The Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board will grant a license for All Souls, the proposed restaurant to occupy the long-vacant storefront at 725 T Street. All Souls became a lightning rod for unexpected opposition in March, drawing crowds and TV news coverage to its liquor license hearing. The objections covered the usual grounds: too much noise late into the night, too many drivers looking for parking, too many chances for general disorder.
The proprietor had long before agreed to only serve alcohol inside and only serve after 5 pm.
The most unusual objection, however, was that it is harmful for children to look across the street and view adults consuming alcohol. The objection seemed like a quaint, Puritanical reaction incongruent with a diverse, secular city.
DC law does, however, recognize that alcohol-serving establishments near schools merit at least some level of extra scrutiny. In fact the law prohibits the issuance of liquor licenses
within 400 feet of a public, private, or parochial primary, elementary, or high school; college or university; or recreation area operated by the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation (DC Code §25-314(b)(1)).
The protestors, legally referred to as “protestants”, thought this provision would damn the All Souls application. The same section of the DC Code, however, lists 10 exceptions to the 400-foot rule, including this important one:
The 400-foot restriction shall not apply if there exists within 400 feet a currently-functioning establishment holding a license of the same class at the time that the new application is submitted. (DC Code §25-314(b)(3))
The board found that the Mesobe market in the orange building at 1853 7th Street NW is indeed already within 400 feet of the school. The distance measurement, the board’s ruling stated, “‘shall be the shortest distance between the property lines of the places.’ 23 DCMR §101.1 (West Supp. 2012).”
The existence of Mesobe within 400 feet of the school provides a precedent that satisfies the exception for All Souls, the board decided.
With that argument down, the board addressed the general assertion that it is unsafe for children to view adults consuming alcohol. Here is where the board delivered its most scathing criticism of the objectors:
Finally, we reject the Protestants’ unsubstantiated assertion that the mere sight of the Applicant’s tavern will be detrimental to the students of Cleveland Elementary School… Indeed, if we accepted the Protestants’ argument that the mere sight of adults in a tavern consuming alcohol is harmful to children, the Board would similarly have to ban children from:
- entering restaurants that serve alcohol to patrons;
- attending sporting events where alcohol may be consumed by adult fans;
- eating dinner with their parents if wine is served with the parents’ meal;
- participating in religious ceremonies where wine is part of the service; and
- walking through neighborhoods with large concentrations of liquor-serving establishments during the daytime, such as Adams Morgan and U Street.
The board further described the objection as “unworkable, unreasonable, and not in accordance with current societal practices.”
There are a few important lessons from this case. The most important is that District boards don’t always cave to the flimsily argued demands of a vocal few. A common complaint, especially among the business community, is that DC’s various boards, such as Zoning Commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustment, the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), the Old Georgetown Board, the ABC Board, etc., exercise their discretion in ways that are too often inconsistent or outright bizarre.
The most frustrating experience with these boards is encountering unsupported opinions. In cases before the HPRB, many opponents argue that a proposed building is “incompatible” with the historic district while they fail to elaborate why it is allegedly incompatible. Georgetown resident Topher Matthews explained this sentiment that I have also encountered when following historic preservation cases:
Time and time again, neighbors use the historic preservation design review process to object to the size of the project rarely out of any genuine concern for the preservation of the neighborhood’s historic character but rather because they simply just don’t like the project. The basis for the complaints would be no different than if the project were in a brand new development with no historic character: it blocks my view, it’s too big, you’ll be able to see into my garden, et cetera.
In the All Souls case, the school proximity argument failed to establish harm to students to a degree that would warrant killing off a local business. It is a non sequitur to many people that children are harmed by catching a glimpse of adults across the street sipping wine at 5 pm. Merely believing that something is true doesn’t necessarily make it true. In rejecting this claim, the ABC Board made the right decision.
The entire licensing process, which was unusually protracted in this case, certainly cost the proprietor of All Souls a hefty sum in legal fees. When the proprietor attended community meetings on his proposed license, he usually had his attorney with him to address the fine legal distinctions, especially as it applied to the somewhat complicated 400-foot rule.
In fact I pitied the man. All he wanted to do was open up his small businesses. His modest license request unleashed the histrionic vitriol of a few strident Furies who spoke as though he were defiling the sanctity of childhood itself!
The board ratified a voluntary agreement between All Souls and three neighbors uninvolved in the school-proximity protest. The text of this side agreement is not currently available, but if it is like most other voluntary agreements, it likely negotiated closing hours and restrictions on indoor music volume, not moral arguments about child psychology and societal vice.
