Heaven or Hell? Infernal goings-on roil Adams Morgan business community

18th Street NW in Adams Morgan is home to many nightlife establishments. (Mark Lieberman/The Current/July 2017)

The meetings of the Adams Morgan Partnership Business Improvement District (BID) generally deal with routine stuff such as trash removal, parking issues, bicycle racks, a sidewalk on Columbia Road the BID has been asking the city to fix for years.

When the BID’s security director gave his report at the March 13 meeting, the proceedings became livelier as the board members discussed the bar fights associated with one neighborhood establishment called Heaven and Hell. A recent stabbing in front of the honky tonk drew comment from an audience member.

“The man with eviscerated intestines survived, but not before running around the neighborhood,” the attendee said. “We’ve got to put our foot down and demand that the place be shut down.”

But even the celestial and infernal brawls and the exposure of guts seemed tame compared to the bombshell dropped late in the meeting by board member Matt Wexler.

“I am calling for the resignation of the board president and vice president,” said Wexler, a developer and investor with the new Line Hotel in the neighborhood. “The misconduct at the board executive committee level is striking, as is its lack of concern for the interests of [BID] members outside of the two blocks between Columbia Road and Kalorama Road on 18th Street.

“The BID, time and time again, acts in the best interests of the board leadership … a faction of 18th Street interests.”

Like the knife that eviscerated the unfortunate patron at Heaven and Hell, Wexler’s tongue was sharp in his criticisms of Constantine Stavrapoulos and Arianne Bennett, the president and vice president, respectively.

“Unethical,” “blatantly outlandish,” “failed governance,” “disgusting hypocrisy” and “a leadership threatened by dissent” were among the terms deployed by Wexler in blasting the board’s officers.

A Feb. 28 letter to Stavropoulos, Bennett and Kristen Barden, the BID’s executive director, signed by Wexler and fellow BID board member and Line Hotel investor Brian Friedman, had been the opening salvo in the battle of the BID. In the letter, Wexler and Friedman outlined their charges of what they called “unlawful conduct.”

The owner of a commercial property within the boundaries of a BID – there are 10 in the District of Columbia – is required by D.C. law to pay a BID tax. This BID tax is in addition to property taxes.

The D.C. BID Council describes the purpose and history of BIDs on its website.

“In 1996, the D.C. City Council passed enabling legislation for business improvement districts. The BIDs contribute to the city in many ways. The most visible is the cleaning and safety staff that BIDs provide. They also contribute in many other, less visible ways. BIDs work closely with existing businesses to help them grow, and recruit new stores and restaurants to their areas. BIDs market their areas, organize community events, provide homeless outreach services and beautify public space.”

In Adams Morgan, the BID pays for the security program that operates on weekend nights along the stretch of 18th Street, which Wexler spoke of at the March 13 meeting. Stavropoulos and Bennett own restaurants in that two-block stretch.

Wexler and Friedman are managing partners at Foxhall Partners, a D.C.-based development firm. The firm’s website describes the Line Hotel, which opened on New Year’s Day, as part of Foxhall’s “portfolio.”

The letter from Wexler and Friedman states that the BID’s services are provided in “disproportionate amounts” to the businesses on 18th Street.

“Those who have asked for this limited BID security program and who benefit from it are required by its bylaws to pay for it [with a surcharge],” the letter read. “But those property and business owners, especially and specifically those who are board members, have never paid a surcharge.”

Wexler and Friedman’s letter demands a fairer distribution of BID tax revenues by providing daytime security throughout the BID, not just on the two blocks of 18th Street. The letter speaks of “the sorry state of the daytime environment on Columbia Road north of 18th Street,” which it calls one of the neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfares. The Line Hotel is located on that stretch of Columbia Road, at its intersection with Euclid Street.

“Yet the BID board leadership and management treat Columbia Road as if it were a secondary corridor,” Wexler and Friedman wrote. “We can no longer tolerate this lack of equity of BID resources, priorities and funding.”

The letter – four pages long – criticizes other board practices relating to meeting minutes, board elections, membership rules and other matters.

It ends by demanding an end to the conduct deprecated by Wexler and Friedman, and restitution by board members “who have received disproportionate allocations of BID resources.”

In his statement at the March 13 meeting, Wexler also criticized proposed changes to the BID’s bylaws, which would allow only one representative from a given business to serve on the board. When their current terms expire, this would have the effect of removing either Wexler or Friedman from the board.

Wexler characterized this change as an attempt to “stifle dissent.”

He objected to the the role of Barden, the BID’s director, in drawing up the proposed revisions to the bylaws.

Wexler demanded the board table further discussion of changes to the bylaws “until the misconduct we described in our letter is fully addressed and rectified.”

In his summing up on March 13, Wexler described the purpose for his broadside.

“This is about reforming an organization that is not working for many of its taxpaying members in part due to a striking failure of governance,” he said.

At the meeting, Bennett responded to Wexler’s attack by referring to the proposed change that would limit the number of representative the Line Hotel could have on the board.

“People feel Matt wants to load the board with his people,” Bennett said.

In an interview, she defended herself and the board’s record. The extra security personnel the BID pays for are known as reimbursable detail officers, or RDOs for short. The RDOs are off-duty Metropolitan Police Department officers.

