On U Street, a Dim View of the Din
Residents of 'Fun' Area Seek Lower Volume of Street Noise

By Yamiche Alcindor
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 24, 2009

Mark Kelner moved to the U Street corridor to be in the city's center but now keeps his windows closed and a small noisy fan going all weekend to drown out the loud laughter, booming music and constant car horns that seep into his apartment.

A resident of Langston Lofts, a condominium complex at 14th and V streets NW, he is one of several people in the corridor calling for greater enforcement of noise codes. They worry that U Street will one day become like Adams Morgan, where traffic and crowds brought in by clubs and bars make living in the area almost unbearable.

In 2007, the Washington, D.C. Economic Partnership reported that more than 26,000 people called the area around 14th and U streets NW home. Langston Lofts, a 5-story, 80-unit building, is one of several recent condominium projects.

Now, some residents who were drawn by the area's revitalization fear that the commercial development that attracted them could overwhelm them.

In the early to mid-1900s, the U Street corridor was a major entertainment center for African Americans across the city. In 1968, riots destroyed the area's infrastructure, and the neighborhood became a dicey, and at times, dangerous place. In recent years, through rapid redevelopment, U Street has seen a resurgence of its past as a nighttime hot spot.

The development brought with it thousands of newcomers who are seeking to balance the area's entertainment history with its growing residential identity.

Most weekends, people who live there say, they can hear the sounds of U Street inside their homes: Bar patrons crowd inside the area's more than a dozen clubs, loudly singing along to favorite songs. People talk raucously as they stroll. From Thursday to Saturday nights, cars fill most street parking spaces. Sunday mornings, trash from the weekend often lines the streets.

Investigators from the District's Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration routinely patrol the area at night for noise violations. If an investigator discovers a violation, a business could be fined or its license suspended. The process often takes 60 to 90 days. Cynthia Simms, community resource officer for the agency, said information on the number of citations it has issued was not immediately available. She said the agency will intensify its enforcement efforts next month by allowing investigators to fine violators $250 on the spot.

"The noise laws are not well enforced," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who wants better enforcement. "We try to work with those that are the source of the sounds, but it's been very frustrating."

Graham's office has received noise complaints about the neighborhood for years. "It's a challenging terrain," he said of the council's efforts to balance residential and entertainment interests. "We have to deal with it and come up with some new answers."

Peter Raia, the area's advisory neighborhood commissioner, said he is working on creating that balance. "We want to bring in businesses that know what the community wants," said Raia, who would like more family-oriented businesses such as day-care centers, libraries and bookstores.

One resident, Richard Fishman, who has lived above Busboys and Poets in Langston Lofts for four years, said having too many places serving alcohol will hurt the neighborhood's quality of life. His concern is a new restaurant, Eatonville, and its attempt to get a license to serve alcohol outdoors. The restaurant's small patio, which can seat as many as 34 people, is across the street from one of Fishman's windows.

"The thing that I am sad to see is that my block is being dominated by restaurants and bars," said Fishman, who put down a deposit on his apartment in 2003 before plans for the space below his apartment had been finalized. He, like Kelner, often keeps his windows closed when the neighborhood's traffic picks up.

Andy Shallal, who owns both Busboys and Poets and Eatonville, said he doubts the patio will become a problem. On a recent Saturday night, several patrons dined quietly at Eatonville.

"I like to have some elegance to the places I run," Shallal said. "I wanted to create places that feel like community centers."

On Wednesday, Shallal signed a voluntary agreement with concerned residents at Union Row, a residential building above Eatonville, restricting the restaurant's patio hours from 9 a.m. to midnight every night. With the new agreement, Shallal should receive a license to serve alcohol outside within two or three weeks, the beverage agency said.

Raia said the ANC hopes that most businesses that come to the corridor will voluntarily enter into such agreements.

Tara Brown, 32, a resident of Union Row, said she loves the area's activity. "I hope it just continues to grow," Brown said. "There are endless places to eat and go out. There is so much energy, culture and diversity here."

Another Union Row resident, Eleanor Quartel, 24, agrees. She said she moved to the area because of its vibrancy. "I'm used to the noise," said Quartel, who grew up in the District. "I like that there is a lot of new stuff moving down here. I think it's a fun, young area."

Kelner, 35, an art dealer, understands Fishman's anxiety about the neighborhood but thinks some noise comes with living in the area. He has lived on the floor above Fishman for four years and has worked out a system with Marvin, a restaurant and bar just a couple of hundred feet from his balcony and window. If the noise gets too loud, he text-messages Marvin's owners, who often turn down the music within minutes, he said.

"We try to be proactive with keeping our relationships with residents good," said Ian Hilton, the operations director at Marvin. "People are concerned with noise, traffic and cleanliness, so that's what we stay on top of." The restaurant's staff attends community meetings and recently readjusted the venue's speaker system to keep the noise down, Hilton said.

Despite the efforts, Kelner said he is concerned about the neighborhood's future. "I don't want it to become the lowest common dominator where every business has a license and are just out to make a buck," he said.

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