District bar and nightclub owners on Thursday endorsed Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s proposal to extend alcohol sales by one hour, saying the extension would cater to an influx of new District residents from across the world while boosting the city’s hospitality industry.
At a D.C. Council hearing on city alcohol laws, several representatives from the nightlife industry said Gray’s plan to allow bars to serve alcohol until 3 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on weekends would also make city streets safer by staggering when patrons hit the streets near last call.
“We live in a city that doesn’t work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” said Skip Colburn, executive director of the DC Nightlife Association. “People who work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. can go out from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., but many people in the military, many people in the corporate world, many people in government, cannot. We have a 24-hour city and a 24-hour world.”
But Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who has oversight over District alcohol issues, raised numerous concerns with Gray’s proposals, which would raise an estimated $5 million in the fiscal year 2013 budget. Graham said he worried an extra hour of drinking would extend the time that “people are singing, car doors are slamming, and there is laughter and singing” in District neighborhoods.
Noting alcohol sales in Maryland and Virginia suburbs stop at 2 a.m., Graham said he also feared that the District would become a “magnet” for suburban residents after dark.
“You’re right, its an urban environment,” Graham told several bar owners, including David Karim, the owner of Policy and Lost Society on 14th Street NW. “But I think it’s reasonable to expect it’s quiet, especially at 3 a.m.”
Yet, Graham struggled to build his case against Gray’s proposal, which the mayor has said is designed to enhance nightlife downtown, including at The Hamilton, a new 37,000 square foot bar and restaurant that remains open 24 hours.
On Monday, Police Chief Cathy Lanier endorsed the extended hours, saying it “won’t be any problem” for city police. A working group appointed by Graham to study alcohol issues also announced Thursday it had deadlocked in a vote of 9 to 9 on whether to back Gray’s plan.
Fred Moosally, head of the Alcohol Beverage Administration, testified Thursday there are already 11 days this year when District bars are allowed to be open till 3 a.m. on nights prior to a federal holiday. Moosally said his agency is not taking a position on Gray’s proposal, but said his agents already work until 3 a.m. on week days and 4 a.m. on weekends.
“ABRA is in a position to implement the provision if it’s passed,” said Moosally, adding he did not know of any spikes in noise complaints or violence on nights when bars are already able to remain open later.
Gray’s budget would also allow package liquor stores to open as early as 7 a.m., and a special regime would be established for the week surrounding presidential inaugurations. Bars that purchase a special permit would be able to remain open until 4 a.m. any day around the 2013 and 2017 inaugurations; permitted restaurants could serve alcohol 24 hours during the period.
Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) also told the committee he “strongly supports” Gray’s proposal, noting that hospitality services account for the second largest industry in the District behind government.
“We should do all we can to let it grow. Let people have a good time,” said Barry, who said he would even support allowing the bars to remain open as late as dawn. “If people want to drink, they are going to drink.”
But the outcome of the debate over the issue could hinge on whether existing voluntary agreements between neighborhood associations and bars remain in place if the mayor’s proposal is approved.
Many of those agreements already stipulate that bars have to stop serving alcohol at midnight, 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. Graham questioned whether those agreements would automatically be extended under the mayor’s proposal.
On Tuesday, Gray suggested in an interview he would be open to considering special areas, such as the K Street nightlife corridor or other industrial or commercial areas, where the extended hours could be tested in non-residential areas.
Colburn said bar owners would also likely accept “a middle ground” where they had to proactively apply to continue to serve alcohol until 4 a.m. on weekends, subject to input from their neighbors.
Seyhan Duru, owner of Cities on 19th Street NW and Teatro Goldoni on K Street NW, said currently many D.C. residents don’t go out on the weekends until midnight. If bars could serve longer, he said, the city would collect more in alcohol taxes. The bar owners also said many bar employees receive overtime when they work late, and they argued many newcomers to the District are choosing to live closer to nightlife options.
Karim noted thousands of new residents are buying condominiums being built next to bars and nightclubs, which he said is reviving the city’s urban core.
“Before I opened Policy, it was a crackhouse,” he said.
Graham, however, questioned how patrons would get home after they had been drinking because Metro closes at 3 a.m. on weekends.
D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) said he plans to make sure Gray’s proposal “is fully vetted” before the council votes on the budget in late May. Graham announced plans to hold another hearing on the matter in a few weeks.