Growing pains test residents in Brookland

November 20, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 10, 2013: Tony Tomelden, left, is a bar owner looking to start a new establishment in the neighborhood his parents lived and he lives in. Current residents and local churches, many of whose constituents don’t live in the city, are trying to stop him, in a reverse of the typical gentrification pairing we’ve seen recently. -Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post

On the surface, Brookland is one of the city’s most integrated and harmonious communities. Middle to upper income blacks and whites live alongside lower income residents and a largely white population of college students. The leafy Northeast enclave was described in The Post recently as a place that “prides itself in its diversity and amity.”

So when Tony Tomelden thought of opening a neighborhood establishment on 12th and Jackson Streets in the tree-lined neighborhood, he stayed close to home. The way he saw it, his restaurant, which he would call Brookland’s Finest Bar & Kitchen, could be a community watering hole where young families bring their kids for a bite and a beer while transforming the existing vacant building from a persistent eyesore to a gleaming new restaurant.

“I got three kids right here. I want a place where my friends and I can go, with my kids and have some dinner. We’re not looking to open a rock club or lounge,” said Tomelden. “Or anything loud. I’m getting closer to 50 than anything else.”

But for neighbor Jeanna Cullinan, Tomelden’s plan was over the top: to her it sounded like the place would host a non-stop party. Indeed, the owners were seeking a license allowing them to serve alcohol from 8 a.m. until last call.

“I love my street, I love being able to sit out here in my night clothes. I love having a pretty calm street. In a way, I don’t want that to change,” Cullinan, a graduate student said.  “I’ve worked in bars and restaurants all my life and I just don’t want to live across from a party bar.”

It’s a familiar sentiment in Washington these days, but the fight over Brookland’s Finest is more than just the story of one potential owner and his partners hoping to open a sit down establishment in an historically quiet neighborhood. It’s the story of a community that is battling itself, where differences between residents have re-surfaced even as Tomelden, who is white, sought his opportunity. It caps a nearly eight month battle between the two sides that has involved hours long community meetings and public forums, a stop work order levied against Tomelden, a lawsuit, as well as letters filed to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and Freedom of Information Requests filed with the city.

The ensuing battle has divided the community along lines that are difficult to define, but easy to see. Some residents have chalked up the tension to  the typical D.C. battle: newer white residents versus old black ones. But others say the recent fights in the community are much more complicated.

“The older residents have different visions for the future of the neighborhood. And sometimes, it seems to be racial, because many of the older residents are black and many of the new residents are white, but that is laziness,” said Don Padou, a lawyer who lived in Brookland for 10 years but moved west two months ago. “There are plenty of older residents who are white who agree with that view. Conversely there are plenty of newer residents who are black who show a different view of what should happen.”

The debate is the third such battle over redevelopment in the neighborhood in the last several years: community residents have fought another prospective owner of a bar and a mixed used development on Monroe Street, both squabbles that illustrate a community experiencing growing pains.

What’s clear is that many residents in the community are having trouble coming to solutions because they are more focused in pointing out differences in tastes rather than overlapping interests. For a neighborhood that escaped the damage during the riots that destroyed much of D.C.’s lifeblood, there’s been very little residential or commercial development over the years.

It’s an irony that few neighborhoods, if any in D.C. enjoy at this point. The economic and racial diversity is so high and has been so for so long in Brookland. Which is exactly why people want to move there. But filling that demand, and making everyone happy,  is nearly impossible.

***

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way for Tomelden. He was born in D.C., grew up in Prince George’s County and moved back to the city after college. He considers the District his hometown: His great-grandparents bought a house on 14th and Taylor Streets, NE in 1914. After his grandparents passed away, his father, half-Filipino, was raised by those great-grandparents in that house. After Tomelden was born, the family moved to Fort Washington. After college, he came back in 1988. He’s been in Brookland with his wife and children for 11 years.

So when he was accused of being an “outsider gentrifier” by neighborhood opponents of his bar, it struck him as odd.

“I don’t know if there’s a magic number as to when somebody can live in a neighborhood and then not be considered a newcomer,” he said. Tomelden has teamed up with two small business owners, John Solomon, owner of Solly’s on U Street and Frank Hankins, owner of the former Sova on H Street NE in the venture.

But lots of change is coming to Brookland, which is starting to alarm some residents. The small area plan for the neighborhood calls for hundreds of more apartments in the coming years. In addition, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has fielded calls from developers interested in buying land around the Brookland Metro stop.  Meanwhile, a huge mixed use development, which may rival the DC USA mall in Columbia Heights, is nearly complete. All of this has some older residents worried.

Carolyn Steptoe, the ANC Commissioner of the single-member district where Brookland’s Finest is set to be located, said the bar is an example of the trickle down effects of the neighborhood’s continuing gentrification. She’s been one of the most out spoken voices against what she said are the unfair infringements on what life in Brookland has been for decades.

“My Brookland neighborhood…is a very old line, established, single family home neighborhood,” she said. “When we had the riots in ’68, for the most part Brookland was completely untouched.

“So, it is not what some people want to dub a blighted neighborhood, it is not what some people want to dub as a troubled neighborhood that needed revitalization,” she added. “What’s happening is, and certainly in my community, Brookland’s gentrification is causing a massive, massive one on one, hostile fight.”

And that fight has been ugly almost from the start, one that has made Steptoe, who recently announced she will be running for the Ward 5 council seat,  a lightning rod for criticism and led supporters of the bar to question whether their local government is really working for them.

