Posts about U Street
A group of U Street residents and business recently formed to fight a possible liquor license moratorium along the newly bustling corridor. The reaction has been swift and strong. Georgetown's experience with a similar one shows some benefits for a moratorium, but also bears out some of the concerns that moratorium opponents raise.
Photo by the author.
Eric Fidler weighed in yesterday with a list of reasons why a moratorium would be bad for the greater U Street neighborhood, including:
- It makes no distinction between "good" establishments and "bad" establishments
- A moratorium on liquor license is in effect a moratorium on new restaurants, period.
- It will reduce pressure to offer a good customer experience.
- It unfairly rewards current businesses over future businesses.
- It sets the cap at an arbitrary level.
- It doesn't address the supposed problems those advocating for a moratorium raise (loud crowds, vandalism, etc.).
- It's difficult to administer.
Georgetown has had a moratorium since 1989. Right now, only about 70 liquor licenses can be issued to Georgetown bars and restaurants. Liquor stores and hotels are not subject to the moratorium. Here are some of the results attributed to the long standing moratorium:
- Opening a new restaurant in Georgetown is more expensive than opening one elsewhere. On top of the higher rent, you need to purchase a liquor license on the secondary market from a license holder who no longer wants it. This has reportedly driven the cost of such licenses close to $100,000.
- Georgetown restaurants are pretty boring. No new exciting restaurant has opened since Hook did, and it's closed already.
- Drunken revelry is only a problem in certain spots around the neighborhood.
So some of Fidler's predictions have already come true in Georgetown. The moratorium cannot be waived for particularly "good" restaurants, the quality of the restaurants has not kept up with the dining renaissance seen in other neighborhoods, and the cap seems arbitrarily set.
Some of Fidler's predictions for U Street have not come true for Georgetown. Restaurants have opened in Georgetown without obtaining a liquor license. They are more likely to cater to a lunch crowd, but a restaurant is a restaurant. And it isn't really difficult to administer. The zone basically is everything south of Q Street.
Also, it's true that moratoriums don't address the negative externalities of existing drinking establishments. But they do address the negative externalities of bars that haven't yet opened. (And of course it also eliminates the positive externalities of those unopened bars and restaurants too!)
The cap may be arbitrary, but right now U Street has 107 licenses, over 50% more than Georgetown. Maybe it's arbitrary, but it doesn't seem likely that it's low.
All that said, U Street should not pursue a moratorium. New and interesting restaurants open there almost weekly. It would be like killing the goose that laid the golden egg to stop that now. It would make sense for U Street to trust the market but verify with strong voluntary agreements that address hours and outdoor patios, etc.
One criticism of moratoriums that Fidler did not mention, but should be pretty obvious from Georgetown's experience: they don't go away. Georgetown's has been renewed multiple times, and nobody seems to even make the case to let it expire. (To the ANC's credit, they did add seven new licenses to the cap last year, but that only brought us back to the level that existed in 1989).
Finally, many believe that moratoriums make existing licenses worth a lot more. And that appears to be mostly true. Last year, when the city "released" those seven new licenses into the Georgetown moratorium zone, they were quickly snapped up, in some cases by parties with only sketchy plans for actually opening. It was a land rush.
The thing is, half of those licenses have already been forfeited because the speculative plans simply fell through (or in one case the restaurant didn't want to comply with voluntary agreement restrictions). At least a couple now sit in ABRA unclaimed. Supposedly the lack of cheap liquor licenses is a huge obstacle to new restaurants opening in Georgetown, but the longer the free licenses sit there, the more that conventional wisdom seems wrong.
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.
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.
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.
14th and U has some of DC's heaviest pedestrian traffic, but recently, a fence suddenly stopped people from walking along this heavily traveled corridor. Developer JBG says they want a walkway, but DDOT's policy won't allow it. What's going on?
JBG recently began demolishing several buildings on the southwest corner of 14th & U Streets, NW to prepare to build of a major, mixed-use project. The sidewalk on the west side of 14th Street abruptly closed, with a fence blocking it off for more than half the block.
