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A moratorium will stifle new restaurants and lower service

There is yet another movement afoot for a liquor license moratorium (and thus a restaurant moratorium) on U Street. This moratorium is a bad idea, and some other residents have created a petition to oppose it.


Photo by Jenn Larsen on Flickr.

A resident on 13th Street is behind the latest push; she proposes the moratorium for all new liquor license applications within a 1,800-foot radius of Ben's Next Door. This was a bad idea 2 years when Jim Graham suggested it, and it's bad now.

Since many restaurants depend on liquor sales, a liquor moratorium will also effectively block restaurants. A moratorium doesn't distinguish the responsible businesses, which improve the neighborhood, from the rowdy ones that cause problems for residents. It's also unfair, arbitrary, hard to administer, and won't solve the ultimate problem.

It makes no distinction between responsible businesses and rowdy businesses.

A moratorium fails to differentiate between businesses that are quiet and cause no trouble for their neighbors, like the Saloon, and those that cause raucous noise late into the night. ANCs and neighbors should protest irresponsible and disruptive businesses, but a moratorium is essentially a permanent, unconditional protest of all proposed restaurants and bars. Many new establishments are started by experienced restaurateurs whose previous businesses exist in harmony with their neighbors.

It's effectively a restaurant moratorium.

Restaurants make their money on alcohol and relatively little on food. This is why Shaw's Tavern, when dry, quickly shuttered. Prohibiting the issuance of new liquor licenses will essentially deny new restaurants the ability to earn enough to pay rent. A liquor license moratorium is a restaurant moratorium.

It will reduce customer service.

A moratorium will limit the supply of restaurants and bars even while demand rises. This means restaurant prices will face upward pressure, seating may become scarcer, and service quality will likely fall. The population of the census tract covering the eastern side of the U Street corridor grew by 86% from 2000 to 2010 and will continue to grow as more residential buildings come online. If you think finding a table is hard now, a moratorium will make it worse.

It unfairly "picks winners."

Placing a legislative cap on new business activity unfairly privileges incumbent businesses. To intervene so severely in the market as to artificially limit consumer choice means that current license holders will enjoy an oligopoly. This increased business, however, will not result from a restaurant's merit, but will result from the fact that consumers will face limited choices. A business owner's "merit" will simply be that he had the good luck open shop just before the regulatory door slammed shut behind him.

It's arbitrary.

There are currently 107 licenses within the proposed moratorium area. There is no definitive proof that the 107 number is too high, too low, or just right. Unfortunately, moratoria disregard nuance and set arbitrary numbers as permanent limits. Furthermore, it's arbitrary to propose that the moratorium be based on a perfect circle, that the circle have a 1,800-foot radius, and that the circle be centered on Ben's Next Door.

It will not resolve the stated problem.

Matters of crime, noise, and trash, which the City Paper reports as the main motivators for the moratorium's proponent, will not be resolved by a moratorium. Restricting the issuance of alcohol licenses will not reduce crime, will not reduce noise, and will not reduce trash. It will, however, result in longer wait times for table, higher prices, and lower service.

It's difficult to administer.

Laws should be simple to understand and administer. The proposed moratorium area is a circle and circles are harder to measure on land. In fact, we discovered this problem recently when measuring the distance between a liquor store and Cleveland Elementary School. Do you measure by the edge of the property line or by the edge or the building?

Certainly we have the technology today to determine this distance, but it takes time and skill to do it accurately. The technical challenge is a hurdle for business owners and citizens alike to understand the impact of the law. A listing of city blocks would be far easier to decipher and would cause less confusion than a circle.

Reject the moratorium.

Instead of swinging a legal sledgehammer to stop all future restaurants, good and bad, we should judge each application on its own merit. Restaurateurs who have proven records of being good neighbors should by all means receive licenses and less reputable restaurateurs should be denied. Please sign the petition and oppose the moratorium.

Eric Fidler has lived in DC and suburban Maryland his entire life. He likes long walks along the Potomac and considers the L'Enfant Plan an elegant work of art. He also blogs at Left for LeDroit, LeDroit Park's (only) blog of record. 

Comments

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I agree, and am signing the petition, thanks for laying it all out!

by MrTinDC on May 3, 2012 2:58 pm • linkreport

Great blog post! I hope you submit it as a WaPo letter to the editor.
I really liked this sentence:
"It will, however, result in longer wait times for table, higher prices, and lower service."

by MW on May 3, 2012 3:31 pm • linkreport

If you're worried about noise or overcrowding, it may make more sense to disallow more 'restaurants' from staying open past 11pm.

