Image from Google Street View.

If a sidewalk cafe is open late at night but nobody is around to object, does it make a sound? And should the local ANC just fight the plan anyway on the assumption that someone must mind?

Lydia DePillis reports a particularly contentious liquor license debate from last week’s Dupont Circle ANC meeting. P.J. Clarke’s wants to open a sidewalk cafe at 16th and K, a corner that’s very devoid of street-level activity despite heavy foot and car traffic along two major streets just blocks from the White House.

In most of the neighborhood, alcohol-serving establishments are subject to “voluntary agreements” (VAs) contracts negotiated between neighbors and/or the ANC and the establishments themselves. On 17th Street, for example, where there are many residents across the street from restaurants, the VAs require closing the outdoor areas at 11 pm on weekdays and midnight on weekends.

Commissioner Victor Wexler, whose district includes the area, and Commissioners Jack Jacobson and Will Stephens supported letting Clarke’s get its liquor license without restrictions. However, Commissioners Ramon Estrada, Phil Carney, Bhavna Patel and Bob Meehan successfully pushed for a motion protesting the application until a VA can be negotiated. Mike Feldstein abstained and Mike Silverstein recused himself as he is a member of the ABC Board, which reviews VAs and liquor license applications.

VAs are a useful tool for neighborhoods to balance the needs of residents to sleep against the value of having thriving bars and restaurants for residents to patronize. I generally support the use of VAs. However, in this case, the ANC chose to push for a VA out of what seemed more like knee-jerk opposition than reasoned needs.

In particular, there are no residents on this corner and very few anywhere nearby. According to DePillis, Carney (whose district I live in) argued that the hotel patrons across the street need quiet too, but Will Stephens, whose district encompasses the commercial area on 18th Street between S and U, suggested that the hotel patrons might also want a place to eat and drink late at night after a late flight or a long day of meetings.

In fact, one adjacent hotel told Wexler that they actually have soundproof windows because of the existing volume of emergency vehicles on both 16th and K. No hotel asked the ANC to oppose the liquor license application.

The Dupont Current’s Katie Pearce wrote recently (enormous PDF) about a shift on the ABC Board under new Chairman Charles Brodsky. Previously, the Board would acecpt and enforce virtually any VA. Now, it seems to be taking a skeptical view of all VAs.

Perhaps some VAs were too restrictive in the past. In some cases, small groups of residents pushed for strict restrictions and restaurant owners felt blackmailed into accepting them. However, many other VAs are entirely appropriate, as the law’s one-size-fits-all rules allowing establishments to stay open until 3 am on weekends may be right for some areas but not for others.

When an ANC takes a knee-jerk position against a liquor license with no adjacent residents and no opposition from the adjacent hotels, it potentially weakens the case for VAs more broadly. The Dupont ANC would have more credibility with the ABC Board if it pushed for reasonable restrictions but restrained itself in other cases.

Even the Dupont Circle Conservancy, the neighborhood’s historic preservation organization, supported the cafe, which will take up some of the green space along 16th. Some have argued that this green space is “historic,” though the official description of the 16th Street Historic District doesn’t list the green space as a contributing element. (Disclosure: I am a member of the Conservancy but did not vote on the resolution concerning this property as I had missed the initial presentation by the applicant.)

The Conservancy split the difference to some extent, supporting the cafe as long as it left a substantial green buffer and emphasizing that it didn’t want this to set a precedent for every other establishment adjacent to 16th to get a cafe. (Personally, I wouldn’t mind if other cafes appeared as well.)

As I wrote in the past, the Conservancy has generally eschewed the “allow no change” view of preservation and instead diligently differentiated between what is estimably historic as opposed to just long-standing. Of course, there’s always plenty of room for debate about where to draw that line.

The more neighborhood organizations try to truly balance the issues at hand instead of being absolutist for or against anything, the more effective they are. Just look at the ARTS Overlay committee of ANC 2F, which spent months researching the zoning issues along 14th and U Streets and produced an excellent report which has gained substantial acceptance from the Office of Planning and Zoning Commission.

That’s a model other groups should emulate. Instead, Dupont’s ANC took a small step backward for VAs everywhere and neighborhood group credibility with their fierce defense of nobody at all.