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Whose H Street Is It, Anyway?
A Dispute Over Restaurant Zoning Creates a Chasm Between Northeast Washington's Old and New Residents

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Bernard Gibson had a simple wish: to open a Cluck-U Chicken in the H Street neighborhood where his grandparents have lived for decades. Bound and determined, he held two jobs to squirrel away the cash: He owned a carwash and worked as a mechanic for the city. Last year, after selling the carwash, he got a permit for a sit-down restaurant and opened his dream.

"Best Buffalo Wingers in the World," declares the bright purple awning on H Street, between the Family Dollar store and the check-cashing outlet.

But in the age-old way that one person's dream is another's bedevilment, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission said not so fast: H Street in Northeast Washington is a strip trying to shed its bedraggled past and become a gleaming urban paradise.

Cluck-U is not a sit-down restaurant, the ANC argued. It's a fast-food joint, just like McDonald's and Burger King, and, under zoning laws, neighbors should have had a say before it opened. Because they never got that chance, the ANC wants Cluck-U's permit stripped, an appeal it will make at a hearing today, as the struggle over H Street's future heats up.

The ANC is going after another new eatery, Birdland, which also got a sit-down permit. Another civic group challenged the carryout permit granted to Taste of Jamaica on Sixth Street, an appeal put on hold when the owner promised to convert the establishment to a restaurant.

Before it got to Cluck-U, the ANC targeted a Blimpie on Eighth Street; the appeals board agreed with the ANC, and the Blimpie shut down rather than reapply for a special permit to sell fast food.

ANC Chairman Joseph Fengler said the commission's opposition is all about getting a fair, uniform interpretation of the zoning code. But some merchants and longtime residents see it as a war on black Washington.

The ANC, which became majority white in 2002, wants to push "the African-Americans from the corridor," said Clifton Humphries, owner of the H Street Martini Lounge, who is black. "They're trying to steer what comes down here. They want an upscale environment, where they are comfortable around their own."

Gibson, who said he can't be certain what is driving the ANC, bristles over the effort to strip him of his permit.

"Who are they to dictate a style of business?" he asked one afternoon as his customers dined on garden salads, ribs and Cluckwich sandwiches. "If they don't like it, go somewhere else."

* * *

The signs of change are unmistakable.

Ravaged by the 1968 riots, H Street -- a strip stretching from Third Street to Bladensburg Road -- is still largely defined by boarded-up storefronts, tattered carryout joints and discount stores, by weekend street preachers and panhandlers loitering on corners.

But on the western end, just past Union Station, the developer who helped remake Logan Circle is building Senate Square, a 480-unit condominium complex. At the eastern end, the Atlas Performing Arts Center opened last year with a dance school, near the H Street Playhouse and Humphries's sleek new bar, where the orange-tinged "Dean Martini" costs $10.

Joe Englert, who owns three nightspots on Capitol Hill, hopes to have opened seven more by summer's end on H Street -- places with names like the Rock N Roll Hotel, the Beehive and the Palace of Wonders, where servers will dish popcorn and cotton candy while sword swallowers entertain.

Eventually, trolley cars will roll along H Street after the District lays tracks, fixes sidewalks and plants trees. Until then, Englert said, he will run shuttle buses to bring bar patrons from Capitol Hill and Union Station.

Musing about his vision for H Street, Englert said: "I love Georgetown. What could be better than walking your dog and knowing there are thousands of people around? To me, that's heaven."

Some longtime residents agree.

They say new condominiums will raise property values. For 25 years, Hezekiah Efferson, 83, has sold liquor and takeout orders of turkey wings, neck bones and macaroni he cooks on a hot plate in the back of his 13th Street store, behind a wall of security glass.

Now, he daydreams about opening a restaurant to serve the audiences leaving the Atlas. The neighborhood is changing, he said, "and I want to change with it."

Others fret about fitting in.

The Men's Fashion Center has served a black clientele since Murray Goldkind opened it in 1952. His son, Jerry, owns the store now, and he wonders if he will have to eventually cater to whites moving into the neighborhood.

"I've lost a lot of my base of customers," he said, standing beneath a poster of Elvin Hayes playing for the Bullets, circa 1978. "In 10 years, it will be a whole new area."

As investors have discovered the neighborhood, the ANC has pushed for revitalization and pressed for more police enforcement and a crackdown on public drinking.

And the zoning code enforcement.

"We're simply trying to make certain that all businesses are treated equally," said Fengler, the ANC chair. "Once you start saying that Cluck-U is a great place, and Birdland is a great place, how do you turn against a national franchise?"

Fengler said he is "saddened" the restaurants' defenders are invoking race. "It's easier to say it's a class issue, more convenient to say it's a race issue," he said. "If you were to read the zoning code, it would become apparent that it's not."

The ANC is not without supporters who have deep roots in the neighborhood. Vanessa Ruffin, 53, a retired recreation therapist, said she favors the ANC's campaign, if only to send a message that the neighborhood is raising its standards. "I want the community to have some control," she said.

* * *

Anwar Saleem, chairman of H Street Main Street, a coalition of merchants and residents, said he at first was unenthusiastic about Cluck-U because he hoped for a restaurant with linen tablecloths or a clothing store. But the ANC's opposition has turned Saleem into one of Cluck-U's steadfast supporters. He applauded Gibson for keeping his place clean and trying to appease commissioners by providing sit-down patrons with non-disposable plates and flatware.

"It's unnecessary," Saleem said of the ANC's challenge. He questioned whether the commission is trying to "discriminate against minority-owned businesses. I wouldn't be surprised if they go after the beauty shops, the shoe stores and the clothing stores."

Not all of its commissioners support the ANC's approach. Marc Borbely, a commissioner, said he worries that the ANC is missing a chance to forge relationships with longtime residents. While he embraces new development, he wants to preserve places that are "welcoming and cheap for those who don't have a lot of money."

"I want a neighborhood that's economically diverse," he said. "I don't want this to become like Manhattan or Georgetown."

The restaurants' patrons agree. They say they don't understand why the ANC would target places providing what is all too hard to come by on H Street: somewhere to sit down and eat a decent, reasonably priced meal.

"This is a touch of class compared to what's up and down this street," said James Allen, 58, a Gallaudet University maintenance worker eating meatloaf, collard greens, potato salad and cornbread priced under $10 at Birdland. "This is a meal."

Robert Pittman, 41, executive director of the Linden Neighborhood Association and a resident of the area for eight years, also relishes the prospect of fine dining, of sitting at an outdoor cafe sipping wine. He has not eaten at the Cluck-U and has no plans to.

Yet Pittman wondered whether the ANC could find more potent causes in a community still facing a litany of challenges. "Is it really the best use of our time and resources?" he asked.

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