U street after 11pm is practically a parking lot every weekend, so I can understand the neighborhood concern. Even the sidewalks are hard to navigate through the drunks and sheer volume of revelers. I'd be annoyed if this happened in my neighborhood, too. Luckily H Street is wider than U Street, as are the sidewalks in the neighborhood, so put as many people
and cars on H street, and it would be easier to navigate.

by Tom A. on May 3, 2012 3:34 pm • linkreport

I live a block from the Ben's Next Door epicenter. The only problems I've ever experienced from U st. nightlife have been directly related parking: the search for free parking on my block, and the late night (and highly audible) return of revelers to parked cars. I'd bet that's what bothers the sponsors of the moratorium, too, and not really what is happening on U st. itself.

Wouldn't it be better to address the real problem directly [perhaps with a new residential parking restriction?]. Since people who walk or bike to U st. (or take public transportation or a taxi or park off street) are not a problem, why should we restrict the pursuit of happiness arbitrarily?

by egk on May 3, 2012 4:12 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the post. In nearly every case, liquor moratoriums are the inappropriate solution to the problem being addressed and, as has been seen in Georgetown, stifle innovation and send new businesses elsewhere.

by Alison on May 3, 2012 4:23 pm • linkreport

I've got to disagree. Residents of a neighborhood pick what they want in their own neighborhood. Dupont, Georgetown, and Glover Park all have moratoriums, and they're all quite happy with them.

You state: "There is no definitive proof that the 107 number is too high, too low, or just right. Unfortunately, moratoria disregard nuance and set arbitrary numbers as permanent limits" - well there is also absolutely no definitive proof of the majority of your argument. There is no data that I have ever seen that said customer service went down, or that waits for tables went up, in other neighborhoods that enjoy a moratorium. So why are you railing against something as without proof or data to back it up when that is, in fact, pretty much 80%+ of your own article? That's not nice.

As for the "arbitrary" number of 107, I refer back to the Supreme Court definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. If the residents feel that they are at (or past) the right number, then that's the number. Period. It's a consensus issue. There's actually a pretty strong relationship between the "nuance" of the neighborhood and the number.

You state that it gives an "unfair advantage" to those with a license already. This isn't true. Plenty of restaurants have still closed due to bad service, bad food, or other reasons, in areas with moratoriums. They sold the licenses and new places opened. It's just as cut-throat with or without one - cream rises to the top, and bad places fail. The bigger issue, however, is that U Street is not the only place in the city with a restaurant. It is in constant competition with all the other neighborhoods. There are over 2,000 liquor licenses in the District today, so they are only competing at an "advantage" against roughly 5% of those. They're still competing the same as everyone else against the remaining 95% of licenses, and that's assuming you forget about all the options in VA and MD altogether. Regionally, it's probably more like an "unfair advantage" against about 1% of other licensees.

You also state that it "doesn't solve the problem", but do so shortsightedly. Perhaps the objective isn't to eliminate noise or trash or anything else altogether, but to merely prevent it from getting worse. That is a very valid objective, and one that invalidates that whole section of your article if that is in fact the goal, because that is *exactly* what this does.

And you also say "It makes no distinction between responsible businesses and rowdy businesses" - again, this could be true, but could not be true. ABRA licenses come in classes. Restaurants are CR licenses, bars and taverns are CT licenses, and nightclubs are either CT licenses with an Entertainment Endorsement or CN licenses. A moratorium can prohibit all new licenses, or can prohibit just those of a certain type, say CT, CT+EE and CN licenses. That leaves restaurants alone.

Your comment that it might be difficult to administer [deleted for violating the comment policy]. But you're using that comment improperly as an argument against the moratorium. What you're really saying is that this one technical element should be modified (and I happen to agree with you - listing it by block face is very smart). Using that one flawed element as justification as to why the moratorium shouldn't happen at all is about as valid as saying "my hair is too long, so I might as well just set myself on fire and die" instead of "oh, I should get a haircut".

Lastly, you say "a moratorium is essentially a permanent, unconditional protest of all proposed restaurants and bars". [Deleted for violating the comment policy.] A moratorium is NOT permanent. It must be periodically reviewed and renewed by the affected ANCs. They can also do what Glover Park recently did, which was to vote to maintain the moratorium while allowing for two additional licenses. They are fluid and can be changed and easily adapted.

