17th Street: Morte Torium

by Borderstan.com May 23, 2013 at 10:00 am 11 Comments

From Dito Sevilla. Email him at dito[AT]borderstan.com, follow him on Twitter @DitoDC.


17th Street NW. (Luis Gomez Photos)

Last century, back in 1990 — before many of us were even born — the then residents of Dupont Circle were just beside themselves. They were deep in the throes of fighting a war. Their neighborhood was under attack.

Something simply had to be done to stem the rapid and unrestricted investments made in their community by evil, cash-hungry, noise-making, trash-piling restaurant and bar owners.

These greedy, profit-piling, pillagers came in — most of them foreigners — and started leasing and buying up empty, sometimes abandoned storefronts. They began, through years of hard work, clever financing, mutually beneficial partnerships, and other arrangements commonly employed by the “business community,” to transform them into money-making ventures.

Some succeeded, others failed. Some are still open for business. Most served a popular intoxicant, a liquid found throughout the world, an ancient substance with unknown properties: alcohol. What was worse, the owners of the storefronts, building, basements and the like also found themselves motivated by the much touted American dream of feeding their families, and making an honest buck.

So in one selfish act after another, they threw the deep love they were supposed to feel for their neighbors by the wayside, and they sold out, they rented space, or sold their land to these horrible people — to these bar owners. It just makes me sick.

That war begun 23 years ago has raged on, leaving a trail of casualties in its midst. Many of those residents are now dead. Those who survived are now 23 years closer to death, these veterans and heroes.

Though what one can imagine required the all-day efforts of countless retirees, the residents decided to take real action. Why fight each and every evil business person head on, why write so many letters, and voice so many complaints? That would have taken much more diligence than these sound-haters could muster. Even if they had time for it, which they did, why admit it?

Wasn’t it better to pretend they had to get up for work the next day? Well, of course it was. Rather than address the uncooperative, cash-rich, booze-sellers, why not abuse an element of DC government put in place after Home Rule was instituted in 1974? Why not manipulate the system granting Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, or ANCs ( they even sounds flaccid ) “great weight” in the granting of liquor licenses?  What better way was there for small group to influence entire neighborhoods?

In their lame fury the residents succeeded in beating down the wrong adversary. You see, rather than face the current threat, rather than engage in a conversation hoping to negotiate a peace with the existing “business community,” the restaurateurs and bar-owning scum of the era — those who caused them annoyance beyond convenience — they decided, rather than fight what was, they would wage a battle into the future, they would prevent more businesses from daring to open new alcohol selling businesses on their streets.

Not in their back yards, no ma’am. No, never again.

As they could not win against what was already there, the residents would prevent new businesses from opening. Brilliant! The new investors would be punished for the sins of their ancestors. Sounds fair.

Thus was born the East Dupont Circle Liquor License Moratorium, although it’s commonly called the 17th Street moratorium. It has come up for renewal every five years since 1990 — it is up for renewal in 2013 because the decision was made three years ago to review it again this year instead of waiting five years.

I walk past their success everyday. Empty, unpainted, uninhabited storefront after storefront bedazzled with fading “For Lease” signs. What a beautiful sight it is, their success. The little group of residents got exactly what they wanted. Their victory against progress took the shape of a moratorium, a theoretically temporary cessation in the granting of more liquor licenses, the success of which is obvious.

Twenty-three years later there are fewer restaurants and bars on 17 Street — while moratorium-free, business friendly 14th Street has been transformed into a thriving community. This moratorium, set to expire on September 23, after four extensions (each supported by ANC 2B) of it’s original sell-by date has severely handicapped competition. It has made the idea of opening a new business on 17th Street near to impossible — and the impact of that is real.

A quick stroll down from R street to P street will leave one wondering in just how much laundry, and pill popping our community engages in. Pharmacies, and dry cleaners outnumber restaurants. The lateral expansion of two highly rated, critically acclaimed restaurants was a highly contested, and costly affair. Both Hank’s Oyster Bar, and Komi were finally allowed to expand to buildings adjacent to their existing locations, but not before hearings, and meetings, and “listening sessions,” all designed to address the same complaints of the past, from the same five people — complaints that were never directed at either restaurant to begin with.

