Popular Dupont shop seeks to reopen sidewalk cafe after permit issue

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The outdoor seating at 1926 17th St. NW lacked a public space permit. (Susann Shin/The Current)

On a sunny day last October, “Gilmore Girls” devotees lined up for more than a block outside Three Fifty Bakery & Coffee Bar to grab free coffee at a pop-up Luke’s Diner installation, set up by Netflix to recreate one of the show’s iconic settings to promote upcoming new episodes. Some of those customers sat at the shop’s 16-seat sidewalk cafe.

Such a scene wouldn’t be possible today. Owner Jimmy Hopper discovered last fall that he hadn’t secured a legally mandated permit for his 1926 17th St. NW shop’s outdoor space, and in mid-March, a D.C. Department of Transportation official ordered him to close the patio until his permit application is approved. Hopper says the order has cost him 15 percent of his weekly sales, and could cost him the location altogether.

“It is hurting business,” he said at last Wednesday’s meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B (Dupont Circle). “We would be doing quite a bit more business on the weekends.”

Last fall, customers at the shop told Hopper they were impressed he had secured a permit for a sidewalk cafe on a largely residential street. Hopper replied that he hadn’t sought one when the store opened in 2014 — he hadn’t known he needed to.

Hopper has been scrambling in the months since to put together a permit application. In the meantime, he recently renewed his lease for five years, with a caveat: If the sidewalk cafe can’t reopen by this June, Three Fifty will terminate its lease in summer 2018 and seek a location elsewhere.

The Transportation Department’s Public Space Committee is scheduled to review Hopper’s application for the sidewalk cafe at a meeting on May 25, although Hopper hopes the agenda item can be moved to the April 26 meeting. The Transportation Department didn’t comment in time for publication.

Hopper earned unanimous support from ANC 2B for the application on April 12, though it didn’t come without complication.

ANC 2B chair Nicole Mann said at first that commissioners would have to ignore precedent to issue support for the well-liked neighborhood establishment — Hopper’s patio sits 7 feet from the street, while the Dupont commission typically only supports sidewalk cafes that are more than 10 feet from the street. “If it were any other project, we wouldn’t support this,” Mann said.

But commissioner Daniel Warwick provided a justification for ANC 2B’s support. Because the sidewalk cafe sits on a downward slope, moving it back 3 feet would be unusually difficult, Warwick said. Plus, the patio abuts three stairs to the row house next door; pushing the patio back would create an “unnecessary bottleneck” there, he said.

Hopper told The Current that the October “Gilmore Girls” event appears to have boosted awareness of his brand. Of the 1,000-plus customers who visited the store during that event most were there for the first time, according to Hopper, who says he’d never watched “Gilmore Girls” prior to “opening” Luke’s Diner.

It would be a shame for this legal issue to blunt momentum, he said. While he’s hopeful Three Fifty can stay put, he’s preparing for all outcomes, including a potential move.

“We would try to stay in the area,” Hopper said. “We like the Dupont area. We like the fact that we’re in a neighborhood, not on a main street. I would like to find something similar.”