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Balancing 17th Street's retail: a moratorium, parking policy, or something else?

17th Street in Dupont Circle, like a number of other commercial streets in DC, has a moratorium on liquor licenses. In March, the moratorium will expire, and the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) board, which regulates bars and restaurants, must decide whether to extend it, modify it, or let it lapse. Neighborhood leaders, residents, and business owners are debating whether the moratorium is a boon or a hindrance. They are also considering other tools, including performance parking, to achieve a balance in 17th Street's retail mix.

Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

The moratorium limits the total number of liquor licenses on 17th from P to S, and surrounding side streets. The ABC board last renewed the moratorium three years ago. A moratorium is "not immortal," pointed out Dupont Circle Citizens' Association President Joel Lawson, and must be reexamined and renewed every few years. Last night, citizens and business owners met for a community meeting to discuss the issue. People expressed some strong feelings on both sides of the issue, but Commissioner Jack Jacobson, whose district includes a large portion of the 17th Street commercial area and who chaired the meeting, expressed his pleasure (and some amount of surprise) at the discussion's civil tone, compared to heated debates of prior years.

New ANC Chair Mike Silverstein worries about a "perfect storm" hurting businesses on 17th. When P Street was redone recently, the project drove away nearly 60% of some restaurants' business, and several shops closed. Now, the upcoming 17th Street streetscape could hurt business there as well, at a time when the poor economy is already keeping many potential patrons at home.

Nearly everyone who spoke at the meeting agreed with the goals of helping 17th Street's businesses thrive while retaining a mix of retail. 17th has a grocery store, hardware store, two pharmacies, and five dry cleaners. It's numerous restaurants and bars include Komi, "maybe the best" restaurant in DC according to Washingtonian, Sushi Taro, maybe the best sushi in DC, Hank's Oyster Bar, and more. Amid these jewels are a few mediocre to poor restaurants as well.

Would lifting the moratorium encourage better restaurants? Or would it gradually push out all of the neighborhood-serving shops in favor of bars and nightclubs? After all, Hank's was only able to open with an exception to the moratorium, after an acrimonious neighborhood fight. On the other hand, selling liquor is much more profitable than serving food or selling paper towels or grommets, and bars can afford to pay higher rents. Everyone agreed that they didn't want 17th to become another Adams Morgan, with its high levels of noise and periodic fights in the street.

Supporters of the moratorium feel that it has kept 17th diverse and useful to residents. "I see the moratorium as the only way of ensuring a balance," said resident Donald Jones of Q Street. "Without it, the creep is aways in the direction of bars and restaurants." Advocates for overturning it, on the other hand, argue that 14th and U Streets have attracted new and innovative retail stores of all types even without such restrictions. "The moratorium has given us a Subway and a Dunkin Donuts," said resident John Caley, who lives near 17th and S and who feels the street has declined under the moratorium. Moratorium opponents have created a petition advocating for its abolition.

Right now, we don't have a way to predict the effect of keeping the moratorium or of ending it. How can we tell? Ed Grandis, leader of business group Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals (DCMAP), recently sat down with a commercial lease agent who advises business owners on where to locate their shops. Jacobson and the other Commissioners plan to interview business owners and study the approaches that have worked or failed in other neighborhoods and other cities.

The ANC and neighborhood leaders are also exploring other tools besides the moratorium. Rob Halligan, past President of DCCA, called the moratorium a "blunt instrument." He and others tried, unsuccessfully, to find another solution three years ago, when the moratorium last came up for renewal. Jacobson and Silverstein both suggested some form of performance parking for 17th and the surrounding area. By encouraging turnover, as the meters on Barracks Row do, our parking policy could aid the daytime businesses that serve customers for brief periods of time.

Restaurant patrons, too, stay for shorter periods of time than bar and nightclub customers, according to former ABC Chairman Charles Burger. Evening performance parking could help restaurants thrive. For example, customers of top-rated regional restaurants like Komi and Hank's, many of whom come from other parts of the region, could be confident they could find a space at some price. Right now, parking is nearly impossible on evenings and weekends, dissuading some drivers from trying to visit the area.

The ANC hopes to consult with DC's Office of Planning to explore other tools as well. Both supporters and opponents of the moratorium want the same end goal: a healthy commercial street with a mix of neighborhood-serving retail and innovative restaurants. Only the tough question remains: how much, and what, regulation will give the best chance of achieving it.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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How about a furniture store moratorium?

by Steve on Feb 3, 2009 2:44 pm • linkreport

I'd gladly take a Dunkin Donuts in my neighborhood!

by spookiness on Feb 3, 2009 2:55 pm • linkreport

I have to agree, a moratorium like this is a very blunt instrument.

