Beer garden, Safeway face ABC protest in Dupont

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Dupont Circle's Safeway is located at 17th and Corcoran streets NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

Portions of Dupont Circle are among the city’s most robust commercial areas, but nearby residents don’t always see eye to eye with proprietors on operational issues. In recent months, two separate proposals for alcohol sales in the area have prompted significant neighborhood backlash.

Safeway at 1701 Corcoran St. NW — described as the “Soviet Safeway” by shoppers who find the range and availability of products unsatisfactory — has been in discussions with the community since last fall about acquiring a license to sell beer and wine, among other changes to its food and beverage offerings.

More recently, Dacha Beer Garden — which has clashed with neighbors near its original Shaw location numerous times since opening in 2013 — has announced plans to open a new establishment at 1740 14th St. NW, just steps away from numerous residents on S Street NW.

Representatives from both establishments have vowed to work with neighbors to resolve concerns. But tensions came to a boil at last Wednesday’s meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B (Dupont Circle), where more than two dozen residents expressed frustrations over the potential impacts of both these establishments selling alcohol.

ANC 2B voted 4-3 to protest Safeway’s alcohol license application. Minutes later, commissioners followed that decision with a unanimous vote to protest Dacha’s application, in line with a similar protest from ANC 2F (Logan Circle). The proposed Dacha location falls within ANC 2F, though many of the affected residents live nearby within ANC 2B.

At Safeway, the grocery’s proposed interior renovation includes beer and wine sales, the addition of 800 organic items, the installation of several new self-checkout machines, an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, and new breads and parfaits. Beer and wine would comprise approximately 3.8 percent of the store’s overall offerings, Safeway’s Brad Spooner said at the ANC 2B meeting.

In exchange for the new items, certain “dead items” would have less room in the store — particularly household goods that customers are now more likely to purchase online. “It’s really about right-sizing the store relative to the business needs of today,” Tom Lofland, vice president of marketing for Safeway’s Eastern Division, said at the meeting.

Neighbors railed against Safeway for proposing to remove some products on top of existing inventory complaints: One resident lamented the lack of kosher items, while another said he often struggles to find milk that hasn’t expired. Meanwhile, others fretted that nearby liquor stores could suffer if Safeway sells alcohol.

ANC 2B’s chair Nicole Mann and vice chair Daniel Warwick said they’re uncomfortable dictating a private retailer’s product mix. But several commissioners with stronger objections to Safeway’s liquor license proposal prevailed, including Nick DelleDonne, who thinks the store’s proposed revamp would pose a threat to the neighborhood’s character.

“We want a livable walkable village culture. People want to live here because of that,” he said. “We value that some of these stores are family-owned, and we don’t want to see them suffer unduly.”

Commissioners differed on how to respond to those concerns. Before the protest vote, Mann advocated for avoiding a protest and instead drafting a settlement agreement limiting the amount of shelf space Safeway will devote to beer and wine, similar to an existing arrangement at a grocery store in Columbia Heights. Having protested, ANC 2B will now work toward a similar compromise.

The parking lot at 1740 14th St. NW is being eyed as a second location for Dacha Beer Garden. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

Meanwhile, the dispute with Dacha can’t be resolved unless neighbors are able to get past the establishment’s history of contentious community relations. ANC 6E, home to Dacha’s original Shaw location, fought a 2015 proposal for expansion there, and neighbors raised frequent concerns about excessive noise and periodic rat infestations. In 2015, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board fined Dacha $42,500 for repeatedly exceeding occupancy restrictions.

For the site at the corner of 14th and S, near a slew of row homes, Dacha proposes a beer garden with room for 450 people on private property, as well as a 150-seat sidewalk cafe. Dacha owners Dmitri Chekaldin and Ilya Alter caution that those numbers reflect the maximum permitted on the site and likely will decrease as the design process continues. The proposal includes transforming an existing shed on the site into an indoor bar, and adding a children’s playground on the outdoor portion.

During the May meeting of ANC 2B, owners had asked neighbors to keep an open mind. But several S Street residents said the initial designs foreshadow unacceptable levels of noise and disturbance to their homes on a regular basis, given that a beer garden and barbecue restaurant, Garden District, already exists at 1801 14th St. NW, kitty-corner across the intersection from the proposed Dacha.

“That particular location does not need another beer garden,” one resident said. “There are all kinds of great avenues. We don’t need you.”

Chekaldin and Alter tried to dispel some concerns: The main entrance to the beer garden would be on 14th Street, away from residents, and it wouldn’t have a DJ or any other live music. They also said they’ve learned from their experience in Shaw, their first time operating a business.

“We have learned a lot. Learning a lot is an understatement,” Alter said. “Running your own business is challenging.”

The owners weren’t present at ANC 2B’s June meeting, but commissioners agreed that numerous aspects of the proposal were concerning. Dacha proposes to close outdoor operations at midnight on weeknights and at 2 a.m. on weekends, but ANC 2B typically doesn’t support applications that propose sidewalk cafes or summer gardens open past 11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends.

The Dupont Circle Citizens Association also voted this month to protest the Dacha license, member Lance Salonia said.

Representatives of ANC 2F and ANC 2B plan to continue working with Dacha as plans develop for the Dupont/Logan location. Dacha also plans to open another new location across from Nationals Park.

The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board will hold a roll call hearing for the Dacha application on July 3 and a protest hearing on Aug. 16. The board has scheduled a roll call hearing for the Safeway application on July 31 and a protest hearing on Sept. 16.