For instance in April, after the restaurateurs submitted their plans, Steptoe claimed that a stop order had been filed preventing work on the building, delaying progress. As it turned out DCRA overrode the stop work order, but residents say that Steptoe never informed them, frustrating their efforts to keep tabs on Tomelden’s permit.

Later that month, a community meeting that was supposed to be an open exchange between the owners and residents had to be shut down when residents began to argue with Steptoe about the way she was handling the proceedings.

Then in May, the ANC 5B commissioners took up a vote on Tomelden and company’s application for a liquor license. But neighborhood residents say they were unaware that the committee would be voting on the request, and were unaware of many of the ANC’s actions, which further frustrated their efforts to get answers.

The result has been a group of residents who feel an unnecessary divide has been put between neighbors.

“There are some things that have occurred which quite frankly appear to be not above board,” said Brookland resident John Roberton  at an ANC 5B meeting in July. “What I would like to see is for the community and the commissioners to sit down and discuss their issues. I don’t like to see lawsuits. I don’t like to see things like that.”

Steptoe said her job was to protect the interests of those concerned about development encroaching on the neighborhood.

“When my residents came to me and told me,” they had concerns, she said of several dozen residents, “there was absolutely no question in my mind to support … those residents, who live right there.” She added that kind of support is what “the ANC should do. And that’s what I did.”

Eventually, after a couple more long, contentious meetings at ANC 5B and with ABRA over the next few months, Brookland’s Finest got the license, with no restrictions. But, a motion to reconsider that approval was filed with the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration on Nov. 4. Tomelden hopes to open in December.

Some residents were hoping for more positive discourse.

“The District is changing and so should the mindset of the people that choose to live here, work here and [run their] business here,” Duane Johnson, owner of M&S Barber Shop on 12th Street said. “If you’re not going to bring a positive voice, then don’t bring no voice at all.”

***

What Tomelden and his partners may not have realized is that they were competing against longstanding animosities from some older black residents who felt that the owners of a black owned bar were harassed by older white residents in 2011. Two years ago, the owners of B Cafe further north on 12th Street, fought a yearlong  battle over a liquor license that led to a slew of racially charged language on the community listserv and handouts.

At the time, the owners of the bar accused protestors of unfairly protesting their liquor license by passing out fliers saying that restaurant owner D’Maz Lumukanda’s “apparel is that of the Nation of Islam.” The protestors also said that the bar would be nothing short of a frat party every night. That battle took years to resolve, with B Cafe eventually being allowed to serve drinks.

Several residents have not forgotten the incident.

“I think that they got absolutely jobbed,” said Tom Bridge, president of the Brookland Neighborhood Civic Association, referring to the operators of B Cafe, Lumakanda and Rabindranauth (Rob) Ramson. “The opposition from a handful of neighbors who lived across the street got intense.:

The “protest group was awful,” Bridge added. “As awful as they come. They said some thoroughly racist things … during that process.”

Years later, Padou, who served as the designated representative for the protest, challenged the notion that it had anything to do with race and was about a simple neighborhood disagreement. “The reason it became heated was he decided… it became kind of a point of pride,” he said of Ramson, the bar’s owner.  “Once you go through these processes, heels start to get dug in.”

But for others, the feelings stung, and they believed Brookland’s Finest should be held up to the same standard as B Cafe.

“When Rob over at B Cafe [was being protested against], there were four people there and none of them lived” near the proposed venue, said ANC 5B Chairperson Shirley Rivens-Smith. “And those four people stopped [Ramson] for two years from not having any business at all. He had 125 residents like us who supported him and the [opponents] didn’t care,”

In addition to that skirmish, Brookland residents also fought over a development at 901 Monroe Street, where Colonel Brooks’ Tavern used to sit. There, the owner Jim Stiegman, sought to team with a developer and build a mixed use development complete with apartments and ground floor retail on 220,000 square feet. Some community members  questioned the scale of it and worried that their neighborhood would be filled with noise, more traffic and parking challenges. Indeed, a community group known as the “200 Footers” challenged the zoning changes, taking their complaint all the way to the city’s appeals court hoping to stop the development.

As with Tomelden, the concerns surrounded how busy Brookland should be. One member of the group, Damien Agostinelli, runs a software development technical consulting firm across the street, thinks the matter is one of straightforward city planning. “The basic issue as I see it, is very simple. If this project prevails and they’re able to build [a commercial business]  in…residential area, there is really no rhyme or reason to all the zoning rules,” the Northeast native said. “And that means I can buy any… residential property and I can put up anything I want.”

But more subtly, there’s the clear understanding that even though one of the primary developers in that project is African American,  it will likely attract more young, white people to Brookland.

Yet, Agostinelli, 55, doesn’t think that the usual trappings of gentrification are at play. “I do think in general that developers don’t pay any attention to neighbors,” he said. “Because in general, [the neighbors] can’t afford to fight them. Now I do note that they don’t do any of this stuff west of Rock Creek Park. And the reason is obvious: they can afford to fight it,”

***

Recently, sitting in his front room, drinking lemonade from a D.C. United glass, Tomelden looks at pictures passed down from his dad. There are shots from just before the riots and pictures from a plane – his dad was a pilot-  while the Mall was still relatively bereft of museums. He plans to put them on the walls at Brookland’s Finest.

But the journey  to open Brookland’s Finest has taken its toll on the man who just wanted to start a bar that he could walk to with his family from around the corner where lives. “I’m a lot bummed. At the end of the day, to me, it’s just business,” Tomelden said.
“It’s sort of depressing. But it is what it is,”

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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