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Make liquor licenses collaborative, not adversarial

Heated discussions rage over liquor licensing decisions in DC, and the process is part of the problem. Rather than battle over rules governing individual establishments within a legalistic, adversarial framework, ABRA and other stakeholders should proactively work with businesses to address impacts on nearby residents.

Photo by ZagatBuzz on Flickr.

Most residents don't want to get embroiled in the legal battles around licensing. Nor do they want to get into the minutiae of how a business operates, what kind of music they play, what's on their umbrellas or where they seat customers. They just want businesses to operate lawfully and responsibly.

Likewise, business operators don't want to fight with neighbors, the very people they would like to be their customers. Most are ready and willing to take reasonable steps to minimize impacts from noise, trash, and security, not just to resolve a protest against their license, but because it makes business sense.

Unfortunately, the current system is almost solely focused on a legal process which absorbs time, money and resources that could have been better spent on proactive planning and up-front investments needed to prevent problems in the first place.

Take the Hank's Oyster Bar case. After seven months, thousands of dollars in legal fees, hours of hearings before the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board, and unproductive battles waged in blogs and meeting rooms, what's the result? The ABC Board granted Hank's application and ordered the owner to mitigate noise concerns of the abutting neighbor.

What has this process achieved? It has cost the business owner, protesters, and the government an inordinate amount of time and money. It has torn apart the community and discouraged civic participation. It has further discouraged innovative businesses going through the hassle of trying to open a place in the District.

It could have been different. What if instead of playing referee in the legal battle around licensing, the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) had offered the resources and staff time to help restaurateurs like Hank's owner Jamie Leeds plan ahead to prevent problems like noise, trash and security? Agency staff could work with operators to understand risks, identify potential concerns, and plan solutions to minimize the impact on neighbors.

For example, in the case of Hank's, going through such a process would likely have focused attention on the noise impacts on the abutting property owner. ABRA staff could have given Leeds a list of referrals to sound engineers and architects who are experts in noise mitigation and connected her to peers who had successfully managed noise problems. In addition to helping her to manage noise, ABRA staff could have provided resources to address other important issues that affect neighborhoods, including security, staff and server training, waste management, and community outreach.

As an experienced operator, Leeds doubtless had plans to address concerns about noise, safety, and trash management. But ABRA could have helped her ensure she had what she needed to invest in those plans. Instead, ABRA's role was solely to play referee in a contentious battle, forcing her to react to legal challenges rather than focus on preemptive solutions.

Defenders of the current system often claim that the only way to get hospitality operators to respect nearby neighbors is through the protest process. They argue that "Voluntary Agreements" are the only mechanisms a community has to keep businesses in line and prevent the neighborhood from descending into chaos.

What this argument ignores is the fact that operating responsibly with minimal impact on nearby neighbors (often potential customers) makes business sense. Staying off of neighbors' radar by managing trash, noise, and crowds not only keeps hospitality operators in compliance, it also helps them build a strong and devoted customer base.

Many hospitality operators, especially those seeking to open in mixed-use residential neighborhoods, build their business models around being a neighborhood gathering place. Complaints and negativity generated by neighbors and broadcast on blogs and review sites can seriously undermine an operator's reputation and bottom line.

The current system ignores these inherent incentives and instead treats hospitality businesses as problems constantly needing correction and control through rules, restrictions, and enforcement. But by helping operators plan proactively, ABRA could prevent many of the nuisances that bother residents, clog up hearing schedules, and take investigators' time away from more serious issues. Most residents would rather maintain a peaceful, clean, and safe neighborhood than punish restaurants for causing problems. The fewer resources are invested in legal battles, the more resources can be spent on minimizing negative impacts on neighbors.

Local governments across the country face the same challenges as we face here in DC, especially as city living and mixed-use development in urban cores becomes more prevalent. Instead of treating hospitality businesses as potential problems, some cities view the hospitality industry as an asset.

