Two businesses tucked behind the WDVM-TV broadcasting tower on upper Wisconsin Avenue NW have angered Tenleytown residents who criticize them as threats to their property values and quiet middle-class lifestyle.
Both businesses have had setbacks in recent decisions by separate city agencies. But spokesmen for both establishments, involved in the sex industry, have vowed to seek ways to continue operating.
Ashoka, an Indian restaurant that hired nine nude dancers last fall, closed recently after it was denied a liquor license renewal by the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage control board on grounds that the business is inappropriate for the neighborhood. The owner has appealed that decision.
Next door is an establishment that its owner calls an "entertainment and amusement center." Known by its address, "4617 1/2" (41st St. NW), the business is owned by Sandra K. Simms, who has tried to have her certificate of occupancy amended to list the business as "sexually oriented" on grounds that it once operated as a massage parlor, according to her attorney, Michael Murphy.
The Board of Zoning Adjustment denied the request, but Murphy said the place will remain open for at least a month until the board's decision is issued in writing. He said the decision will be appealed.
The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 3E) has opposed the location of the two establishments in its American University Park neighborhood. Some members have pledged to fight to have both closed permanently.
"We're talking about morality here, about preserving a proper environment for our children," said financial consultant Jeffrey Parker, who has lived in the area for nine years.
"I know what I'm doing, and I always abide by the law," said Ashoka manager Wayne Hall, who has managed Ashoka since January. "I made sure that nobody walking by the place would know what was going on inside."
Ashoka is identified only by a small sign bearing its name. Next door, a red neon sign in the second-story window reads "4617 1/2."
Some Tenleytown residents have complained, however, that even schoolchildren in the neighborhood are familiar with both operations. "My nine-year-old son passes that block on the way home from school, and even he knows what's going on in those places," Parker said.
Parker said that although restaurants and pubs are plentiful along that part of Wisconsin Avenue, those opening recently are "not appropriate" for a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes, churches and, according to area residents, 7,000 school children.
Murphy said his client's operation is legal. Asked what kind of establishment it is, he said it is a place where "people go for sessions, and sometimes take off their clothes."
When officers have inspected the place in response to citizens' complaints, they've been met at the door by young women dressed in scanty outfits, and they have been told visitors can take a bath, talk to a woman employe or play chess or checkers with one of the women, 2nd District police officers said.
The establishment is licensed to operate game machines, according to an official certificate hanging in the foyer.
According to a transcript of the April zoning board hearing regarding 4617 1/2, owner Simms had sought to list her business as "sexually oriented" on grounds that the business had been "grandfathered" in as acceptable for the residential location because a massage parlor at that site predated the 1977 District laws that restrict sex businesses to commerical zones.
Ashoka, by contrast, opened in 1978 as a family-run Indian restaurant and once enjoyed neighborhood support. ANC vice chairwoman Diane Sheahan said the restaurant once offered discounts to senior citizens.
Owner Birindra Pradhan, a Calcutta native, said he was forced by financial hardships to hire nude dancers. He said his rent was increased from $1,200 to $3,000 and his 4-year-old daughter needs open-heart surgery.
The restaurant's closing, Pradhan said, left him and his wife unemployed. He said he has tried unsuccessfully to sell the business.
Pradhan's attorney, Larry C. Williams Sr., said this is a typical case in which "the little guy is swept under the rug." He blamed the landlord for raising the rent, the civic association for its protests and the recession.
"I've dealt with these ANCs before," said Williams, a former ABC board member. "They want rent control, they don't want to pay higher property taxes and they don't want bars in their neighborhoods. They want to have their cake and eat it and still have the whole cake on the table."
Williams said "every go-go bar I have ever represented was only in the go-go business because it was an absolute economic necessity."