17th Street in Dupont Circle, like a number of other commercial streets in DC, has a moratorium on liquor licenses. In March, the moratorium will expire, and the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) board, which regulates bars and restaurants, must decide whether to extend it, modify it, or let it lapse. Neighborhood leaders, residents, and business owners are debating whether the moratorium is a boon or a hindrance. They are also considering other tools, including performance parking, to achieve a balance in 17th Street’s retail mix.
The moratorium limits the total number of liquor licenses on 17th from P to S, and surrounding side streets. The ABC board last renewed the moratorium three years ago. A moratorium is “not immortal,” pointed out Dupont Circle Citizens’ Association President Joel Lawson, and must be reexamined and renewed every few years. Last night, citizens and business owners met for a community meeting to discuss the issue. People expressed some strong feelings on both sides of the issue, but Commissioner Jack Jacobson, whose district includes a large portion of the 17th Street commercial area and who chaired the meeting, expressed his pleasure (and some amount of surprise) at the discussion’s civil tone, compared to heated debates of prior years.
New ANC Chair Mike Silverstein worries about a “perfect storm” hurting businesses on 17th. When P Street was redone recently, the project drove away nearly 60% of some restaurants’ business, and several shops closed. Now, the upcoming 17th Street streetscape could hurt business there as well, at a time when the poor economy is already keeping many potential patrons at home.
Nearly everyone who spoke at the meeting agreed with the goals of helping 17th Street’s businesses thrive while retaining a mix of retail. 17th has a grocery store, hardware store, two pharmacies, and five dry cleaners. It’s numerous restaurants and bars include Komi, “maybe the best” restaurant in DC according to Washingtonian, Sushi Taro, maybe the best sushi in DC, Hank’s Oyster Bar, and more. Amid these jewels are a few mediocre to poor restaurants as well.
Would lifting the moratorium encourage better restaurants? Or would it gradually push out all of the neighborhood-serving shops in favor of bars and nightclubs? After all, Hank’s was only able to open with an exception to the moratorium, after an acrimonious neighborhood fight. On the other hand, selling liquor is much more profitable than serving food or selling paper towels or grommets, and bars can afford to pay higher rents. Everyone agreed that they didn’t want 17th to become another Adams Morgan, with its high levels of noise and periodic fights in the street.
Supporters of the moratorium feel that it has kept 17th diverse and useful to residents. “I see the moratorium as the only way of ensuring a balance,” said resident Donald Jones of Q Street. “Without it, the creep is aways in the direction of bars and restaurants.” Advocates for overturning it, on the other hand, argue that 14th and U Streets have attracted new and innovative retail stores of all types even without such restrictions. “The moratorium has given us a Subway and a Dunkin Donuts,” said resident John Caley, who lives near 17th and S and who feels the street has declined under the moratorium. Moratorium opponents have created a petition advocating for its abolition.
Right now, we don’t have a way to predict the effect of keeping the moratorium or of ending it. How can we tell? Ed Grandis, leader of business group Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals (DCMAP), recently sat down with a commercial lease agent who advises business owners on where to locate their shops. Jacobson and the other Commissioners plan to interview business owners and study the approaches that have worked or failed in other neighborhoods and other cities.
The ANC and neighborhood leaders are also exploring other tools besides the moratorium. Rob Halligan, past President of DCCA, called the moratorium a “blunt instrument.” He and others tried, unsuccessfully, to find another solution three years ago, when the moratorium last came up for renewal. Jacobson and Silverstein both suggested some form of performance parking for 17th and the surrounding area. By encouraging turnover, as the meters on Barracks Row do, our parking policy could aid the daytime businesses that serve customers for brief periods of time.
Restaurant patrons, too, stay for shorter periods of time than bar and nightclub customers, according to former ABC Chairman Charles Burger. Evening performance parking could help restaurants thrive. For example, customers of top-rated regional restaurants like Komi and Hank’s, many of whom come from other parts of the region, could be confident they could find a space at some price. Right now, parking is nearly impossible on evenings and weekends, dissuading some drivers from trying to visit the area.
The ANC hopes to consult with DC’s Office of Planning to explore other tools as well. Both supporters and opponents of the moratorium want the same end goal: a healthy commercial street with a mix of neighborhood-serving retail and innovative restaurants. Only the tough question remains: how much, and what, regulation will give the best chance of achieving it.