Council weighing changes to Ward 4 grocery rules to benefit Walter Reed

Developers of the Walter Reed campus hope a grocery store will anchor the stretch of Georgia Avenue between Dahlia and Elder streets NW, as shown in this early rendering. (rendering courtesy of Hines-Urban Atlantic-Triden]

Supermarkets in Ward 4 would be permitted to sell beer and wine under a proposed D.C. Council bill, but some residents disagree about how broad that exception to existing restrictions should be.

Years ago, the council responded to residents’ requests to ban new grocery-store alcohol licenses in Ward 4, given complaints about a proliferation of small outlets selling beer and wine. Now, developers of the expansive Parks at Walter Reed complex have been struggling to secure a full-service grocery store to anchor the site’s “town center” portion on Georgia between Dahlia and Elder streets NW.

Though Whole Foods and Wegmans had publicly expressed interest in the site, the project team has said stores are reluctant to come if they can’t offer beer and wine. And in fact, Wegmans recently decided instead to settle at the Fannie Mae redevelopment in Ward 3.

The Walter Reed project will reopen the site to the public, and developers hope a supermarket will open near this corner of Georgia Avenue and Dahlia Street NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

In response, Ward 4 Council member Brandon Todd and his at-large colleague Anita Bonds co-introduced a bill on June 6 that would allow full-service grocers to sidestep existing restrictions on selling beer and wine for off-premises consumption. The bill has been referred to the council’s Committee on Business and Economic Development, chaired by Ward 5 member Kenyan McDuffie, who plans to schedule a public hearing, likely after the council’s summer recess, spokesperson Nolan Treadway told The Current.

Todd said in an interview that he hasn’t heard any concerns from neighbors about amending what he sees as a narrow portion of the alcohol license moratorium, which would remain in place for liquor stores and continue to prohibit the sale of spirits for off-premises consumption at groceries as well.

“My conversations with neighbors in the community have primarily been around the bad actors, more so liquor stores, but not really around full-service grocery options,” Todd said. “I think that Ward 4 residents are excited about the opportunity for more grocery options.”

Representatives from the Walter Reed developers didn’t provide comment in time for publication.

Community leaders in Ward 4 mounted a campaign for a liquor license moratorium in 2004 to discourage public drunkenness and other perceived disruptions from an influx of new liquor establishments. The new Petworth Safeway secured an exemption in 2014, but the moratorium has otherwise remained in place.

On June 6, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4A weighed in on the moratorium with a more conservative recommendation than Todd’s. By a 5-1 vote with two abstentions, ANC 4A voted to support making the full-service grocery store exception — but only in the portion of the commission that would include the Walter Reed store.

“The issue came down to when the council member’s representative talked about doing all of Ward 4,” ANC 4A chair Stephen Whatley told The Current. “There are people who are opposed to Walmart getting a liquor license. If you do all of Ward 4, then that would be included.”

Gale Black, ANC 4A’s Crestwood representative, told The Current she opposed the resolution because she doesn’t want to set a precedent in the broader ANC 4A area that neighbors support more beer and wine licenses.

The two ANC 4A members who abstained from voting on Whatley’s resolution — Deborah Pope of Brightwood and Stacey Lincoln of Shepherd Park — didn’t return messages in time for publication. But Lincoln’s single-member district also includes a planned mixed-use development with Harris Teeter grocery store, at the corner of Georgia and Eastern avenues NW, which has drawn criticism from ANC 4A over traffic concerns. A representative for that project didn’t return requests for comment about the status of the store.

(ANC 4A includes Colonial Village, Crestwood, Shepherd Park, northern 16th Street Heights and western Brightwood.)

ANC 4B, which sits across Georgia Avenue from the Walter Reed campus, hasn’t yet taken a position on the moratorium. Chair Andre Carley told The Current that he’s personally not opposed to the full-service grocery store exception. On the other hand, he is concerned that a grocer might have other reasons to look askance at Ward 4, such as a dearth of parking options and a general feeling of isolation from the broader city.

“I don’t think beer and wine by itself will make or break the case for a big-box store there,” Carley said. (ANC 4B includes Takoma, Manor Park, Lamond Riggs, parts of Brightwood, parts of Riggs Park, and parts of Brightwood Park.)

ANC 4C (southern 16th Street Heights, western Petworth) also hasn’t taken a position on the moratorium in recent years. Chair Zachary Teutsch told The Current he supports the proposal to exempt grocers from the moratorium. “I believe the moratorium has a [lot] of negative and unintended consequences and it’d be better to decide on a case-by-case basis with a general policy framework rather than a complete moratorium,” Teutsch wrote in an email.

A representative of ANC 4D (Rock Creek Cemetery, parts of Petworth, and parts of Brightwood Park) didn’t return messages in time for publication.

Others in Ward 4 see relaxing the moratorium as an opportunity to revitalize the area’s economic fortunes. Shepherd Park resident Brett Greene, who has been leading a neighborhood effort supporting moratorium reform, thinks retailers would be much more favorably inclined toward this portion of the city if other areas didn’t appear so much less restrictive by comparison.

Though Greene sees cuts to the moratorium as a net positive, he’s concerned about language in Todd’s bill that amends the definition of full-service grocery stores. Under the proposed bill, stores would be counted as full-service grocery stores only if groceries account for the majority of their sales.

The wording is designed to “align with existing code” and prevent non-grocers from exploiting the exception, according to Todd’s spokesperson Joshua Fleitman. But Greene thinks the provision will ultimately dissuade other businesses from coming to the ward.

Detailed plans for the Parks at Walter Reed town center are scheduled for later this year, according to the development team’s website. The town center portion will boast 300 residential units and 75,000 square feet of retail.