Whether or not this moratorium is allowed to expire is anyone’s guess. Eventually it will, but when? In five more years, when another five storefronts are empty? Residents and businesses must realize that the future of the neighborhood in which they live and operate in is at stake. Our street’s bars and restaurants have each been open for years — their owners and operators have proved themselves to be valuable contributors to the community. Any suggestion otherwise is insulting.

On our street the reality is, longevity is the rule. Annie’s, the Paramount Steakhouse has been serving burgers here since 1948. The Trio restaurant predates even that.

Jr’s Bar has opened their doors — and their checkbook — for our community since 1985!  Floriana Nestore bought the failing Mercury Grill in 2001, re-branding it Floriana, and it continues to thrive in the hands of her son. Generation after generation has proven themselves to these people, but it never seems to be enough.

Maybe as I age I will need enough medication and artwork to see the benefit of another pharmacy, and a third frame-shop on my street. But until then, I find myself hungry for something better. I guess I’ll walk over to 14th Street to find it.

The next ANC “listening session” will take place June 24 at 7 pm at the Chastleton Ballroom, 16th and R NW.

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  • Scoot

    The ordeal that the gang of five put Hank’s through was just awful. I hope that this moratorium is lifted. It’s essentially discrimination. Hopefully kharma will come back to those who make everyone’s lives so unecessarily difficult.

  • David

    None of the folks involved would admit it, but the moratorium was an anti-gay move, an attempt to block JR’s from expanding and other gay bars from opening into what was (and still sort of is) the center of the DC gay community. And it grew into a more generalized NIMBY movement. I have to wonder why these nitwits even live in the city when they seem to prefer a more suburban quality of life.

    • I couldn’t agree more, this gang targets what they don’t want, but will bend over backwards for something they want. they do not speak for the community. i live on 17th & P and never hear the noise that they keep speaking of.

  • I can remember when back in the day, 17th st was a ghetto until a hand full of businessmen and gay men came in and cleaned it up. Once it became the Location Location Location where everyone wanted to live. The People that moved into our beautiful neighborhood, shouted, no more bars and restaurants. And they still scream today. As a Realtor, i would like to ask these people why did you move into this neighborhood in the first place ? more and more people are choosing to buy further North, 17th st is starting to look gloom. Once properties could be had for 10 -15 thousand dollars, they went on to reach such heights as 500 to over a million dollars. As 17 th st declines, so will the property value. Then, those same people that bitched about the bars and restaurants will seek someone else to blame for the decline. I think they are the same people that buy a home at the beach and want the town to close up each night by 10 PM

  • Brian

    Who are these “gang of five”? Publish their names so they can be exposed!

  • Love this piece. To commenter David: keep in mind that some of the loudest NIMBYs have been gay men. So there are gay folk on both sides of the dispute. I don’t think the motivation of the moratorium pushers is particularly gay-related. They are privileged people with a sense of entitlement and no respect whatever for other stakeholders with a different view. Even now, with regard to the new proposed moratorium zone centered near 13th and U, it is somehow obvious to them that overwhelming opposition to such a move should not count. What always kills me is their brazen dishonesty in claiming, at various times, that crime has risen and their property values harmed–when in fact crime has gone down, the greater liveliness on the streets has made them safer, and property values have soared. They just lie. As someone who has lived on or within a block of 17th Street for over 30 years, I am glad to see the tide turning at last.

  • M

    Meh. Doesn’t really matter. 17th Street is waaaaaaaay past its prime. 14th Street (aka the new 18th Street; hope you don’t mind people peeing, littering, and vomiting in your front yard; good luck finding a parking spot)and 9th Street are the flavors of the month now. 17th Street is basically the same as the 2200 block of P Street now. A couple of tired old gay bars that the young pretties mostly avoid. The folks on 17th should be glad if any businesses want to help slow the decline.