Many of these forward thinking local governments have worked with the Responsible Hospitality Institute, an international organization dedicated to fostering a best practices approach to managing vibrant and livable cities. RHI brings together an array of stakeholders, including BIDs, transportation officials, regulators, law enforcement, venue operators, and community leaders, to identify potential problems and coordinate solutions.

For example, RHI initiatives have included training for venue staff on responsible service and security, providing venues with referrals to sound engineers and security professionals, coordinating transportation services, and working with law enforcement to manage crowds and nightlife issues.

Cities around the world have worked with RHI to develop successful programs to better manage hospitality zones and mixed-use areas. For example, San Jose and Philadelphia have created an orientation for nightlife businesses that guides operators through the licensing process and shares best practices for noise, trash and security management. Seattle and Providence have established government staff positions to reach out to at-risk businesses and help them solve problems before they reach the level of enforcement. Edmonton and Gainesville have worked with colleges and marketing firms to develop patron responsibility campaigns aimed at addressing negative behavior from the consumer side.

Some DC leaders are moving in a similar direction and exploring innovative programs from other cities that integrate business assistance, training, and collaborative problem-solving into the regulatory framework. For example, from April to November of this year, Councilmember Jim Graham (Ward 1) initiated an ABRA Noise Task Force, on which I served when I directed the MidCity Business Association. The committee, which included agency staff, residents, and business representatives, was charged with finding better ways to deal with the issue of noise from ABC licensees. Though there was some discussion about the adequacy of current regulations, most of the conversations focused on how best to solve problems related to noise in a more proactive way.

In November, we presented a set of recommendations to the ABC Board that drew on lessons from other cities and included programs pioneered by the Responsible Hospitality Institute. For example, the Noise Task Force recommended that ABRA implement a Hospitality Business Orientation and an Early Assistance Team, two programs that involve a business assistance approach like the one described above.

The Hospitality Business Orientation would guide new ABC licensees through the licensing process and give them information about the best ways to manage issues like trash, noise and security. The Early Assistance Team, coordinated by ABRA but including mentors from the business community, would work with at-risk businesses, helping them to solve problems before problems reached a level needing enforcement.

The Hank's case shone a spotlight on how dysfunctional and destructive the current system has become. The current ABC Board's apparent willingness to take a hard look at VAs is encouraging to those of us who've seen the harm they've done to businesses, community relations, and economic development in many neighborhoods.

But it's important to realize that the current system, as flawed as it is, came about for a reason. There was a time when the ABC Board was barely functional, when ABRA enforcement was almost non existent, and when affected residents had practically no recourse when licensees flagrantly violated even the most basic rules. The current protest process and the over-reliance on VAs emerged in response to extreme dysfunction.

Criticizing the flaws in the current rules/enforcement-focused system does not mean going back to the days of "anything goes." Far from it. Our city needs clear rules and robust enforcement to ensure that our neighborhoods' mixed-use commercial strips are lively, lawful, and livable.

Residents need and deserve a role in this process. But residents and businesses also need government to provide more tools, resources and best practices to address real concerns and solve real problems instead of just being told to work it out through the protest process. The ABC Board and the DC councilmember who has oversight of ABRA in the coming year must step into the breach with fresh thinking to address concerns about balancing vibrancy with livability.

Natalie Avery was the Executive Director of the MidCity Business Association from 2008 to 2010 and worked closely with hospitality operators in the 14th and U area to foster a best practices approach to managing nightlife issues. In 2010 she co-chaired the ABRA Noise Task Force. Currently she is a stay-at-home mom in Mount Pleasant, happy to be raising her children near a commercial strip with lots of nightlife and dining options.

Natalie Avery was the Executive Director of the MidCity Business Association from 2008 to 2010 and worked closely with hospitality operators in the 14th and U area to foster a best practices approach to managing nightlife issues. In 2010 she co-chaired the ABRA Noise Task Force. Currently she is a stay-at-home mom in Mount Pleasant, happy to be raising her children near a commercial strip with lots of nightlife and dining options. 


