From Georgetown to Adams Morgan, liquor license moratoriums face increasing criticism


Dozens of restaurants and bars have opened on 14th Street NW. Residents persuaded city officials to reject a proposal to impose a moritorium in the area, saying it would hurt neighborhood development. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

They were the hubs of the city’s nightlife until their residents got fed up with the late-night revelry and boozing. One after the other, communities in Georgetown, Dupont Circle and Glover Park backed neighborhood moratoriums on new liquor licenses.

Twenty years later, the rowdy hordes that invaded their turf every weekend have shrunk. And the decibel levels on Friday and Saturday nights are lower. Now, some residents and community leaders have begun to worry that maybe the streets have gotten a little too quiet.

As the District has morphed from chronic population loser into a magnet for affluent millennials, liquor license moratoriums are losing popularity. As restaurants and bars flock to parts of town where liquor licenses are cheaper and easier to obtain, some denizens of once-hot neighborhoods are turning against moratoriums, which they blame for driving trendy eateries away.

“There is this feeling that the whole city has changed so dramatically in the past 10 years, and so much more dining and retail has been created in direct competition with Georgetown, that unless it wants to become completely obsolete, the neighborhood businesses are going to have to do something different to compete,” said Christopher Mathews, a board member of the Citizens Association of Georgetown. “Every other neighborhood has really raised its profile.”

The appeal of liquor license restrictions faces an important test this spring in Adams Morgan, where the neighborhood’s moratorium is set to expire in April. Much to the delight of business owners and the consternation of some residents, neighborhood commissioners have proposed lifting some restrictions on restaurants to try to attract more desirable businesses. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is expected to hold hearings on the renewal of the Adams Morgan moratorium this year.

Some areas in the District see liquor license increases

The five zones — Georgetown, East and West Dupont Circle, Glover Park, and Adams Morgan — have now had moratoriums in place for 14 to 26 years. Born in an era of municipal dysfunction and high crime, the restrictions have lasted longer than anyone predicted.

“They are the beast no one will drive a stake through the heart,” said Mark Lee, a Logan Circle resident and Washington Blade columnist.

But that longevity belies growing discontent with the restrictions, especially among younger, newer residents. Last year, neighborhood commissioners in Dupont Circle lost an attempt to abolish the moratorium for the eastern half of the area, including the commercial drag along 17th Street NW, by one vote. And in 2012, about 100 Glover Park residents signed a petition to abolish the moratorium there.

In both cases, the moratoriums were renewed for three years but were modified to allow more restaurants.

The most significant repudiation of moratoriums took place last year in the area of U and 14th streets, which have attracted dozens of new bars and restaurants. Residents of Logan Circle and Shaw persuaded the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to reject a proposal to impose one, saying it would hurt neighborhood development.

Moratorium critics across the city say so much has changed since the restrictions were put in place that the moratoriums have either outlived some of the problems they intended to fix or have proven ineffective.

When Georgetown and Dupont Circle instituted theirs, the District was on its way to becoming the nation’s murder capital and in dire financial straits. The last moratorium was imposed in 2000 in Adams Morgan, a year before the District regained financial autonomy from a congressionally mandated control board.

“I could see why people wanted it,” said Constantine Stavropoulos, who opened the Diner just before the moratorium in Adams Morgan took effect. “We were not getting enough officers. We were not getting the streets cleaned.”

Over the past decade, the crime rate in the city has dropped 19 percent and has been trending down in thepolice districts that are home to the moratorium zones, police data show.

Neighborhoods have also found other ways to cope with crime, noise and trash, including dedicated cleanup crews and closer cooperation with police and city inspectors who oversee establishments with liquor licenses. Residents have also been able to impose their will on restaurants and bars through settlement agreements that give them a say over how late a patio can stay open, whether there is live music and even what kind of cups beer can be sold in.

The most profound change, however, has been demographic. In the past several years, the District’s population has grown by more than 30,000, census data show, with people in their 20s and 30s accounting for a third of the newcomers.