If people oppose the moratorium (and actually live in the affected neighborhood, rather than just enjoying going there and possibly becoming part of the problem that lead to the effort to start with), then fine, they should sign the petition. But to try and tell people that if they don't sign the petition, they'll never get a table or a friendly server again for the rest of their lives anywhere and then a small cadre of existing restaurant owners will take over the world? [Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Shaw_guy on May 3, 2012 4:37 pm • linkreport

@Shaw_guy

Just because some residents want a moratorium does not mean that all, or a majority, or even a plurality of neighborhood residents want a moratorium.

You all don't speak for me, and until you actually survey a random number of neighborhood residents, you can't claim you speak for them either.

Also, last time I checked, this was 'Merica, where people are free to come and go from neighborhood to neighborhood as they please, so I certainly hope as many outsiders sign the anti-moratorium petition, if only for the principle of community. Y'all're a bunch of Balkanizers.

End the free parking on the weekends, and this problem is effectively solved.

by Matthew B on May 3, 2012 4:55 pm • linkreport

A moratorium would solve the problem like banning new barbershops because people get bad haircuts.

by Canaan on May 3, 2012 5:00 pm • linkreport

Matthew,

If you live in the ANC being represented, then show up and make your voice heard. Lobby your councilman, show up, vote. You can be indignant all you like, but the people whose voices are heard, are the ones who show up. You can't claim to be disenfranchised if all you do is get indignant on a blog once or twice a year when the issue arises.

If you don't then too bad. You, as a resident of some other neighborhood get zero input as to how residents of their own neighbohood want to conduct their lives. You seem to demand the freedom to do whatever you want in any neighbohood while at the same time denying the actual residents of that neighorhood the freedom to do the same.

You want wall-to-wall bars, vomit, yelling and crime till ~2:30 am every night? Great, we have a neighbohood for you and it is called Adams Morgan. Have at it.

As someone said above, many DC neighborhoods are thriving with Moratoriums in place. I don't see Cleveland Park, Dupont, or Georgetown, with the highest incomes in town having any problem whatsoever.

Oh, and there is a reason the expression "Not another Adams Morgan" exists.

by Voter on May 3, 2012 5:26 pm • linkreport

I moved to U street because of the concentration of nightlife. Since moving in bars/restaurants have taken over boarded up/vacant buildings. The high level of activity has actually resulted in (what appears to me) a decrease in street crime. Car vandalism is down.

Much of the new activity is on the east end of U st which more vacant buildings.

Glover park etc are much more residential neighborhoods with few vacant buildings. I wish we had more retail in the area, but I doubt that restricting liquor licenses will increase that number.

by Miked on May 3, 2012 5:45 pm • linkreport

Voter: Dupont by no means is unified over the moratorium. It was the source of deep divisions in the past. Lately, neighborhood leaders have kept a rough consensus basically by agreeing to relax it slightly each time it comes for renewal, but a lot of people advocated for getting rid of it and others thought it needed to be stronger.

I generally think it's working okay, but what we don't know is what would happen without. A lot of the places on 17th with grandfathered licenses have mediocre food, and the few great food places on 17th specifically have recent new exemptions from the moratorium. Lifting it could mean that all the non-liquor businesses (CVS, froyo, hardware) leave, or that all the bad restaurants get competition from better ones.

ANC 2F suggested something a while back about limiting bars and not restaurants (through zoning, not the liquor license process). That could be a middle ground.

by David Alpert on May 3, 2012 5:56 pm • linkreport

Matters of crime, noise, and trash, which the City Paper reports as the main motivators for the moratorium's proponent, will not be resolved by a moratorium. Restricting the issuance of alcohol licenses will not reduce crime, will not reduce noise, and will not reduce trash.

Ok, you've laid out a statement -- can you explain why? What's your basis for the fairly intuitive notion that limiting the number of late night establishments serving alcohol will limit the crime, noise, and trash produced by their patrons? There are a lot of great things about bars and restaurants but they also produce externalities that are felt most acutely by the local residents.

Certainly, a fair, demoractic process should be used to determine the outcome of the moratorium question but it seems to be more of a matter of personal preference than something that is categorically good or bad.

Do residents of the U St. neighborhood want it to increasingly become a nightlife district that attracts greater numbers of people from throughout the DC area because it is such a world class destination? Or, do residents want to keep more of a smaller neighborhood feel with a mix of alcohol serving establishments and other types of businesses. You can't have it both ways, particularly since alcohol establishments that attract folks from afar will certainly crowd out businesses that are more focused on serving the neighborhood (as they are less profitable).

My guess is that this moratorium idea (which is bad for me personally because I'd like to have more bars/restaurants to hang out at on U St.) is a reflection of the aging population of the U St. neighborhood -- as folks who bought homes in their 20s are now in their 30s and 40s and have things other than nightlife on their minds. If you were in your late 20s when U St. started taking off as a neighborhood, you would be in your 30s/40s now.