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What has this process achieved? It has cost the business owner, protesters, and the government an inordinate amount of time and money
You're assuming the protesters would have wanted to avoid spending all that time protesting if they could. The time spent protesting and getting Hank's to sink its own time and money into the process was the point and part of the enjoyment/benefit that the protesters gained from the process. In short, the bureaucratic mess was a "product" that the protesters against Hank's wanted to "buy" with their time and resources, and they were lavishly rewarded.

by JustMe on Dec 17, 2010 10:41 am • linkreport

Alcohol licensing for liquor stores may need to be separated from the licensing for restaurants, taverns, and nightclubs. In too many neighborhoods in Wards 7 and 8 there is a concentration of liquor stores--both beer and wine and beer, wine, spirits. The automatic expectation that a voluntary agreement and/or monetary donation can be made and agreement on the license will be secured already favors the business instead of favoring the community. I am contending with this very issue right now and ABRA has been no help because the expectation is there will be VA; in my neighborhood a VA will not be sufficient. No issuance of a license is the only option for Uncle Lee's Seafood or any other business planning to open. Vibrancy or sanity of the neighborhood will not be enhanced with five liquor stores within a half mile radius. While I appreciate GGW contributors writing about making the liquor license process less contentious, it is important to note the impact of concentrating licensees.

by Sylvia C Brown, ANC7C04 on Dec 17, 2010 10:44 am • linkreport

@JustMe The time spent protesting and getting Hank's to sink its own time and money into the process was the point and part of the enjoyment/benefit that the protesters gained from the process.

You're buying the line that was put out there by the folks representing Hank's. I've spoken with the protestants and nothing could be further from the truth. The problem here was that Hanks didn't communicate or deal with the neighbors or do any of these reasonable and rational things which Natalie says you'd expert a business to want to do. I've heard the reason for this has less to do with this specific business itself, but instead that the legal representative for this business is trying to set legal precedent that will make it easier to get liquor licenses throughout the city without neighbor input. I.e., without Voluntary Agreements. Now if that legal representative's aims are to do as Natalie is advocating, than that's a wonderful thing. But the non-communication and ommission of important facts by Hanks here don't give much hope that this is the case.

by Lance on Dec 17, 2010 11:03 am • linkreport

Great ideas. Major problem? ABRA has no money to institute any of this. Heck, they're already subsidizing the MPD reimburseable details, even though that's not what the ABRA money is supposed to pay for.

by Fritz on Dec 17, 2010 11:27 am • linkreport

Let's be honest. The liquor issue is usually about five loud homeowners objecting to an establishment regardless of how the rest of the community feels -- even if that community is hundreds or thousands of people. That's hardly democratic or fair for residents or small businesses.

by aaa on Dec 17, 2010 11:36 am • linkreport

Why is ABRA involved with things like noise and trash anyway? Shouldn't those be part of any business operation in the city? What if IHOP or a similar diner opens on Q Street near these houses and doesn't serve alcohol? The VA wouldn't even be possible, right? They still would have to deal with trash, noise, crowds and maybe being open 24 hours or late into the night at least. Could IHOP have live music if they wanted to? I think ABRA should focus more on the actual alcohol issues. Isn't DCRA or some other agency supposed to deal with these other issues?

by inlogan on Dec 17, 2010 11:39 am • linkreport

Lance: It is my understand that Hank's owner DID, in fact, attempt to communicate proactively and productively with key protestants, but those attempts were not fruitful. I have had my own disagreements with the establishment's attorney, so I appreciate your willingness to somewhat separate the owner from counsel. Nonetheless, it remains my strong opinion--based on a high degree of familiarity with some of the key figures on the protestant's side--that even before counsel was secured, or even with any other figure in that role, the lead protestants would not have been reasonable.

Specifically, the Dupont Circle Citizens Association president, Robin Diener, is quoted in the latest Dupont Current saying *any* expansion of Hank's would unacceptably damage to quality of life in the neighborhood. This position is stunning, given that DCCA's own position in the renewal of the liquor license moratorium covering 17th Street was to concur with ANC2B that two expansions were perfectly acceptable.

