Photo by mckone.jonna on Flickr.

The success of the Mount Pleasant Temporium and the battles to clamp down on liquor licenses in Mount Pleasant illustrate two opposite approaches to community development and commercial revitalization: one positive and constructive, one negative and limiting.

During the month of March, nearly 6,800 people, mostly from Ward 1,  visited the Mount Pleasant Temporium, a “pop-up shop” featuring local artisans and performers and funded with a small grant from the DC Office of Planning.  Volunteers organized the shop, planned events and promoted it through marketing.  The 24-day pop-up shop rang up a whopping $31,000 in sales.

During the same period, the city’s ABC Board, the body that grants and revokes liquor licenses, announced three landmark decisions.  They released three restaurants from their “voluntary agreements” with a small group of activists, ending a six-year legal battle.

Mount Pleasant has housed an array of artists, musicians, bands, and arts groups. Why for so long did it seem that revitalization has passed Mount Pleasant Street by?  The activism behind the now terminated-VAs represents part of the problem, and the Temporium represents part of the solution.

In both cases, a small group of motivated residents turned their attention to the neighborhood’s commercial corridor. And in both cases, the city intervened to help them, but with vastly different results.

During the Temporium’s 23-day run, over 50 volunteers donated a total of 850 hours of time to the month-long pop-up shop and program of events. Local businesses offered space, free advertising and supplies worth thousands of dollars. The Temporium’s success delivered what the best marketing campaign couldn’t buy: living proof that creative daytime retail can be successful in this off-the-beaten-path neighborhood.

The Temporium capitalized on a key quality of urban living and created an outlet for some of the more scrappy and local forms of culture and entertainment that happens in the city. Its organizers understood that people love living in cities not only because of the convenience of living close to downtown or because of bike lanes, green space, and transit, but because of the rich and multilayered social opportunities and cultural venues available close to home.

A 2008 Knight Foundation study found that most of its 46,000 respondents chose the availability of spaces for socialization and entertainment venues as the most significant qualities connecting them to their urban neighborhoods.

The Temporium organizers tapped into people’s hopes for Mount Pleasant. It brought not only the kind of business mix they want to see, but the kind of community and local culture they want to foster. They partnered with restaurants to publicize and cross-promote the project and the neighborhood. Local DJs, performers and musicians were included and valued.

This approach to community economic development on Mount Pleasant Street stands in stark contrast to the activism behind the now-terminated VAs. Instead of building on their hopes for the neighborhoods, the small group of activists behind the VAs focused on what they most feared: “becoming another Adams Morgan.”

Among their chief targets were business models that blurred the boundaries between restaurant, bar, and nightclub. The liquor license protest process provided a powerful tool, not so much to manage issues like noise and trash, but to preclude this allegedly “community unfriendly” hybrid business model.

The liquor license protest process enabled a few neighbors to impose rules through “voluntary” agreements which made it very difficult for most local establishments to operate legally outside the rubric of a traditional sit-down restaurant.

For example, some of the Mount Pleasant VAs strictly prohibited happy hours, even though few people find them disruptive.  All Mount Pleasnt VA’s also forbade places from offering live music and dancing. VA activists put these restrictions in place, they said, to protect “quality of life” and to keep Mount Pleasant Street from becoming a nightclub district.

But for many Mount Pleasant residents, neighborhood restaurants were much more than places to purchase meals or grab drinks. They were gathering places and cultural venues. The fact that these places blurred the lines between restaurant, bar, and club was what made them so valuable and what fostered such a strong sense of community in what was once DC’s most economically and culturally diverse neighborhoods. 

Therefore, a large number of people felt the VA restrictions, especially the ban on live music and dancing, cut them off from a unique aspect of Mount Pleasant community life they once treasured: evenings spent at little restaurants listening to mariachi bands and other local musicians.

Lilo Gonzalez performs at a Don Juan’s family night, April 26th, 2011.

The VA terminations didn’t just happen. It took a grueling seven-year grassroots campaign to reconcile businesses with a few skeptical, but vocal, neighbors.

It’s important to note that the whole effort was as much about creating more venues for music and culture as it was about building capacity among local operators to better manage potential negative impacts.  Residents seeking to overturn the live music ban worked with businesses to help them plan proactively to minimize potential negative impacts, especially around noise and crowds. Those licensees who wanted out of their VAs conducted noise assessments and implemented sound management plans. Their staff attended extensive trainings in security and responsible alcohol service.

This is just one reason why there was poetic justice when the VA terminations and the Mount Pleasant Temporium coincided. Both show that there is a willingness to work on a civic agenda that’s built on hopes for a neighborhood commercial strip as well as one that values, rather than fears, what “entertainment” and communities more traditionally associated with nightlife can bring to the table. The Temporium organizers tapped into this energy. The activists behind the VAs rejected it.

Moving forward, other agencies should follow the Office of Planning’s lead and invest political capital into helping neighborhoods attract the kind of community-friendly investment and foster the civic energy that will make DC neighborhood’s both more vibrant and livable. Instead of codifying the fears of self-selected neighborhood gatekeepers into the law, we need city leaders to invest in better ways to manage, plan and police mixed-use neighborhoods so they can be both vibrant and livable.

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.