There is a natural progression of gentrification that usually results in a liquor moratorium towards the later stages, at which point the next neighborhood to the East (or North) becomes the next up-and-coming area. I don't doubt that if U St and 14th St limit liquor licenses, you'll see more establishments on 9th ST and 7th ST. If that's what U ST wants, that's what U ST should get.

by Falls Church on May 3, 2012 7:35 pm • linkreport

That said, a moratorium is a clumsy way of bringing about the change thag it's supporters hope for. Maybe better would be a requirement that all new liquor license holders get at least 70% of their revenue from food sales and only zone certain parts of U ST as a nightlife district.

by Falls Church on May 3, 2012 7:49 pm • linkreport

H ST is actually an example of better planning. Their they have three distinct zones for residential, retail, and nightlife. U ST didn't have the same planning foresight which is part of their problem.

by Falls Church on May 3, 2012 7:59 pm • linkreport

Wouldn't it be better if we encouraged bars and nightlife to congregate around Metro? That way drunk people (we hope) will take transit instead of driving while impaired. For this reason it would be better to see more bars, etc in U St, Columbia Heights and Petworth rather than H St. which won't have much in the way of mass transit for many years.

by Steve S. on May 3, 2012 10:31 pm • linkreport

What really gets me about the whole notion is that a moratorium is supposed to be a breathing period to reflect upon and then implement a solution to a problem. And if moratoriums in the District had a history of being used for this, then I'd have no issue with a moratorium being used to address the developing problem on U Street which could spread to 14th Street. However, once enacted, the District seems unable to lift these moratoriums. There are just too many interested parties in seeing them continued including the lucky license holders who got in before the moratorium. So, yes. We should acknowledge there's a problem on U Street and spreading quickly, but the moratorium isn't the right tool. Perhaps clamping down on the trouble makers as this Eric infers here is one way, perhaps another way is to re-write our ABC laws such that it's possible to license a restaurant serving alcohol as part of its business differently from a bar serving food just because it has too. Virginia seems to have accomplished that, so it's not like the formula for this isn't already out there somewhere. In the meantime, I say no to the moratorium.

by Lance on May 3, 2012 10:40 pm • linkreport

Voter said:
"You want wall-to-wall bars, vomit, yelling and crime till ~2:30 am every night?"

I call hyperbole on that sentence! 14th & U may be crowded and busy a couple of nights of the week, but it's not exactly Bourbon Street in New Orleans...

by Mr T in DC on May 3, 2012 10:40 pm • linkreport

Ms. DePillis's targeting of an individual by name and publishing where she lives is an especially nasty type of right-wing tactic.

I don't support a moratorium for U Street but I also abhor individualizing issues onto one person and making it a personal attack. Obviously there are many people interested in a moratorium and I doubt it's all because of this one person.

Very, very sleazy.

by Tom Coumaris on May 4, 2012 12:17 am • linkreport

@Tom, no it's not. Sterling actively made herself known through this and it's important to know who is behind the movement.

by Phil on May 4, 2012 12:36 am • linkreport

"I've got to disagree. Residents of a neighborhood pick what they want in their own neighborhood. Dupont, Georgetown, and Glover Park all have moratoriums, and they're all quite happy with them."

Not true. Let's see out of those three..
1. One of the ANC's in Dupont just lifted their moratorium
2. Georgetown's moratorium is essentially dead, there are significantly more licenses available than there are bars/restaurants
3. There was just a huge fight over maintaining the Glover Park moratorium, with the ANC continuing it by a one-vote margin despite substantial opposition.

by Phil on May 4, 2012 8:52 am • linkreport

It's funny to see people proceed from a supposedly utilitarian argument for not having a moratorium, but do it as though this was the end of the world. I suspect there are people who do don't want U Street to turn into 18th St. Having lived in A-M and experiencing the problems of that area even though I was a few blocks away, I can''t blame some one for raising the possibility. Given that the days of boarded-up storefronts are long gone, a moratorium is unlikely reverse the changes that have evolved over the last 20 years. Depending on the boundaries, it might push redevelopment Eastward or into commercial areas nearby that are kind of ify now.

A real debate about this needs more than hysterics. U Street is not, by itself, integral to DC's becoming more than the stuffy backwater it's been in the past. Having a variety of destinations, each with different personalities is what would accomplish that.

by Rich on May 4, 2012 5:42 pm • linkreport

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