The 14th Street corridor has endured near-constant construction for several years now. Other projects have included varying types of temporary walkways, from bare-bones plastic jersey barriers to lit, covered scaffolding. When construction activities have required closing the sidewalk altogether it generally been for only a day, if not hours, at a time. Why not here?
No sidewalk during raze
Eric Fidler posed the question to DDOT, and an inspector gave this response:
The sidewalk is closed and pedestrians are routed across the roadway in accordance with DDOT's Pedestrian Safety and Work Zone Standards. This policy provides a matrix for what methods of pedestrian access are the most appropriate based on the phase of construction. In this case the project is undergoing raze. During raze activities the sidewalk is to be closed with pedestrians routed across the street.It's true that DDOT's guidelines recommend closing the sidewalk during the raze. But is that appropriate? A raze doesn't mean dynamiting the building so it just collapses. Workers spend most of the raze period carefully removing materials, mostly from the interior and rear of the block.
Raze is a short period, typically lasting a few weeks to just more than a month. After this phase the sidewalk is to be opened or a pedestrian walkway is to be provided. It is DDOT's goal to maintain the pedestrian path on both sides of a roadway and will only allow the closure when it is unsafe to maintain it or when the work requires that the sidewalk be closed (e.g. during sidewalk construction).
Recently, tower cranes have been lifting multi-ton sections of preformed concrete into place, frequently swinging directly above the pedestrians walking below. What about that poses less danger than a one-story brick facade being knocked down on the interior of a block?
When closing a block, especially where there are open businesses on either side, a large percentage of pedestrians will still ignore the signs and walk through along the fencing. By closing the sidewalk altogether under the auspices that any pedestrian accommodations would be dangerous, it creates a far more dangerous situation. Not only do people still have to walk past the construction entrance, they're doing so in traffic.
Mid-block closures also harm remaining businesses on either side because of the reduced foot traffic from those people that do cross the street. Even where an entire block is closed, businesses on the same side of the street on adjacent blocks likely see a drop in foot traffic. Having been forced to cross, people generally continue walking on the opposite side of the street if the light permits.
While the weekdays produce a lot of foot traffic, the weekends are even busier, and would benefit most from a temporary walkway. Yet, on the past few weekends (and even occasionally during the week), cars could park in the curbside lane, which is used for receiving during the week. Pedestrians still had to walk in the street.
If this lane is only needed for construction activities some of the time, it should be a walkway the rest of the time, not parking spaces. If DDOT and JBG can get pedestrians out of traffic for even 30% of the week, that would be a major safety improvement.
Access creates complications
The situation at 14th & U is complicated because the strangely shaped parcel is difficult to access. The project is mostly mid-block, so it can't receive trucks and stage materials from a side street.
Alley residents are adamantly opposed to the construction company using the alley. There are several alley dwellings immediately behind the site. Many people in that ANC opposed the use of T Street for construction. As a result, the construction company can only receive trucks and materials from 14th Street. All the other projects along 14th are staging along a side street or in an adjacent alley.
JBG says they have been trying to work with DDOT to create an alternative pedestrian path. DDOT officials, however, insist that there is no safe option because the construction site entrance and staging area are on 14th Street.
A JBG spokesman said that DDOT will not let them open a pedestrian path because of this staging issue on 14th Street. JBG is still considering two alternatives, neither of which is ideal:
- Cut down two street trees and create a path in the treebox zone. There would still be issues since they would have to allow trucks and materials to cross the pathway. Trucks will be received in the parking lane as currently planned.
- Receive trucks in the parking lane, since there is nowhere else for them, and convert the bike lane to a pedestrian path.
While JBG's comments imply that DDOT opposes a walkway even during construction phases, DDOT's John Lisle denied that was the case. "A walkway will be provided after the razing period precisely because there is so much construction in the area," Lisle said.
Trucks turning into an alley or side street at construction sites elsewhere on 14th Street pose just as much a danger to pedestrians as those that will enter an exit the JBG site at mid-block. But DDOT hasn't closed R or Swann Streets because of the danger to people on foot.
