Dupont debates whether to compromise or fight Safeway alcohol application

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

Dupont Circle residents critical of plans to sell alcohol at the neighborhood Safeway turned out in force for a Monday town hall, continuing a “Food, Not Booze” campaign that’s attracted media attention from around the area.

In June, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B (Dupont Circle) voted 4-3 to protest Safeway’s liquor license application for the 1701 Corcoran St. NW store, and the commission convened Monday’s meeting to hear feedback on a possible compromise. The dispute is scheduled for mediation today.

“The ANC pulls great weight as an advisory board,” commissioner Stephanie Maltz said at the beginning of the meeting. “We are the diplomat — we want to hear from you. What are your thoughts? Where do you want a middle ground to be?’”

Many residents at the meeting said that reserving two aisles for alcohol would further cut down on the “already scarce” food selection.

“I’m not opposed to liquor at Safeway; I’m for food at Safeway,” one resident said. “There is simply not enough food. If space is made for beer and wine sales, what do they choose to dispense with?”

Others opposed alcohol sales regardless of the food impact, citing concerns about the young children who frequent the store and about the impact on nearby small businesses such as Cairo Wine & Liquor.

In a news release publicizing Monday’s meeting, ANC 2B commissioner Nick DelleDonne — who represents neighbors who live across 17th Street from the store — highlighted a desire to maintain the current retail balance.

“We strongly support the many existing family-owned businesses and our current grocery-only Safeway,” he said in the release. “We need to preserve the mix of businesses and residences that respects the special livable/walkable neighborhood that makes our neighborhood in Dupont Circle the place where people want to live, shop and socialize.”

Today’s mediation is open to all groups that have protested the Safeway application. In addition to ANC 2B, these include the Dupont Circle Citizens Association, the owners and supporters of Cairo Wine & Liquor and parents from nearby Ross Elementary School.

Many of the opponents at Monday’s meeting — some of whom sported T-shirts reading “Food, Not Booze at Safeway” — want to block the store’s alcohol application altogether, rather than looking for a legally enforceable compromise.

“I am deeply concerned that the ANC will only do a settlement agreement, and not a simple protest,” one resident said. “I want my ANC to strongly oppose. We are your voting constituents. This is our grocery store — we want groceries.”

Others, however, seemed open to a settlement agreement that accounted for the layout of the store, focusing on the square footage and location of the alcohol.

“It’s easy to get caught up in protest,” former ANC 2B member Will Stephens said, “but the ANC is meant to be a process. We need to support a reasonable agreement.”

At the beginning of the meeting, Sarah Fashbaugh of the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration passed out a list of items that are typically enforceable — and unenforceable — in a settlement agreement. Many meeting attendees said a settlement agreement’s likely terms wouldn’t address their broader concerns.

“Most of these enforceable items aren’t relevant to a grocery store and are things that are simply enforceable by D.C. law,” the representative from Cairo said. “This would not suffice for us.”

But Fashbaugh urged residents to consider being open to a settlement agreement, as those enforceable and unenforceable items on the list are not final.

“The [Alcoholic Beverage Control Board] has final approval,” she said. “I haven’t seen a situation where the board has had an issue with someone providing a map of the store in the settlement. Personally, I haven’t seen people do it in a grocery store and restrict how much space is devoted to liquor, but I don’t see why [including it in a proposed settlement agreement] would be an issue.”

In an interview after the meeting, Maltz — whose district includes the store — cautioned against reading too much into the Monday meeting.

“It seems like everyone is vehemently against,” she said. “But if you kind of just agree, you probably wouldn’t be coming to the meeting. We represent 18,000 people in this ANC. There is a lot of diversity of opinion. I’ve received emails from people on both sides of the issue.”

Maltz also said she was wary of going to a full protest hearing without attempting to work out a settlement agreement — in case the alcohol board simply approves Safeway’s application without any of the limitations residents might favor. “We don’t want to get to a point where we have no control, and no one is getting any of the stipulations they want,” she said.

After Wednesday’s mediation, there will be a status hearing on Sept. 13, with a protest hearing set for Sept. 27 if no settlement is reached.