way -- standing in anybody's way of getting a $15 martini.
NNAMDIWe go to Paul on 14th Street in Washington. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULHi, Kojo. First-time caller. Thank you very much. So I've been working on the U Street corridor for the last two years as a cook at one of the local restaurants, and over the last year or so, the outgrowth I've seen just in that area is tremendous. I mean, Eater reported a few weeks ago that this spring and summer alone, 14 new restaurants and bars will be opening by the end of summer.
PAULAnd riding my bike home every night up 14th Street, especially on, you know, Friday and Saturday nights, the amount of people pouring out of bars and liquor establishments is incredible, and, you know, I've seen two to three accidents in the last year. I was involved in one. About two months ago, I was hailing a cab. An inebriated woman was flying up 14th Street right by U Street and totaled his cab and her car by crashing it. And I just -- I think at this point, I can't understand how any more liquor licenses, you know, liquor license venues will be able to survive. It's just -- there's far too many already.
NNAMDIMichael Hamilton, what would you say to Paul?
HAMILTONWhat I'll say to Paul, look at the situation from another way, too, and first compare it to what U Street used to be and recognize the role that the liquor licenses and new restaurants have had in getting rid of other types of crime. So the problems we used to see there a long time ago, you just don't see at all anymore, and it's been a big improvement. And also, try to, you know, get a reservation on U Street on Friday night.
HAMILTONTry to, you know, walk into Marvin or something like that. Just about every restaurant in the whole corridor is going to be booked tight. And so I think the idea that there's too many and it's not what people want isn't true. Right now, people are really utilizing all these restaurants and bars, and they can probably fit a lot more, which is why people are trying to move into the area.
NNAMDIMartin, is there an argument to be made about whether or not this should be market-driven, whether the market should determine whether the number of liquor licenses that there should be?
AUSTERMUHLEI mean, certainly if -- I'm a -- I'm as capitalist as the next guy, and I think if there's demand for it, I think there should be -- I think, you know, they should be allowed to flourish, and U Street has certainly been allowed to flourish. I do take some of the arguments made by Joan and some of the proponents of the moratorium that just like some other neighborhoods in town, I think -- I know I'm going to cite the one that everybody does, which is Adams Morgan, which also has a moratorium.
NNAMDIWell, we'll contrast that with Georgetown in a second.
AUSTERMUHLEOr Georgetown or Dupont, exactly. These are places which have developed, and they developed from neighborhoods that may not have been so good to develop to neighborhoods that were much better. And they did so largely because they attracted so many people at night. They became nightlife destinations. But there is something to be said for the fact that Adams Morgan by day isn't much to look at. No offense to Adams Morgan.
AUSTERMUHLEU Street is the same. There's not a lot of daytime businesses. Now, whether that can be mandated by the government, whether they can find a way to say, no more booze, but we need bookstores, that -- I don't think that's a nut that anybody's been able to crack at this point.
NNAMDIYou know, Joan Sterling, before Adams Morgan, before the return of U Street, Georgetown was the destination of choice. They put a liquor license moratorium there, and people say it killed nightlife in Georgetown. On the other hand, Chief Cathy Lanier says that in one block in Adams Morgan, there are 38 liquor license establishments. And when those places all let out at two o'clock in the morning, it gets a bit crazy out there.
NNAMDIWhat kind of balance would you like to see so that, on the one hand, U Street does not disappear as a destination and it continues to be vibrant, but, on the other hand, it's not what, in the view of some people, is uncontrollable?
STERLINGWell, it's exactly about achieving a balance, and it's a balance that -- between the economic benefits and the least intrusion on the basic rights of the most directly impacted residents. And at the end of the day, this is a residential neighborhood. There are historic row houses abutting 14th and U Street, and people actually live there, and they actually work and would like to get some sleep before 2 and 3 and 4 a.m.
STERLINGWhat we see also from -- Cathy Lanier also talked about city blocks with 10 or more ABRA establishments require four times the additional manpower than blocks with one to nine bars, and clearly we're in a neighborhood where there are blocks with 10 or more ABRA establishments, and we have significant issues with crowd control and the crime that comes with that.