JBG should be able to use the parking lane or sidewalk for a temporary walkway and establish a site entrance along 14th Street. They should be required to mark it very clearly, and pedestrians and construction workers should both treat it as an intersection.
Instead of being a roadblock, DDOT needs to encourage a developer that wants to accommodate all of the road users and take responsibility for everyone's safety at their site. Preserving traffic lanes and neighbors' peace and quiet is important, but so is providing safe, reasonable accommodations for pedestrians.
Earlier this month three dozen people donned hard hats to get a sneak preview of the ongoing renovation of Shaw's historic Howard Theatre, at 620 T Street, NW. The nearly $30 million project will restore one of Washington's most storied performance venues.
The grand opening is scheduled for April 12, 2012, though renovations could finish as early as February.
According to Washington's U Street: A Biography, Howard Theatre opened on August 22, 1910, with 1,500 seats. The Washington Bee proclaimed it "the finest theatre in the city." The Bee added, "[T]he private boxes were filled with ladies of society. The orchestra was monopolized with the social elite of Washington, gayly and gorgeously dressed in gowns fit for goddesses."
In its earliest days, the theatre hosted vaudeville, musicals, road shows, stock company productions, and even a circus or two. For a short time during the Great Depression the building hosted a church, but by 1931 the theatre was restored to a lively performance space. Over the decades the theatre hosted stars of jazz, rock-n-roll, rhythm and blues, and some early front-runners of go-go.
Unable to survive the economic troubles of the era, the Howard Theatre closed shortly after the 1968 riots that decimated so much of central Washington. It re-opened in the mid-1970s, but closed again by the early 1980s. It has been shuttered for the past 3 decades.
Immortalized in song and verse by Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer and others, the theatre's pending reopening, along with the adjacent development of Progression Place on 7th Street, is already triggering memories of Washington's "Black Broadway."
"The Howard was the first major theatre built for and by black folks," said Timothy A. Jones, ANC 4C08, as he gripped a binder filled with photocopies of old photos, show programs, and newspaper clippings.
"The Howard seems to have been a place where local kids who thought they might be able to be musicians could come hang out back stage. Several discovered that they did want to be musicians," says Blair A. Rube, author of Washington's U Street.
The ground breaking for the renovations was held in early September, 2010, just weeks after the theatre's centennial anniversary.
Unfortunately, not much from the building's interior could be saved. According to construction project manager Ryan Colombo, water damage caused by leaks in the roof had destroyed most of the interior.
The renovated interior will have a standing room capacity of around 1,000, and seating capacity of between 400 and 500. There will be fewer than 100 permanent seats, all of which will be located on the 2nd floor balcony. The first floor will be flexible for either standing or banquet seating. The renovated stage will include DJ booths set to either side.
A new basement has been built which will have bathrooms, dressing rooms, a green room, and a large kitchen.
On the exterior, the façade's original 17 windows have been restored. Additionally, a new free standing statue will be added to the building's front. The statue will consist of stainless steel rods in the shape of a trumpet player, and will be called "Jazz Man".
In 2002, the DC Preservation League named the Howard one of its Most Endangered Places. According to Executive Director Rebecca Mller, "The Howard is a cultural as well as an architectural landmark." It is gratifying to see it restored and put to good use.
With the re-opening of the Howard Theatre, the revitalization of the U Street district continues to creep eastward, bringing neighborhoods back to life and returning a piece of the city's past glory.
A version of this story appeared in The Washington Informer.
Temporarily closing a segment of the Green Line might ironically improve service for some this weekend. WMATA announced that it will close the Shaw, U Street, and Columbia Heights stations this weekend for scheduled track maintenance.
Green Line closure this weekend.
The stations will close at 10 pm Friday and won't reopen until Tuesday morning's normal opening time (Monday is a holiday). A similar closure will be in place on the Orange Line between East and West Falls Church stations as Metro works to connect the new Silver Line.
In the meantime, Metro will operate free shuttles along the route to ferry passengers through this service gap. Ironically, these shuttles may sometimes operate more frequently than the rail service would on a typical weekend.
