Proposed strip club draws ire in Foggy Bottom community

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The strip club Effigy was proposed for 1720 I St. NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/July 2017)

The proposal for a new strip club called Effigy at 1720 I St. NW received a mild reception from the Dupont Circle community earlier this month. But in Foggy Bottom last week, residents and neighborhood leaders peppered operators with a wide range of inquiries and voiced their frustrations.

Will the strip club affect property values for nearby businesses? Will it bring more crime and noise to the neighborhood? Do the owners know how to run a proper strip-club business? Do they know what “effigy” means?  How about human trafficking?

Alex Heidenberger, co-owner of Cafe Soleil at 839 17th St. NW around the corner from Effigy, summed up the discussion succinctly, telling operators during last Wednesday’s meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A (Foggy Bottom, West End): “For someone who’s been in the business for as long as I have, I can tell you that you’ve got a lot of obstacles in your way.”

ANC 2A voted unanimously on July 19 to protest Effigy’s liquor license application for a two-story, 350-seat club with a total capacity of 500. Oftentimes the commission protests liquor licenses with the intention of resolving disagreements by negotiating a settlement agreement. But this time, commissioners will protest without plans to negotiate.

That decision came after ANC 2A chair Patrick Kennedy received “a number of objections” from nearby property owners who worry that Effigy will hurt their property values. Several of those critics appeared at the meeting, including Heidenberger, who vowed to protest the license himself and encourage neighbors to do the same.

The club falls within the boundaries of ANC 2B (Dupont Circle), which also voted on July 12 to protest the alcohol license application. ANC 2A lies just west of the club but is close enough to participate in protest proceedings. But unlike its Foggy Bottom counterpart, ANC 2B will try to address its concerns about community impacts through a settlement agreement.

Owner Stevan Lieberman and his team have pitched the club — which they describe as “sophisticated” and “multifaceted” — as friendly to an audience of men and women alike, all over the age of 21. They want the establishment to cater to high-profile clientele like “politicians and attorneys.”

They’re eager to dispel the notion that this strip club will conform to stereotypes. Lieberman said he has heard support from numerous stakeholders in the area, “including my dentist.”

In addition to performances, Effigy will feature a “straight steakhouse” menu centered around dry-aged meats, vegetables and salads. “It’s going to be simple but it’s going to be good fare,” Emanuel Mpras, the club’s liquor license attorney, said at the meeting.

Not everyone is convinced the club will be an innocuous addition to the already bustling nightlife area. During the ANC 2A meeting, Metropolitan Police Department Capt. Kelvin Cusick told residents he and his officers have major concerns about Effigy. Given that there are numerous nightclubs of other types in the area, Cusick’s team thinks the addition of Effigy will present new issues that will result in “a serious drain on our resources.”

Cusick said he’s relayed those concerns to 2nd District Commander Melvin Gresham, but the police department hasn’t yet decided whether to issue a formal protest of its own.

“That’s something that we have to talk to our legal about and make sure that’s something we want to do,” Cusick said. “Typically in a situation like this we would remain neutral.”

Mpras later rebutted the police captain’s concerns, arguing that this establishment will be less disruptive than a “more traditional nightclub.” Unlike at those venues, “there will be no rubbing and bumping” once seats are filled, Mpras said.

Another property owner on I Street said he’s heard from numerous women in the area who say they would feel uncomfortable walking to and from work past such an establishment. That comment sparked a tense exchange between residents and attorneys over the thorny issue of human trafficking, which can be connected to some strip clubs.

“That’s a loaded question,” Mpras responded when Foggy Bottom Association president Marina Streznewski raised the issue. Then he insisted repeatedly that the business would not permit illegal activities to take place. Given his background as an agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Mpras said, he knows “what human trafficking is and how to stop it.”

The name Effigy itself — which often refers to a representation or sculpture of a person that’s burned in protest — also proved controversial at the meeting. A resident said the name made her uncomfortable and asked Lieberman if he knows what it means. Lieberman offered no explanation, saying only, “It’s just a name.”

The club’s origins are indeed unusual. Lieberman is a veteran intellectual property lawyer whose firm Greenberg & Lieberman has offices at 1775 I St. NW across the street from the Effigy spot. He has also co-founded two virtual reality websites.

Lieberman, who has never operated a club before, secured “private money from friends and family” to open Effigy, he said at the ANC 2A meeting, though he declined to provide further details when pressed by residents. Other members of his team have more nightclub experience.

No new strip club licenses can be issued by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, per D.C. law. In order to skirt that restriction, Lieberman’s team purchased from safekeeping an existing license for a long-dormant establishment at 2840 Alabama Ave. SE. That license was previously in use at an establishment near Nationals Park, according to Mpras.

Assuming it’s eventually approved, Effigy will open at the former site of Cafe Asia, a nightclub where actor Anwan Glover from TV’s “The Wire” was stabbed during an altercation in 2014. That club was shut down temporarily in the aftermath of that incident, but later reopened before closing permanently in 2016.

The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board has scheduled a roll-call hearing on the Effigy application for Aug. 7 and a protest hearing for Oct. 4.