  • R

    To M:

    What 14th Street are you talking about, exactly? Below T Street there are only a small handful of bars, almost all of them fairly upscale, as are the restaurants. Yeah, there’s one Yums (which will be going away), but no pizza-by-the-slice joints. You clearly need to get out more often if you see many similarities between Logan Circle and AdMo.

    And Rick is right: Some of the loudest whiners are gay, unfortunately. He’s also right about crime: It’s been going down, down, down–and usually BECAUSE of, not in spite of, the presence bars and restaurants. Maybe the moratorians believe if you repeat these lies often enough, they will eventually be believed.

  • Jeffrey

    First let me state that I am totally opposed to the moratorium now, as I was similar attempts when I lived on Corcoran 1/2 block of 17th in the late 1970’s. Unfortunately, this position is one of the few things with which I agree with the author, whose post is factually incorrect, filled with accusations that it does not even try to substantiate, and insulting in tone. As for falsehoods:

    1. “Empty, unpainted, uninhabited storefront after storefront…” Wrong. I walked between P and T yesterday and found 2 empty storefronts, one of which (the Cafe Green) had a liquor license (the moratorium did not cause its demise).

    2. “Twenty-three years later there are fewer restaurants and bars on 17 Street.” Wrong. I lived just off 17th at Corcoran in 1978–there are far more restaurants and bars now.

    3. “Pharmacies, and dry cleaners outnumber restaurants.” Outrageously wrong. 3 pharmacies and 2 dry cleaners compared to more than 20 restaurants and bars.

    Worse than the factual inaccuracies, the insulting and ageist tone expressed by the author does more to harm the effort to deny renewal of the moratorium. The people with the most influence on the ANC’s are property owners, like myself, who are mostly middle-aged or older. The author insults all of us–regardless of which side of the issue we are on. This is certainly not a good way to gather support from the very people from whom you need support.

    BORDERSTAN – I realize that you are a blog, but this does NOT excuse you for dismissing all editorial review. Most of the false statements could have easily been fact checked, accusatory claims either substantiated or dropped, and ageist insults toned down. Please assert a little editorial responsibility.

    From a 55-year-old property owner off 17th street who is strongly against the renewal of the moratorium.

  • Mike

    I’ve been around for a long time being a resident between Logan (14th St/”Mid-City” as it’s properly called — No such thing as East Dupont unless you’re a realtor trying to pump up property values) and 17th Street.
    There used to be rumblings of anti-gay spats until gay folks joined the cause to ensure JR’s would get what they wanted (never happened as the store front next it stands closed) and then targeting Hank’s (although some gay neighbors don’t like that either – maybe lesbian prejudice by gay men, I do think). Nonetheless, Gays are everywhere and what is needed is for everyone to be able to honestly participate in the process and have the people voted-in that will actually represent their constituency. Polling the neighborhood is a critical way to get the true opinions. Borderstan has done this in the past – trying to find “What the People Want.” Besides another Bar, Restaurant, or Liquor store, we could use a good Breakfast joint or perhaps a parking garage for all the damn restaurants on 14th Street as we now can barely park between 13-18th Streets after 5:30pm almost everyday. Virginians come down here in droves cuz Clarendon has become boring and employees of these places are not taking metro nor riding their bikes, just parking up our neighborhood. And don’t get me started about the Valet Parking issue which is total BS! ***LAURIOL PLAZA NOW OWNS A CITY BLOCK*** So growth is good and growth is bad is the sum of it. Just how long one can stand it is the question. Is it time to sell and move further East to CapHill? or Back to Upper NW (Cleveland Park is cheaper these days). The Moratorium should be killed otherwise, I would like to see Food Trucks selling liquor on 17th Street in front of the places that won’t have any or perhaps allow BYOB Cafes???? Somethin’s gotta give! How about we have a Cupcake Business with a TV Show open up in TRIOS Space? Anyone say Medicinal Marijuana dispensary – I hear there needs to be more in NW before they can open the whole city up to it?
    Nah, I prefer breakfast joint! 😉

    Your Truly Always Looking for Parking,



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