Request for Liquor License Uncorks Dispute

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 29, 2006

Vegetate, an upscale vegan restaurant that opened eight months ago on Ninth Street NW in the Shaw neighborhood, is serving more than sesame-crusted tofu. The restaurant has sparked the latest skirmish in the battle over development in the District.

Owners Jennifer and Dominic Redd said they poured their hearts into creating an attractive sit-down restaurant in a long-depressed neighborhood that, with the arrival of the new convention center, is reviving.

They applied for a liquor license but were turned down because of Vegetate's proximity to Seaton Elementary School, around the corner on 10th Street. A 1992 city law prohibits businesses within 400 feet of a school from seeking a liquor license unless another business with the same type of license already exists. There is a liquor store at Ninth and P streets, but it holds a different type of alcohol license.

The restaurant owners appealed to D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who filed a bill that would allow businesses such as Vegetate to apply for a liquor license and leave the decision to the city's alcohol control board. That led to strong opposition from two nearby churches, Shiloh Baptist Church and Scripture Cathedral, whose pastors and congregants say they fear a restaurant selling liquor near a school would create a bad environment for children.

Four members of the D.C. Board of Education have called a board meeting for 5:30 p.m. today to consider a resolution that would oppose Evans's bill.

As neighborhoods revitalize, battles over the old and the new are becoming common. Liquor licenses are particularly contentious as charter schools open in unusual places, effectively squashing the chances for restaurants or bars to open nearby.

At a hearing last week before the D.C. Council Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, both sides presented their case. About 20 churchwomen donned red clothing to show their opposition to the bill. An equal number of people who back the bill -- restaurateurs, developers and residents -- wore white shirts or white ribbons to show their support.

Jennifer Redd told the committee that when she and her husband opened Vegetate, they thought they were far enough from the school based on measurements from the restaurant's front door to the school's front door. They did not realize the city measures the distance between property lines, placing the two school and restaurant within 400 feet of each other, she said.

Without profits from alcohol sales, the restaurant has struggled, Redd said at the hearing. "The economic reality is, we may not be able to stay open," she said. About 60 percent of restaurant revenue usually comes from alcohol sales, said Alex Padro, executive director of Shaw Main Streets Inc., the small-business group in the neighborhood

James Secreto, a newcomer to Ward 2, told the committee that he represented many young professionals who want to be able to walk to restaurants where they can sit and enjoy a meal. Restaurants "are symbols of positive change happening in our community. They are symbols of vitality and growth. They are symbols of what will come," he said.

But opponents said Vegetate and Queen of Sheba, another new Shaw restaurant that wants a liquor license but is near a school, pose a threat.

"Put the children first and defeat this bill," said the Rev. Wallace Charles Smith, senior pastor at Shiloh Baptist. "There is no compelling reason to amend the law. Alcohol is a dangerous substance."

Smith and Bishop C.L. Long of Cathedral Scripture said they don't oppose restaurants, just establishments that serve alcohol within 400 feet of a school. Long said he wished there were a neighborhood restaurant where he could take the college graduates from his church to celebrate.

In April, Long protested a liquor license request by Be Bar, a gay-friendly bar trying to open across Ninth Street from Scripture Cathedral, saying he opposes homosexuality.

The pastors said they worry that if Vegetate or Queen of Sheba won liquor licenses, they would convert into nightclubs or taverns, which, they think, would result in excessive drinking by patrons that could lead to problems.

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of the consumer committee, tried to broker a compromise by suggesting that the bill might be limited to sit-down restaurants. Some opponents seemed amenable to that idea, but others were steadfast.

The automatic exclusion is troublesome because of the proliferation of charter schools, which are "opening up in all kinds of places," said Evans, who did not attend the hearing. "You're not in the situation where we were five years ago, where we knew where all the schools were. You're going to have conflicts develop."

Christopher Donatelli, president of the development firm Donatelli Development Inc., told the committee that his company is planning two large buildings in fast-developing Columbia Heights. The buildings, a mix of condominiums and shops, were supposed to feature high-end restaurants. But a charter school has opened above a pharmacy within 400 feet of the proposed restaurants, throwing the plans into question, he said.

Evans said that his bill would remove the automatic prohibition against a license but that the alcohol beverage control board would still be required to hold hearings and consider opposition.

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