“The BID has not provided RDOs on 18th Street for some time,” Bennett said.

Barden explained how the security program now works.

“[The BID] pays for only one of the RDOs,” she said. “The individual businesses hire them directly. When the program started, we were hiring five or six RDOs. Now most of that expense is on the business owners.”

The BID’s security director, Greg Frank, oversees the RDOs and sees that the slots are filled. Frank’s salary is paid by the BID.

Barden clarified that the officers serve the whole neighborhood.

“The RDOs are not detailed to 18th Street,” she said. “They are detailed to Adams Morgan. They have radios and respond to things that come up [throughout the BID].”

Bennett, who is the co-owner of the Falafel Shop with her husband, said employees of the BID with other responsibilities also look out for public safety. The BID’s “clean team” is made up of four full-time employees plus a full-time supervisor who work seven days a week removing trash from local streets.

“Our clean team reports back immediately on possible security issues,” she said. “They are our eyes on the street.”

Another board member, Pat Patrick, who owns a commercial real estate agency, has lived in Adams Morgan for 40 years, and thinks Wexler does not appreciate the result of the BID’s security program over the last dozen years.

“It’s a very unfair criticism,” Patrick said. “He doesn’t understand what we started out with. The security situation on lower 18th Street was horrific.”

Saied Azali is a member of the BID’s board and an owner of Perry’s and Mintwood Place – two restaurants on Columbia Road. He says the extra security detail on the short stretch of 18th Street is necessary for the whole neighborhood to thrive.

“Everybody’s arguing about cops on 18th Street,” Azali said. “I don’t want to pay for cops, but if the neighborhood isn’t safe [my businesses] suffer. If we get labelled as a bad neighborhood, it affects everybody.”

Paying for extra police on 18th Street is a board decision, and a line item in the budget. Barden says Wexler has been an active participant in the budget process during the more than five years he has served on the board.

“Matt has been an active part of our budget cycle, but he doesn’t really seem to understand how our safety program works,” she said.

Bennett said efforts to change the perception of Adams Morgan, as for example the extra security on 18th Street, have paid off so that the district is now regarded as family-friendly.

“Now we can devote resources to branding the community as a place of love, diversity and welcome,” she said.

It may take a while before Bennett thinks such happy thoughts about Wexler.

“Everyone up and down this block has put their whole life savings into their businesses,” she said. “That hotel is just one of many things in his portfolio. I was blindsided by his accusations. I got bullied by my own personal Adams Morgan Donald Trump.

“Not all developers come in and throw their weight around. I think development is a good thing for the city. That’s why we welcomed the Line Hotel with open arms. But to come in and run roughshod over everyone because of your size – that’s not right. His life would be easier – his path to his voice being the only voice – if people who stand up to him would go away.”

Regarding the proposed bylaw changes, Bennett said Wexler misunderstands the rationale for them.

“This is not a Matt and Brian thing,” she said. “This is a best practices thing. Should my husband and I each have a seat for our small restaurant?”

Bennett disputed the charge that the board has focused its efforts on only one small area of the BID. She listed projects not related to security.

“To say we’ve focused on 18th Street is wrong,” she said. “We have a very large beautification project in the works focused on all Adams Morgan corridors. Our marketing promotes retail in the whole community. We have fought for representation of the Latino community. There’s been a huge push by the BID to address loitering and panhandling on Columbia Road. We have worked with homeless organizations so people aren’t laid out on drugs in front of Safeway. We hired the clean team, who clean all of 18th, Florida Avenue and Columbia, and one block off the main corridors into residential streets to build ties with the local residents.

“We hold ‘bike to work day’ at Unity Park [in front of the Line Hotel]. I’m out there with Kristen and other volunteers from the community at 5 a.m. Not Matt.”

Patrick named another achievement by the BID.

“The BID got double-decker sightseeing buses to come up here [from the Mall]. The tourists get off and on,” he said.

Patrick also noted Wexler ran against Stavrapoulos for the board presidency in the fall but lost.

Patrick says he believes in the principle of one man, one vote.

“Why should a person with a thousand square foot building have less of a vote than the person speaking for the hotel?,” he asked.

Like the other board members interviewed, Patrick thinks the hotel is an unqualified blessing to the neighborhood, and praised Wexler as a valued member of the community.

“Matt’s a smart and wonderful guy, and has the community’s interest at heart,” Patrick said. “He has to learn to cooperate on the BID board.

“The hotel is what the area needed. We’ve never had afternoon business. There’s no Metro here. There are no offices here. The people who live in the houses around here go downtown to work. I’m beginning to see afternoon business pick up. But the building is three years late. Why? Because a community member nitpicked every little thing the hotel was doing.”

Azali strongly defended Barden.

“Kristen works very hard,” he said. “For me she’s the best director we’ve ever had. When I have problems with the [utility companies], I don’t know what to do. Kristen is the only one I can call to deal with these people. She informs me what meetings to go to. She helps me a lot. I think she is an angel.”

Barden said the BID, whose annual budget is $560,000, seeks to provide clean, safe and friendly services to the neighborhood.

“That is our motto in a nutshell,” he said.

The board’s next meeting is on April 11.