Only DCCA's president can explain the ever-widening gap between her words, and the stated position of the organization. If two expansions were acceptable, and Hank's is one of the finest operators on the corridor, then what possible case is there against any expansion for Hank's, of the two permitted?

I will venture this guess: I know, as a former Board member and former president of that org, that the same lead protestants against Hank's were the same figures who fought a toxic battle to oppose DCCA concurring with two expansions, and to oppose a new, reformist, flexible future for the org (which led to my resignation).

J'accuse, I'll say it: DCCA's president acted throughout this Hank's matter to attempt to block/reverse an org position with which she, and her key supporters in the org, found to be apostasy.

by Joel Lawson on Dec 17, 2010 11:51 am • linkreport

"What this argument ignores is the fact that operating responsibly with minimal impact on nearby neighbors (often potential customers) makes business sense"

Interesting in theory, but I question how true it really is. In places with low population density, there may be only 10 or 15 homes in close proximity to the establishment and, thus, virtually no neighbors who are also customers. So from a strictly economic point of view, there may be no value in "operating responsibly".

by Brooklander on Dec 17, 2010 12:02 pm • linkreport

Whatever happened with Hank's is a reflection of the system as it is currently set up. If the owner hired a lawyer, then it is likely in recognition of the fact that this entire process is dominated by a legalistic, adversarial process.

@Fritz I think that if ABRA were to change its approach from a reactive, referee style approach to a more proactive, coaching style approach, it would be less expensive and more successful in the long run. Moreover, it would place less of a financial burden on businesses and community members.

by Phil Lepanto on Dec 17, 2010 12:03 pm • linkreport

Most residents don't want to get embroiled in the legal battles around licensing. Nor do they want to get into the minutiae of how a business operates, what kind of music they play, what's on their umbrellas or where they seat customers. They just want businesses to operate lawfully and responsibly.

Sadly, the ones who do want to get embroiled are the ones that run for ANC. The entire VA/ANC system is just asinine. Empowering busybodies is a bad idea.

by jcm on Dec 17, 2010 12:10 pm • linkreport

A very good article by Natalie, and one that's worth repeating. One of the key problems with this process is the ability for a small yet committed group of protesters to hamstring a process for months, if not years. We've seen it happen time and again, with Hank's being only the latest blatant example.

The protesters will tell you that they were simply carrying out the wishes of the majority of neighborhood residents, but there's scant evidence to support that position.

by 14thandyou on Dec 17, 2010 12:30 pm • linkreport

The issue of the protesters to Hanks seems rather simple. From all indications these are a group of individuals who feel that they, rather than the majority of the community, should decide what is right for everyone.

When Hanks frist opened some of these same people protested. They weren't satisfied with the original va that was negotiated and kept continuing a negotiation on their own. So when the owner of Hanks was asked to again meet and try to negotiate with some of the same people is it any surprise that the idea wasn't well received.

The owner of Hanks has been an active business person in the community. Has lived up to every negotiated agreement in the original va. Has proven to be a good neighbor and a boone to the neighborhood.

So one must question the goals of the few protesters who continue to want to fight a good neighbor and successful business. Some seem clearly to just enjoy the fight.

It is my understanding that the DCCA was asked to pay for any law suits that the protesters wanted to institute and wisely said no to that request. It is now clear that the President of DCCA, as Joel Lawson has so clearly stated, is fighting this battle on her own and not representing the interests of DCCA. That to me is sad. If DCCA is truly to be an organization that is respected as talking for the community its President must be willing to give up her own agenda or resign from the office.

DCCA over the year has done some good things for the neighborhood and it appeared in the last couple of years that with some new leadership the organization was again willing to move forward in trying to unite our community. The President of the organization appears to be fighting that goal rather than embracing it.

