Photo by ZagatBuzz on Flickr.

Heated discussions rage over liquor licensing decisions in DC, and the process is part of the problem. Rather than battle over rules governing individual establishments within a legalistic, adversarial framework, ABRA and other stakeholders should proactively work with businesses to address impacts on nearby residents.

Most residents don’t want to get embroiled in the legal battles around licensing. Nor do they want to get into the minutiae of how a business operates, what kind of music they play, what’s on their umbrellas or where they seat customers. They just want businesses to operate lawfully and responsibly.

Likewise, business operators don’t want to fight with neighbors, the very people they would like to be their customers. Most are ready and willing to take reasonable steps to minimize impacts from noise, trash, and security, not just to resolve a protest against their license, but because it makes business sense.

Unfortunately, the current system is almost solely focused on a legal process which absorbs time, money and resources that could have been better spent on proactive planning and up-front investments needed to prevent problems in the first place.

Take the Hank’s Oyster Bar case. After seven months, thousands of dollars in legal fees, hours of hearings before the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board, and unproductive battles waged in blogs and meeting rooms, what’s the result? The ABC Board granted Hank’s application and ordered the owner to mitigate noise concerns of the abutting neighbor.

What has this process achieved? It has cost the business owner, protesters, and the government an inordinate amount of time and money. It has torn apart the community and discouraged civic participation. It has further discouraged innovative businesses going through the hassle of trying to open a place in the District.

It could have been different. What if instead of playing referee in the legal battle around licensing, the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) had offered the resources and staff time to help restaurateurs like Hank’s owner Jamie Leeds plan ahead to prevent problems like noise, trash and security? Agency staff could work with operators to understand risks, identify potential concerns, and plan solutions to minimize the impact on neighbors.

For example, in the case of Hank’s, going through such a process would likely have focused attention on the noise impacts on the abutting property owner. ABRA staff could have given Leeds a list of referrals to sound engineers and architects who are experts in noise mitigation and connected her to peers who had successfully managed noise problems. In addition to helping her to manage noise, ABRA staff could have provided resources to address other important issues that affect neighborhoods, including security, staff and server training, waste management, and community outreach.

As an experienced operator, Leeds doubtless had plans to address concerns about noise, safety, and trash management. But ABRA could have helped her ensure she had what she needed to invest in those plans. Instead, ABRA’s role was solely to play referee in a contentious battle, forcing her to react to legal challenges rather than focus on preemptive solutions.

Defenders of the current system often claim that the only way to get hospitality operators to respect nearby neighbors is through the protest process. They argue that “Voluntary Agreements” are the only mechanisms a community has to keep businesses in line and prevent the neighborhood from descending into chaos.

What this argument ignores is the fact that operating responsibly with minimal impact on nearby neighbors (often potential customers) makes business sense. Staying off of neighbors’ radar by managing trash, noise, and crowds not only keeps hospitality operators in compliance, it also helps them build a strong and devoted customer base.

Many hospitality operators, especially those seeking to open in mixed-use residential neighborhoods, build their business models around being a neighborhood gathering place. Complaints and negativity generated by neighbors and broadcast on blogs and review sites can seriously undermine an operator’s reputation and bottom line.

The current system ignores these inherent incentives and instead treats hospitality businesses as problems constantly needing correction and control through rules, restrictions, and enforcement. But by helping operators plan proactively, ABRA could prevent many of the nuisances that bother residents, clog up hearing schedules, and take investigators’ time away from more serious issues. Most residents would rather maintain a peaceful, clean, and safe neighborhood than punish restaurants for causing problems. The fewer resources are invested in legal battles, the more resources can be spent on minimizing negative impacts on neighbors.

Local governments across the country face the same challenges as we face here in DC, especially as city living and mixed-use development in urban cores becomes more prevalent. Instead of treating hospitality businesses as potential problems, some cities view the hospitality industry as an asset.