NNAMDIOn to -- Paul, thank you for your call. On to Joel in -- on 14th Street in D.C. Joel, your turn.
JOELHi. I wanted to call in to say I'm really tired of this debate being couched as long-term residents versus newcomers. I've lived in this neighborhood for over 20 years at the heart of 14th and U. I had served on the boards of three community associations, and I am opposed to this moratorium. And I know many, many long-term residents who feel the same way. And I'm sorry, but, Ms. Sterling, you may be well intended. But until this discussion on this issue, I never heard of you.
NNAMDIWell, it's not a matter of who's heard of whom. Both of you obviously have been living in the area for a while. She does represent a legitimate organization. We've checked you've been living there a long time yourself, you say. But who speaks in your view, Joel, for the entire neighborhood? Obviously, there are some people who want this and some people who don't.
JOELWell, we have a process and we had ANCs. And the ANCs have unanimously rejected this. And, Joan, you have an officer in your organization, Elwyn Ferris, who I know started of talking about this moratorium in 2008. I was there, I'm happy to sign an affidavit to this effect. He wanted this moratorium in 2008. That's the core of your leadership. And every restaurant at every bit of development that has existed since 2008 would have been stymied and slowed down by the core leadership of your organization.
NNAMDIWell, he may not have heard of you but he certainly heard of your organization. He knows people in it. Joan Sterling, what do you say in response to Joel?
STERLINGWell, that's all good to know. In the big picture, I don't think this is about long term versus -- long-term residents versus newer residents. I actually think that it's about what the neighborhood needs in the bigger picture to sustain the growth that we need and to provide the services that the families that are in the area need. We're getting more and more younger families there. There is no place for them to take their kids. We hear this constantly when we do surveys.
STERLINGWe get results from people asking for various neighborhoods serving retail. Nobody is asking for more bars and restaurants, you know? They want the usual things -- more grocery stores, more theatres, more children's play spaces, jewelry stores, doctors' offices -- things that really allow a neighborhood to flourish. And what we have here is something different. And so this moratorium has actually been talked about for quite some time.
STERLINGI mean, previous ANC commissioners, Peter Raia and Aaron Spencer, had talked about it. And at the end of the day, as we go forward, more and more liquor licenses have just pushed us over the brink. And with 120 liquor licenses, over 16,500 alcohol seats in this small 1,800-foot radius, there is plenty of places to get a drink. And if the moratorium goes in, they'll be space outside this little circle for more bars and restaurants.
NNAMDIQuestion to you, Michael Hamilton, and then a similar question to you, Martin Austermuhle. Michael Hamilton, what would you do to try to get greater diversity of development in that area if that is what Joan Sterling and the others want?
HAMILTONWell, I think where you're going to need to have there is competition. And so one way to completely derail that is to put in the moratorium. So right now, if you want to open up a new restaurant, a bar within this area and you think it might serve the clientele better, might fit in more with the neighborhood as its evolved, you go in and open up, and you try to compete with other places that might, you know, be less directed toward residents there that might be, you know, more of a rowdy bar.
HAMILTONAnd so you won't see that kind of competition with the moratorium. And so I think the best way to really make sure everyone is served well is do not put in this moratorium 'cause after all, there's a limit on bars in the neighborhood. Suddenly, the new best way to make money there is always going to be served the most people, be more like Adams Morgan, not try to compete on quality or the type of things because you have the moratorium in place.
NNAMDIYou know, Martin Austermuhle, Trader Joe's is under construction there. But what we hear people, like Joan, saying is, we want doctors' offices. We want other kinds of development there. Is there any place in the city that can serve as a kind of model for diversity of development, the kind that they would obviously like to see?
AUSTERMUHLEI mean, I honestly can't think of one. I live in a part of Columbia Heights. I live far enough north in Columbia Heights where I think I'm lucky in the sense that we have a couple corner bars, we have a couple corner restaurants. But we have a good mix of retail, but I wouldn't exactly cite that as an example. I mean, there's parts of Capitol Hill I'd like to think of. But even there, you think of H Street.
AUSTERMUHLEH Street is the same sort of kind of liquor license-driven development, but H Street is also one of the most exciting places in town. And you could say it's comparable to U Street, maybe it's better than U Street.