Dupont is a great community and with a nice balance of business, parks, schools and residents that make it so. We need to stop the petty fights and personal vendetta's that some people appear to have and work together to make us an even greater place to live, work and recreate.

by Peter Rosenstein on Dec 17, 2010 12:56 pm • linkreport

While Hanks may be an example that supports the theory in this posting there are other kinds of cases where the community is thrown under the bus without a V/A. See Platinum in Penn Quarter. Or Studio 400 in H Street NE. My neighborhood had an applicant who was clearly fabricating fantastic lies when pitching his concept to the ANC to attempt bait & switch. And yes, after 1 month of V/A negotiations those lies that we suspected in the beginning were eventually fessed up to by the applicant. If he had been a less obvious liar and his past resume wasn't nightclub promoter he might have scooted through and created a new nuisance.

by Jason on Dec 17, 2010 1:32 pm • linkreport

@Joel I'll say it: DCCA's president acted throughout this Hank's matter to attempt to block/reverse an org position with which she, and her key supporters in the org, found to be apostasy.

Except that she won the presidency ... fair and square ... and with a large percentage of the membership voting in the election. And she ran on this very issue (not Hanks, but the increase of licensed space in the 17th St Moratorium zone) ... So, while it may be accurate that she's reversing a policy of the organization, it's also true that she had a mandate to do so. You could even say a duty to do so. (And for the record, as you know, I didn't vote for Robin, partly because of her stance on this issue.)

by Lance on Dec 17, 2010 1:43 pm • linkreport

The key is what type of establishment it is and who their customer base is going to be. I lived across from Platinum and UltraBar in Penn Quarter. Essentially no one from the neighborhood went to either place. So Platinum didn't care at all about maintaining good relations with the neighbors, and UltraBar cared only because they didn't want to get shut down. So Platinum was so much of a dangerous nuisance that it got shut down, and UltraBar was as much of a nuisance as it could get away with. In those cases, conflict is inherent to the situation (the neighborhood would rather not have those clubs there at all), so a collaborative process just isn't going to work well.

Other places actually serve the neighborhood (typically places that are restaurants, rather than clubs or bars) and so they have more incentive to keep the neighbors happy. I don't know the situation as well, so I can't say for sure, but Hank's seems to fall into that category. In those cases, it seems like a collaborative process would work well.

The lesson seems to be that having a one-size-fits-all policy is probably not the best approach.

by Rob on Dec 17, 2010 1:47 pm • linkreport

What is so amazing about our current system is that ABRA, instead of trying to establish precedent, guidelines, or standards, has abdicated this responsibility to the ANC level in theory, and to the commons in practice. Examples of non-elected civic associations that are able to manipulate the process to their advantage are numerous throughout parts of DC and examples of corrupt, blind, or in-effective ANCs are also, unfortunately, numerous.

In my mind, despite the legal trappings, the ABC Board has demonstrated time and time again that they are more reliably political than they are judicial.

@Rob @Sylvia C. Brown My hope would be that an agency that is more proactive about working with businesses and neighborhoods would be able to help mitigate some of the negative externalities that you are talking about. It should not be left up to the community to be the last line of defense against lying developers or predatory liquor store owners. The DC Government, AS A WHOLE (DCRA, OP, FEMS, DDOT and ABRA), should be getting involved and trying to nip those problems in the bud BEFORE they come to the community.

by Phil Lepanto on Dec 17, 2010 2:19 pm • linkreport

Jason, the programs that Natalie mentions as the proactive recommendations of the noise task force, the Hospitality Business Orientation and the Early Assistance Team are programs that are designed to address the concerns you raise in a pro-active manner, that does not put the community in the role of having to ferret out the bad operators from the good or protecting themselves from worst case scenarios that they have seen occur in the past.

The location of Platinum was many other clubs over its history, pre-dating most of the residential make-up, but as Rob mentioned Platinum did not cater to the new make-up of the community. The Early Assistance Team might have been able to work with them on co-existence, however there currently is no pro-active intervention as a venue begins to have issues with the surrounding community.

The Hospitality Business Orientation would make sure that the businesses are aware of their responsibilities and requirements of the types of license that is required for the business model they plan to implement, while educating on best practices for operations, and a road map for managing the regulatory and community processes.