Many of these forward thinking local governments have worked with the Responsible Hospitality Institute, an international organization dedicated to fostering a best practices approach to managing vibrant and livable cities. RHI brings together an array of stakeholders, including BIDs, transportation officials, regulators, law enforcement, venue operators, and community leaders, to identify potential problems and coordinate solutions.

For example, RHI initiatives have included training for venue staff on responsible service and security, providing venues with referrals to sound engineers and security professionals, coordinating transportation services, and working with law enforcement to manage crowds and nightlife issues.

Cities around the world have worked with RHI to develop successful programs to better manage hospitality zones and mixed-use areas. For example, San Jose and Philadelphia have created an orientation for nightlife businesses that guides operators through the licensing process and shares best practices for noise, trash and security management. Seattle and Providence have established government staff positions to reach out to at-risk businesses and help them solve problems before they reach the level of enforcement. Edmonton and Gainesville have worked with colleges and marketing firms to develop patron responsibility campaigns aimed at addressing negative behavior from the consumer side.

Some DC leaders are moving in a similar direction and exploring innovative programs from other cities that integrate business assistance, training, and collaborative problem-solving into the regulatory framework. For example, from April to November of this year, Councilmember Jim Graham (Ward 1) initiated an ABRA Noise Task Force, on which I served when I directed the MidCity Business Association. The committee, which included agency staff, residents, and business representatives, was charged with finding better ways to deal with the issue of noise from ABC licensees. Though there was some discussion about the adequacy of current regulations, most of the conversations focused on how best to solve problems related to noise in a more proactive way.

In November, we presented a set of recommendations to the ABC Board that drew on lessons from other cities and included programs pioneered by the Responsible Hospitality Institute. For example, the Noise Task Force recommended that ABRA implement a Hospitality Business Orientation and an Early Assistance Team, two programs that involve a business assistance approach like the one described above.

The Hospitality Business Orientation would guide new ABC licensees through the licensing process and give them information about the best ways to manage issues like trash, noise and security. The Early Assistance Team, coordinated by ABRA but including mentors from the business community, would work with at-risk businesses, helping them to solve problems before problems reached a level needing enforcement.

The Hank’s case shone a spotlight on how dysfunctional and destructive the current system has become. The current ABC Board’s apparent willingness to take a hard look at VAs is encouraging to those of us who’ve seen the harm they’ve done to businesses, community relations, and economic development in many neighborhoods.

But it’s important to realize that the current system, as flawed as it is, came about for a reason. There was a time when the ABC Board was barely functional, when ABRA enforcement was almost non existent, and when affected residents had practically no recourse when licensees flagrantly violated even the most basic rules. The current protest process and the over-reliance on VAs emerged in response to extreme dysfunction.

Criticizing the flaws in the current rules/enforcement-focused system does not mean going back to the days of “anything goes.” Far from it. Our city needs clear rules and robust enforcement to ensure that our neighborhoods’ mixed-use commercial strips are lively, lawful, and livable.

Residents need and deserve a role in this process. But residents and businesses also need government to provide more tools, resources and best practices to address real concerns and solve real problems instead of just being told to work it out through the protest process. The ABC Board and the DC councilmember who has oversight of ABRA in the coming year must step into the breach with fresh thinking to address concerns about balancing vibrancy with livability.

Natalie Avery was the Executive Director of the MidCity Business Association from 2008 to 2010 and worked closely with hospitality operators in the 14th and U area to foster a best practices approach to managing nightlife issues. In 2010 she co-chaired the ABRA Noise Task Force. Currently she is a stay-at-home mom in Mount Pleasant, happy to be raising her children near a commercial strip with lots of nightlife and dining options.

Natalie Avery was the Executive Director of the MidCity Business Association from 2008 to 2010 and worked closely with hospitality operators in the 14th and U area to foster a best practices approach to managing nightlife issues. In 2010 she co-chaired the ABRA Noise Task Force. Currently she is a stay-at-home mom in Mount Pleasant, happy to be raising her children near a commercial strip with lots of nightlife and dining options.