The good news is that even the school-proximity opponents who lost their case actually won. Cleveland Elementary School is a great school and will continue to be a great school long after All Souls has poured its inaugural beer. The conversion of the vacant storefront into an occupied business will deter the loitering and drug dealing along that block of T Street and will remove a visible physical blight from the neighborhood.
The neighborhood and the school will both be better off once All Souls opens.
Channel 7 ran a short story on the fracas over the All Souls tavern license we reported earlier.
Unfortunately we weren’t able to make the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board hearing on Wednesday, but we heard secondhand that it was quite a show.
A commenter from a previous post pointed us to an article sympathetic to the opposition.
The article notes that the ABC Board does not typically grant alcohol licenses within 400 feet of a school unless there is already another alcohol license within 400 feet of the school. In this case, All Souls would qualify since Boston Wine & Spirits (1905 9th Street) is within 400 feet of the school.
We looked up on Google Earth the distance between Boston Wine & Spirits and Cleveland Elementary School and marked a 400-foot yellow line in the map below. We were able to spot-check the relative accuracy of the program by measuring the right-of-way distances in Google Earth and comparing them to the numbers in the Baist Real Estate Atlas of the area. By a more generous measure, where we measure from the school building instead of the school’s property lot (outlined in red) to 9th Street in front of and thus beyond Boston Wine & Spirits, it appears that Boston Wine & Spirits is within the 400 feet.
Here is another interesting tidbit from the article:
The parent group who is behind the protest of the bar conducted a survey. According to the survey, 45% of Cleveland Elementary School teachers would be reluctant to attend evening activities at the school and 33% of parents would remove their children from the school should the bar open up across the street…
It seems the frequent, blatant, and public drug-dealing and urination a block away have not deterred these hardy souls from attending Cleveland, but the thought of a 5 pm happy hour across the street will.
Few things rile up neighbors like liquor licenses. Just outside LeDroit Park at 8th and T Streets, a proposal for a new restaurant, All Souls, has elicited the ire of several neighbors. The objectors, though small in number, are trying to stop a local restaurateur from turning a vacant storefront, pictured above, into a community asset. Much of this opposition is unwise and unwarranted and will hold back neighborhood improvement. We have heard the objections to All Souls for several months and would like to see this restaurant finally come to fruition.
While some objections, particularly regarding outdoor noise late into the night, are certainly reasonable, a few objectors have damaged their own credibility with an array of spurious objections.
The first of such complaints is that a restaurant serving alcohol across the street from an elementary school is unsavory. This is a red herring. Restaurants cannot serve alcohol to 10-year-olds and the main business of restaurants is at night, several hours after school has ended. The restaurateur has agreed to not serve alcohol before 5 pm.
The most ludicrous objection we heard is that patrons on the patio on 8th Street (along the blank wall in the photo above) will leer into a neighboring house. This is another red herring as drawing one’s window blinds or curtains can easily solve this problem.
Another objection is that a restaurant is inappropriate for what one objector alleged is a “residential street”. This is not entirely true. Most of the 1900 block of 8th Street is actually in a commercial zone C-2-B, which is intended for commercial uses, but also allows residential uses.
The restaurant site is surrounded by a residential zone (R-4) on three sides. Nonetheless, all zones have boundaries in which differing uses abut each other. It is the responsibility of residents to research and understand the zoning implications of where they live. It is also important for residents to understand their limitations in dictating how other people lawfully use their own property.
The restaurant building, as marked in the map below, is zoned for commercial uses (C-2-A), which permits restaurants as a matter of right. The law is very clear in this case that a restaurant is permitted in this location. The issuance of the alcohol license, which is necessary for any reastaurant to survive financially, is not by right, but must be requested. Thus, it is only in the alcohol license that the objectors have a viable case to block the business.
All Souls will improve the quality of life in several ways. It will provide a sit-down restaurant, something we consider a desirable neighborhood amenity. It will provide more eyes on the street to deter crime. Drug dealers and criminals at 7th & T Streets will feel less confident in their criminality when they see that there are numerous witnesses at sidewalk tables 100 feet away.
Most importantly, the conversion of a vacant property (pictured to the right) into a vibrant, occupied use improves the impression of the neighborhood. People rightly look upon vacant and abandoned space negatively. They look at active, lively restaurants positively. All Souls will improve the image of the neighborhood by improving the quality of life.
Let’s hope the unreasonable objections of a few don’t derail a potential community asset that we suspect the silent majority supports.