The population burst has coincided with a restaurant boom that has altered residents’ perceptions of what is possible.Criticism has mounted that moratoriums inflate the cost of liquor licenses and take away the incentive of existing restaurant and bars to improve.

Some Adams Morgan residents are eager to put that theory to the test. Unlike the other moratorium zones, it has not managed to shake its reputation as a drunken weekend playland. On New Year’s Eve, five patrons at a club on 18th Street were stabbed, suffering minor injuries.

Many of the persistent trouble spots are restaurants that operate more like nightclubs. Neighbors who live just off 18th Street NW have been underwhelmed with city enforcement of liquor license regulations that require restaurants to sell a certain amount of food, or prohibit live music.

But the moratorium, not weak regulation, is what has allowed those businesses to stay, concluded a study commissioned by the Adams Morgan Partnership.

That study, done by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, was limited by the unavailability of certain data, such as restaurant tax receipts, that could help show whether neighborhoods were cannibalizing business from each other. Instead, it relied on commercial real estate values, which have increased by a smaller percentage than they have in the District as a whole.

A Washington Post analysis of restaurant and tavern licenses issued between 2008 and 2013 shows they have doubled in Columbia Heights and along H Street NE and soared by 70 percent in Shaw/Logan Circle. By comparison, licenses in Adams Morgan went up by 14 percent.

“Moratoriums keep who is already there by preventing the kind of turnover that would lead to stronger and nicer establishments,” said Ed Lazere, the executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. The liquor license moratorium had the effect of “just freezing Adams Morgan in place.”

Many of the neighborhood commissioners find such arguments persuasive. And they have tried to find a response that would placate residents who want to keep the restrictions, but still attract more businesses like the well-regarded Jack Rose Dining Saloon and Mintwood Place.

“There is this ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ regional perception” of Adams Morgan, lamented commissioner Ted Guthrie. “That’s not what we want to be.”

“In the end, the gravity will pull you to selling alcohol as late as you can,” commissioner Wilson Reynolds said. “You have to face reality. You can mess with the number of restaurant licenses and not be attacking the fundamental cause. We need to change the culture.”

After months of public discussion, the commissioners recommended lifting restrictions on restaurant liquor licenses in order to “foster competition among existing establishments” and “positively impact the adverse conditions that persist in Adams Morgan.”

That disappointed die-hard moratorium supporters such as Denis James, the president of the Kalorama Citizens Association. Many of the group’s members live closest to the two main commercial strips, along 18th Street and Columbia Road, and contend that the restrictions have kept the noise, litter and crime from getting worse.

James dismissed the Fiscal Policy Institute study as “hired hatchet job” by business owners and called the neighborhood commissioners’ proposal “irresponsible.”

“They view anything that restricts out-and-out competition as bad,” he said. His group plans to recommend that the city keep the moratorium largely intact.

Comparing Adams Morgan to gentrifying neighborhoods is not fair, James said. “We are fully developed as a restaurant district,” he said. “All the good space is already taken,” unlike along H Street NE where new commercial space is still being built.

“To wipe out 13 years of progress on this off-chance the right entrepreneur will come,” he said, “is not worth it.”

For Jonathan Cho and Jay Park, owners of Sakuramen, the debate is more than theoretical. Rookie restaurateurs, they lucked into a basement space along the busiest section of 18th Street and opened their ramen shop more than a year ago without a liquor license.

They would like to expand from their tiny 40-seat digs — growth that would be feasible with additional revenue from beer and sake sales. But they can’t afford a liquor license in the moratorium zone, where they can cost tens of thousands of dollars, instead of a few thousand in zones without moratoriums.

“Across the board, moratoriums are idiotic,” Cho said. While they have no plans to move in the near future, he said they would eventually have to consider it if they can’t get a liquor license in their location.

The moratorium, he said, “only hurts local businesses.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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