AUSTERMUHLEThere is -- I think Joan's point that this is a development issue is a huge one. And it's one that's going to require the Office of Planning, it's going to require liquor license regulators. It's going to require the Council to try and figure out and see if they can figure out because there's something -- I think the point is that we concentrate liquor licenses and establishments in certain commercial corridors, but then the rest of the city is relatively residential.
AUSTERMUHLESo could there be an option of maybe saying, OK, more residential areas can have corner bars? I mean, I have a corner bar in my neighborhood, it's great, and we don't have a problem with rowdiness and tons of people. It's just a good place where locals go. Is there a way that the city can encourage that so that you don't have the sort of concentration, which naturally occurs in certain parts of town?
NNAMDIDavid in Washington, D.C., seems to think he might know of such diverse mix. David, your turn.
DAVIDThank you for taking my call, Kojo. So I lived here six years. So I'm not an old and I'm not new. What I did notice is moving from Clarendon, Arlington to the city -- and I've been up in my neighborhood in six years -- is that Clarendon did a revitalization, too. But if you noticed, if you're going to Clarendon, they struggle more with the anchor establishment of retail. And if you go there today, you see as many stores, maybe more, than bars and restaurants. Although I will say that -- able to pretty level the place and start over.
DAVIDIn the U Street area, it's not as bad, although I think we have some buildings that are completely out of whack. But it's just what drives this is that developers want the most rent. And what brings the most rent, the highest cost for rent are liquor establishments. Walk up 14th Street during the day and tell me how many establishments are open. So I think it goes back to development and planning. It's sort of free for all for developers.
DAVIDThen we saw recently, NPR did a expose on our development problems and how this is going down. So it isn't just about liquor, it's about, do we have any planning, are we going to have a balanced approach to growing neighborhood? And the dollar will always went out in the case right now. So I think it has to be broaden the discussion.
NNAMDIWell, David, while we're happy that the station is affiliated with NPR, that was not an NPR story you heard. Martin, that was a WAMU story, correct?
AUSTERMUHLEAbsolutely. That was our colleague Patrick Madden and Julie Patel.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Here is Jacob in Washington, D.C. Jacob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JACOBGood afternoon. I used to spend a lot of time down at -- in the U Street corridor in the early mid-'90s. And it was you were taking your life in your hands to walk around alone after dark. But my question really is, why is it always community activist organizations are trying to limit or inhibit something or -- rather than trying to encourage new visitors to come in?
JACOBJoan seems to have survey after survey of residents who live there that are looking for new and different services. Go and attract the doctors and the small stores and the other establishments that would push the bars out, and the developers will be renting to them. The higher the rent -- they don't care if it's a bar or a toy store, as long as they get their rents.
STERLINGWell, I mean, from an economic perspective, they can always get a higher rent for an alcohol-serving establishment because of the sheer retail volume of that. But we are -- we do have protections, and that's exactly what we're talking about, which is the arts overlay and the comprehensive plan. And there are numerous portions of the comprehensive plan that details encouraging real development and limiting excess of concentrations of liquor license to establishments on local's commercial corridors where there are high amounts of residents. And they're just not being followed.
NNAMDIMichael, you only got about 20 seconds.
HAMILTONWell, I think there's already a really robust system to try to get rid of these problems in place is the ANC system. So any time anyone tries to open up a new bar, there's a lot of people who have to say yes before you can open it. And this is if you're all concerned about overconcentration. I think Joan's and her colleagues' problem is that the most people in the neighborhood, including the ANC commissioners who are elected by them, just don't agree with their view. So...
NNAMDISounds like a job for the Office of Planning that needs to get involved.
NNAMDIJoan Sterling is founder of the Shaw Dupont Circle Citizens Alliance that's behind that moratorium request on 14th and U Street. Joan Sterling, thank you for joining us.
STERLINGThanks for having me.
NNAMDIMichael Hamilton is founder of In My Backyard, which opposes the proposal. Michael Hamilton, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Martin Austermuhle is a reporter and producer of WAMU 88.5 and wamu.org. I'll see you upstairs shortly. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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