Metro instituted a similar closure along a section of the Red Line on Labor Day weekend. On that weekend, I went to have brunch at a friend's house in the Brookland neighborhood. During that time, Metro shuttles were running down his street every 2 minutes. Many of the buses were nearly empty, but for a moment I was jealous at the thought of transit service every 2 minutes.
Likewise, if WMATA keeps similarly short headways for the shuttles this weekend, the agency might actually enhance mobility between the Convention Center, Shaw, U Street, Columbia Heights, and Petworth.
One of Metro's main shortcomings is that riding during non-rush periods, especially on weekends or at night, can entail waiting on platforms for as much as 24 minutes. This is an unacceptably low level of service, but our region lacks the political leadership to set a minimum level of transit service the way we do for utilities.
In the abstract, our leaders may appreciate the importance of frequent service, but nothing drives home the point like waiting on a Metro platform with 100 other people only to watch a packed train arrive half an hour later.
Though buses can't match the speed and comfort of rail service, the frequency of bus shuttles this weekend might prove to be a significant, though temporary, transit improvement.
DDOT has developed 3 options to redesign 9th Street and Florida Avenue, NW from U Street to just past Sherman Avenue. All make the road move closer to being a complete street, but also leave a few disappointing gaps.
All 3 options widen the notoriously narrow sidewalk on the east side of 9th Street between U and V Streets. All 3 options also redistribute sections of the right-of-way to pedestrians, cyclists, and permeable surface.
Intersection of 9th, Florida, and V Street in Option 3.
Option 3 stands out as the best option. Its most notable feature is to reconfigure the intersections with Vermont Avenue and Sherman Avenue to traditional right angles. Currently, the intersections are designed like highway ramps to aid drivers in speedy turns between the avenues. As expected, when you engineer a road for fast driving, people will drive fast regardless of the speed limit signs.
To discourage speeding, option 3 curves both of these avenues to intersect Florida Avenue a right angles. This will require sharper turns that will calm traffic and reduce the distances pedestrians must traverse to cross the avenues.
The elimination of the high-speed turn lanes creates the opportunity for two small plazas at these intersections.
Option 3 also reduces the amount of impervious surface (orange) and allows for a planting strip with trees on the east side of Florida Avenue just south of Vermont Avenue. Furthermore, it includes for curb extensions that reduce the distance pedestrians must spend in the path of traffic when crossing the streets.
Bike lanes will extend from Sherman Avenue to 9th Street and will connect the bike lanes on V Street, W Street, and Sherman Avenue.
These changes are very welcome, but there are several regrettable omissions. The intersection at V Street lacks a crosswalk on the north side, as does the north side of the intersection of Vermont Avenue. The intersection with W Street lacks any crosswalks for crossing Florida Avenue at all.
To cross Florida at W, a pedestrian will have to detour nearly 900 feet to and from the nearest crosswalk, or cross without a marked crosswalk. Under DC law, any edge of an intersection is still a legal crosswalk, but by avoiding striping one, DDOT is sending a signal that it isn't designing the intersection to be safe to cross.
As Howard University increases the number of students living on campus while encouraging walking and biking, the city must build the infrastructure that makes walking safer, easier, and more comfortable.
Curb extensions and crosswalks at W Street would provide an excellent pedestrian accommodation, yet options 1 and 2 show one isolated curb extension at W Street and option 3 shows none.
In 2009, DDOT agreed to add a crosswalk to a Fort Totten intersection which had a missing leg. Including safe crossings at all intersections in street designs should be one of the ways DDOT follows through on its "complete streets" policy.
Another disappointment is that DDOT's 3 design proposals ignore the roundabout envisioned in the Office of Planning's Duke Plan.
Left: Intersection of Florida and Sherman today.
Right: Older plan for the intersection with extended Bryant Street.
A roundabout would lie at the intersection of Florida Avenue, Sherman Avenue, and a newly created Bryant Street, which would be constructed on a DC-owned parking lot that lies east of the intersection.
DDOT staff will present this design and take questions at tonight's meeting of the ANC 1B Transportation Committee. The meeting starts at 7 pm at the Thurgood Marshall Center, 1816 12th Street NW.
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