These programs are sucessful because of widespread community involvement and the focus on implementing good practices that address quality of life issues, something the current VA process does not do. They also identify the people that have the bait and switch model you described.

These two programs do not address the appropriateness of locations or concentration of venue types, those are larger planning issues that benefit from having these programs in place to help new and existing businesses to be successful in the communities, even if their base is not from that area.


by Scott Pomeroy on Dec 17, 2010 8:35 pm • linkreport

Protestants can't hamstring the process because the process doesn't allow. The ABC Board sets brisk deadlines for negotiation, mediation, board hearings. There's a lot of rhetoric repeated in these postings, but the fact is that many operators could care less about the impact that they have on the nearby neighbors. And, the further away people are located from the nuisances of trash, noise, etc., the less likely they are to understand the problems or be empathetic. And, when problems do arise, even with an agreement in place, the enforcement process is a joke.

by Tivi on Dec 18, 2010 8:12 am • linkreport

Ha, ha. Look at the dreary menagerie on U Street thanks to the good work of Avery and Pomeroy. What a mess. The law allows people who live closest have a say in how their neighborhood takes shape. Avery, Pomeroy, Rosenstein, Lawson, and Lepanto would rather decide for you. And, look closely and you'll find that they all have ties to the businesses that stand to benefit.

by navybrat on Dec 19, 2010 12:21 am • linkreport

"Avery, Pomeroy, Rosenstein, Lawson, and Lepanto would rather decide for you. And, look closely and you'll find that they all have ties to the businesses that stand to benefit."

Provide information to back up your allegation, or it is libel, and as some friends reading this now can attest, I take that very, very seriously.

I have zero work or business relationship with any licensed business in this town. I have zero financial interest in any deliberations or decisions by ABRA/ABC. There is nothing in my work--public affairs and comms, particularly related to national and int'l policy--that is related in the slightest to ABC/ABRA matters, or local businesses in any way whatsoever. I have never, ever, expressed an opinion on these matters in any other capacity or interest than that of a civic activist.

What we have here is an example of the last laughable refuge of people who have failed at gaining from city authorities the brittle, inflexible and unreasonable rulemaking they desire: empty ad hominem, conspiracy theory, anything but a square and solid look in the mirror for the true reasons of their failure.

by Joel Lawson on Dec 19, 2010 8:05 am • linkreport

In some ways it may not be worth the response to navybrat but when someone libels you I guess a response is required.

It is sad that navybrat, if he/she actually is one, is embarrassing their parents who were in the military by lying and doing so under cover without the decency of using their real name.

For the record I never have nor ever plan to have an interest in a business in the District of Columbia and have never received any personal benefit from my effort to improve our community. Maybe one of the reasons I don't want to own a business here is because of how diffcult it is because of individuals like navybrat.

I have lived in DC for 32 years and in Dupont for over 25. I have always enjoyed it and the ambiance it provides. I do feel that citizens need to speak out and I actually am happy to work with, and often have in the past, those that disagree with me. But it is difficult to do that with sleazy people who like to make accusations that are blatantly false and then don't even have the courage to make them using their own name.

Thankfully the overwhelming majority of people living, working, and recreating in the Dupont area are not like navybrat.

by Peter Rosenstein on Dec 19, 2010 12:53 pm • linkreport

Why stop with those individuals in your list of the neighborhood illuminati, Navybrat? What about the neighborhood bloggers, or the ones who serve on their community associations, or who take an active interest in the civic affairs of their neighborhood?

Or hell, how about anyone who posts comments on a message board that express beliefs or ideas that differ from your own? All you have to do is make a post using an anonymous pseudonym and accuse said individuals of having economic ties to the businesses they supposedly support, and you've got the makings of a fantastic conspiracy theory.

by 14thandyou on Dec 19, 2010 6:50 pm • linkreport

I have removed a comment by BB that made a number of ad hominem attacks toward Natalie. BB, we welcome different points of view on this site but our commenting policies prohibit ad homem attacks, which are when a comment criticizes the person rather than the ideas.

by David Alpert on Dec 20, 2010 9:07 am • linkreport

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