Dupont ANC pushes to end 17th Street alcohol license moratorium

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The area around 17th and Q streets NW has been subject to a moratorium on new tavern and nightclub licenses. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

The 17th Street strip of Dupont Circle could start seeing more taverns and nightclubs after decades of restrictions, as some neighborhood leaders push for lifting the existing liquor license moratorium on such establishments.

Beginning in 1990, a moratorium restricted all new liquor licenses in the eastern portion of Dupont Circle — 600 feet in all directions from the intersection of 17th and Q streets NW. In 2014, neighborhood leaders petitioned for the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to loosen those restrictions to allow more restaurants. The existing moratorium, currently set to expire on Aug. 21, caps the number of taverns in the zone to two and prohibits new nightclubs.

At its June 14 meeting, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B (Dupont Circle) voted 4-1 with two abstentions to request that the alcohol board allow the remaining restrictions to expire later this summer. Supporters said a relative lack of concerns over existing establishments in the area shows the time has come to allow new establishments and deal with any disturbances on a case-by-case basis. But others worry that the position was adopted too hastily: The Dupont Circle Citizens Association, by contrast, voted this month to lift the cap on taverns but request a five-year extension on the nightclub ban.

ANC 2B’s Randy Downs told The Current he thinks the license restrictions have constrained growth in the area, and that the few new openings in the moratorium zone in recent years — including the restaurant Brick Lane at 1636 17th St. NW and the pub Duke’s at 1513 17th — have been welcome additions. The area’s gay community would particularly benefit from more commercial venues, he said.

“I just think it’s not really necessary anymore,” said Downs, who represents the moratorium zone’s southeastern portion. “Other parts of the city are also lifting their moratoriums. I just don’t want 17th Street and Dupont to be left behind.”

In an interview, Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans also weighed in against extending the moratorium. Prior to his 1991 election to the council, Evans served as ANC 2B’s chair when neighbors first requested the license restrictions. The issues from back then — a preponderance of similar nightlife establishments at the expense of more diverse small-business shops — have gone away, he said.

The area around 17th and Q streets NW has been subject to a moratorium on new tavern and nightclub licenses. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

“We’re not in danger of losing neighborhood retail,” Evans said. “What we’re in danger of is becoming sleepy neighborhood streets without any nightlife on them because restaurants are going east. Right now, you really need to keep the restaurants you have and attract a better quality.”

Despite Evans’ support, ANC 2B wasn’t entirely in sync on the issue. Stephanie Maltz, whose single-member district includes the northwestern portion of the moratorium zone, abstained from the vote because she felt the issue deserved more robust public input. ANC 2B’s vice chair Daniel Warwick also abstained due to calls from several residents for more time to deliberate.

One of those calls came from Dupont Circle Citizens Association president Robin Diener, who told The Current that she thinks lifting the moratorium deserves the same careful consideration that a took place a few years ago over similar restrictions in the neighborhood’s western portion. That moratorium now prohibits new nightclubs in all but a few areas of western Dupont Circle, and Diener’s group thinks that provision should remain for the 17th Street area to prevent nightlife establishments from bringing drunken revelry.

“I don’t think anyone on the ANC currently, with an exception of the new commissioner Nick DelleDonne, lived in the neighborhood prior to the imposition of the moratorium,” Diener said. “I don’t think they knew what it was like here.”

(ANC 2B’s Mike Silverstein has also lived in the neighborhood since before the moratorium, but he recuses himself from the commission’s discussions of liquor license applications due to his membership on the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.)

DelleDonne, who was elected to ANC 2B in March, was the only member to vote this month against lifting the moratorium. He told The Current he thinks relaxed rules could prove detrimental to the area’s increasing popularity among families with young children.

“My sense is the changes are afoot in the neighborhood. It used to be that you couldn’t hear a baby cry,” said DelleDonne, who represents the northeastern portion of the moratorium zone. “Just as a matter of caution, I thought it might be better not to let this thing expire when it has served us.”

DelleDonne’s neighbor Nora Rigby told The Current she’s worried that lifting the moratorium would encourage outdoor smoking, yelling and fighting like what she’s witnessed at the now-closed Some Place Else tavern at 1637 R St. NW next door to her apartment building.

“Living next to that place was awful,” Rigby said. “The neighbors are bad neighbors. I’m afraid if you lift the moratorium, you’re going to get bad ones.”

Supporters of lifting the moratorium acknowledge that it can always be reinstated if their assumptions prove to be incorrect. Downs said that even without the liquor license restrictions, he doesn’t expect prospective nightclubs to find large enough spaces to operate in eastern Dupont. And even without a moratorium, each new applicant would need to demonstrate to the alcohol board that it wouldn’t disturb neighbors’ peace, order and quiet, with an opportunity for the community to challenge license renewals for existing establishments.

Evans told The Current he’ll happily support a request for a new moratorium should it become necessary later on. “I’m willing to take the chance that we should lift it and see where we go,” he said.

Given the citizens association’s petition for extension, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board will hold a hearing and accept public comment on the moratorium this summer.