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Neighbors Of One Popular D.C. Nightspot Want To Tamp Down On The Partying

Ben's Chili Bowl is a popular hangout in the U Street area, which is a nightlife destination for many local revelers.
Ben's Chili Bowl is a popular hangout in the U Street area, which is a nightlife destination for many local revelers.

The U Street corridor is one of the city's hottest nighlife destinations, with bars and restaurants popping up along U Street and 14th Street NW with surprising speed. But for some residents of the neighborhood, the nightlife isn't to be cheered—and they're hoping to bring it under control by limiting how many new liquor licenses the city can dole out.

Yesterday afternoon the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board heard three hours of testimony from supporters and opponents of the proposed moratorium, which would bring to a halt the issuance of new liquor licenses in an 1800-foot circle radiating out from 1211 U Street NW for the next five years. If the moratorium were approved, U Street would join Dupont Circle, Georgetown, Glover Park, and Adams Morgan as neighborhoods where caps have been imposed.

According to the group backing the moratorium, the U Street area is awash in liquor—over 100 license-holders boasting more than 16,500 seats—producing quality-of-life concerns and driving out traditional businesses that would attract daytime traffic. 

"They have pushed out arts venues and small retail establishments crucial to the balance of a sustainable functioning neighborhood, replacing them with what they prefer—a staggering abundance of high-revenue-generating liquor license-holding establishments," said Lisa Kelly, a member of the Shaw-Dupont Civic Association, the group that filed the application for the moratorium. (The application is here in PDF format.)

Local residents, many of which said they had moved in decades before and had fought to see the neighborhood improve after it was decimated by the 1968 riots, complained of being woken up in the early-morning hours by loud revelers, having trouble finding parking around their homes and spending weekend mornings cleaning up sidewalks and streets littered with trash from the night before. 

They came well-prepared to back up their points, citing not only personal anecdotes but also a December 2012 letter from D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier in which she told members of the D.C. Council that city blocks with more than 10 bars require four times the police manpower.

Though they were outnumbered at the hearing, opponents passionately countered that the neighborhood's popularity has been driven by the very bars, restaurants and nightclubs that moratorium backers are demonizing and that a cap on liquor licenses would put on a damper on the area's vibrancy. There are bad actors in the neighborhood, they conceded, but a moratorium was too blunt a tool to use.

Additionally, said one club owner, the moratorium would have the same impact it has had in other neighborhoods that have opted for them—liquor licenses would become much more valuable commodities, likely worth tens of thousands of dollars.

"Businesses like mine...we're going to be sitting on no option for changes and license value that is five to 10 times higher than it currently is. The temptation for people like us, I believe, is going to be to cash in on that added value of the liquor license and move," said Dante Ferrando, who owns The Black Cat.

The issue has divided the neighborhood, with four Advisory Neighborhood Commissions weighing in against the moratorium while three civic associations have backed it. Proponents say that they've gathered close to 400 signatures from local residents, while opponents point to an online petition that has attracted over 1,200 signatures. This week, Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who represents neighborhoods that would be included in the moratorium zone, urged the alcohol board to reject the proposal.

Two of the alcohol board's five members seemed skeptical that a full moratorium was needed, arguing that other businesses remained in the neighborhood and that the bars and restaurants had made U Street a go-to destination in the city.

"It seems like you're swimming upstream here," said board member Mike Silverstein to moratorium supporters. He also argued that the neighborhood's past wasn't just urban blight, but also an active nightlife. "The history of this neighborhood, I'm not sure if it's cinder blocks or Black Broadway. Hasn't this historically been a nightlife area?"

The board has not said when it will render a decision, but it is keeping the record open for written testimony until May 24. Regardless of what it decides on U Street, it will he hearing of this issue again soon enough—the five-year moratoria in East Dupont and Adams Morgan are up for renewal later this year.


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