I like the idea of performance parking as a way of enhancing retail mix.

by Alex B. on Feb 3, 2009 3:02 pm • linkreport

17th street has lost its vibe...Ust and 14th/P are the new epicenters for retail and entertainment. I walk by Jack's with their sparse, lonely tables scattered about. Compare it to Logan Tavern or anyplace on U where tables anf people are packed in.

by RRB on Feb 3, 2009 3:07 pm • linkreport

Having lived on U Street for the past two years, I find myself frequently walking down 17th street to Blockbuster or to the Safeway or to get dinner with friends. U Street is nearly all sit-down restaurants and nightclubs, it has next to zero utility for people who live nearby.

by Steve on Feb 3, 2009 3:22 pm • linkreport

Before touting "performance parking" as a solution to 17th Street commercial district issues, why not do daytime and evening census (surveys) of the customer base, of both people who patronize the district as well as a broader sample of residents and office workers within 1 mile.

Similarly, you need to know the prevailing rents, and determine the rough retail trade area served by the commercial district.

My sense is that for most customers or potential customers, driving/parking isn't as big an issue as the business owners might believe.

But you won't know if you don't do a survey.

1. The nature of retail is different today. The fact that there is a supermarket, hardware store, and drug store together in this commercial district separates it from most other such commercial districts. (A goodly part of this is due to the population density there, with a modicum of assistance from the office buildings on 16th, P, and Massachusetts.)

2. The issue with liquor licenses is indirect. If more were allowed, the rents would go up because restaurants can pay more for space, because they have much more frequent patronage compared to other retails (except maybe for CVS). This would lead to a crowding out of non-food retail.

People eat every day, and that favors restaurant in the current retail economy.

So I would argue that indirectly, having the moratorium has probably helped save non-prepared food retail.

Like how historic preservation is sometimes the only tool that can help preserve buildings, in the want of other tools, so perhaps is this moratorium.

by Richard Layman on Feb 3, 2009 3:37 pm • linkreport

Definitely end the moratorium... perhaps with high level of scrutiny for new liquor licenses? Or is it basically an all or nothing proposition?

by SG on Feb 3, 2009 3:37 pm • linkreport

Re the comment about U Street/14th and P, they do have advantages. They have new draws and they draw upon a greater retail trade area and additional customer segments than the predominately neighborhood serving 17th st.

Plus, the intensity of 17th Street as the epicenter of gay-related commerce and evening life has been overtaken by a deconcentration of the community. (This is something that Morgan Zehner, former director of Dupont Circle Main Street used to say.)

Plus, the Whole Foods is a destination anchor in a manner that the Safeway is not. Even if the Safeway were to reorient itself and be street oriented, something I've written about for years (i.e., it wouldn't make that store a destination.

The major question for 17th Street is should it be a neighborhood serving commercial district (where likely accommodating parking is less of an issue) or a destination district (comparable to how the various nightlife establishments on H Street NE are marketed, drawing more patrons from outside of the neighborhood than from the neighborhood)?

My sense is that the residents don't want it to be a destination in the way that it was when places like JR's and Annie's and Boss Shepherd's really mattered to the gay community (i.e., the high heeled shoes race, etc.).

What can be done with the district's retail offer is dependent on what people are willing to do. Even so, it's pretty much constrained--it's only 2.5 blocks long and cannot grow.

by Richard Layman on Feb 3, 2009 3:47 pm • linkreport


I would argue that the gay businesses along 17th Street still "really matter". Those bars and restaurants are some of the ones that are still doing good business.

by Adam on Feb 3, 2009 3:55 pm • linkreport

I agree that they matter, but that the intensity of the patronage overall has decreased. I don't know myself, I don't get to 17th St. much even though I am still fond of Sushi Taro, Dupont Kitchen, and Annies. (When I first worked in DC, in 1987-1988, our office was at 16th and P Streets NW, so we used to patronize 17th St. quite a bit.) Such has likely impacted the success of the night time establishments.

Has the epicenter of DC's gay life shifted from 17th St. and from P Street (or not) and has this impacted Dupont Circle's retail success generally, and that of the subdistricts (P, 17th, Connecticut)?

It's an important question as it relates to the original blog entry.

by Richard Layman on Feb 3, 2009 5:48 pm • linkreport

I definitely think "gay DC," for whatever that term is worth and only with respect to nightlife, has shifted somewhat east of 14th NW. thinking of BeBar on 9th and N and that sports bar on 9th and U. But again, not much value in that term, IMO

by anonymous on Feb 3, 2009 10:51 pm • linkreport

Re anon 10:51's comment -- that's what Morgan suggested in conversations that we had in the past. But it does matter in terms of what had been and probably is still a large segment of the customer base, especially at night.

Most people reading this blog probably don't remember/weren't living in DC when Trio was denied some license, ability to sell at night, so in retaliation, they stopped opening for breakfast for a time. This pissed neighbors off, but the owners responded that in order to support being open for breakfast, when they made little or no money, they needed accommodations at other dayparts, when they could make more money, and support other activities that patrons also wanted the restaurant to provide, and which served the neighborhood, but which were not significantly profitable.

This was probably in the early 1990s?

by Richard Layman on Feb 4, 2009 6:51 am • linkreport

Boss Shepherd's was gay? When?

by Marian Berry on Feb 4, 2009 9:58 am • linkreport

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