Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Black Cat Crosses Dee Hunter's Path

I’m picking up where I left off a couple of weeks ago with the Black Cat story . . . After talking to Dee Hunter and Dante Ferrando, I was interested in how differently they each interpreted recent events. Below I’ve written a comparison of their statements. I must admit that I did not ask the gentlemen to address each other’s comments. Read on and see what you think , . .

The Deck
Ferrando expresses that he may or may not build the deck; the potential costs of the project may limit its profitability, and Ferrando might not be permitted by DC to build the structure. Ferrando shares that he is not thrilled about having smokers standing outside of the club because of security issues and possible complaints from neighbors. The deck would be one way for him to provide a smoking space while mitigating the current liabilities of the outdoor smoking space.

Hunter says that he represents residents who take issue with the traffic, noise, and rowdy patrons brought to the area by Black Cat. He also states that there have been “numerous complaints about the current operation.” These factors are what have encouraged him to lead the protest against the deck, which he says will accommodate 450 people and amount to a one third expansion of the club.

The major neighborhood protestant is ANC 1B. According to Hunter, once they knew of Black Cat’s plans, “ANC 1B quickly reacted and came out against the proposal.” Hunter also says that he met with about 50 residents of the area about the issue.

Two ANCs, 2F and 2C, have, at the urging of the 1B Commission, written letters in opposition to the modification. Hunter tells me that a P Street group opposed to the modification had circulated a petition and collected 100 signatures from project opponents. However, they were not able to register on time as protestants. As mentioned before, Commissioner Phil Spalding did not support the protest. Dee Hunter considers Spalding’s support of Black Cat “amazing because his constituents are opposed.”

Ferrando seemed disappointed that ANC 2F would unanimously vote to support the protest without having seen the plans for the deck. Ferrando is somewhat limited in what he can say about the protest because he has not been provided a witness list from the ABC Board though the protestants’ presentations are set to begin on September 19th.

When a liquor license is protested, ABRA asks that the parties involved engage in mediation. What is clear from both Ferrando and Hunter is that the mediation between Black Cat and ANC 1B was not particularly fruitful. Both do, however, agree that the protestants from the ANC would drop their protest if Black Cat would not serve alcohol or have music on the deck. The way Ferrando sees it, “the opposition didn’t really have any interest in a voluntary agreement. There were some mediated discussions. It wasn’t in the realm of compromise.”

Ferrando was sure to say that most people in the neighborhood “have been pretty reasonable.” He says that he has met with residents to discuss his plans and that he’s redesigned the deck many times to accommodate their input. Contrary to Hunter’s statement, Ferrando says that the club has no formal complaints against it right now. As a good neighbor and a good businessman, Ferrando would like to keep it that way. He says of his possible plans for the deck, “it’s a pretty thoroughly researched project . . . . there is no motivation for me to do it and do it poorly.”

To accommodate concerns about noise and sightlines, Ferrando would partially enclose the space. He must, however, leave the area somewhat open in order to comply with the provisions of the DC smoking ban. (Other establishments have had partially enclosed spaces sited as being in violation of the ban.) Currently planned noise-dampening provisions include eight foot high soundproof walls. Music in this space would be limited to what Ferrando called “background music,” and sound tests indicated that the music would not be audible in all portions of the deck area. As for his motivation to have a bar on the roof deck, it seems to be a business decision; building the deck requires an investment in architectural plans, permitting, and construction, and selling alcohol helps pay those costs.

Continuing Conflict
Based on Hunter’s statements, he either does not know about the details of the deck plans or does not believe Ferrando’s description to be truthful. Hunter says that Ferrando “has no plans [and] does nothing for the community” Hunter was critical of the way that Ferrando has handled the ABC Board hearings by attending without a lawyer and by “tying up” the time of the protestants. Hunter also insisted that Ferrando has “incurred no expense in this matter.”

In contrast Ferrando states that it “costs a lot of money to fight a hearing.” He also says the liquor license modification process has been ongoing for over a year and may take another six to 12 months to resolve. Interestingly, his opponents question whether the deck is really planned as a smoking space and they use as evidence the fact that the smoking ban has already been in place for eight months. However, it seems possible that Ferrando began considering the deck well before the ban’s effective date.

In Summary . . .
Ferrando, though he has the support of his ANC Comissioner and some neighborhood residents, may not win approval to serve alcohol on a rooftop deck. He feels that the “ABC tries to force you into a settlement,” and he sounds unlikely to want to revisit negotiations with ANC 1B. He also says that when a credible protest is filed that “even if you are completely convinced that you’re going to win,” that the outcome of the hearings is uncertain. Yet, Ferrando expresses a desire to be a good corporate citizen. He agrees that it is reasonable for neighborhood groups to ask businesses for their cooperation on such matters as keeping their property clean and preventing noise from being heard outside. He just wishes they would choose to enforce adherence the goals rather than prescribe the means for achieving those goals.

Hunter expresses strong doubts that the license modification will be granted. He stated “it would amaze me if the Board would grant permission with so much opposition from the neighborhood.” And for his part, Hunter appears to be doing the best he can to represent that opposition and to seek others who may be opposed.


IMGoph said...

dee hunter has been opposed to a lot of things in the neighborhood since the days i lived in his SMD, but this is ridiculous. i know he's just trying to gear up and get press for his run for a DC council seat.

how many of the 100 people who dee says are opposed to the black cat's deck have been in the neighborhood longer than the black cat? i hate it when people use the "i'm more long term than you argument" but it applies here. it's like when people move out into the country and then complain because there's a hog farm next door. you can't be surprised by the smell.

the fact is, if you've moved into the area of 14th and U in the last 10 years, you know it's not a quiet place, and you know it's a growing place. if you don't want the vibrancy of one of the "coolest" neighborhoods in the city, then seriously, i'm not being cute, move to the suburbs where it's quieter.

Mr. 14th & You said...

I commend my wife for having the journalistic integrity to present "both sides" of this issue but, really, this whole thing is pretty one-sided.

I have a lot of problems with this, but chief among them is that Hunter is going around to other ANC districts and pushing for support to his protest (which he is getting) without any representative of the Black Cat present. We were in attendance at the ANC2F meeting when Hunter voiced his objections to the Cat's plans and sought support from the ANC. His protest quite clearly had very little to do with any actual harm the Cat might cause by building their deck (he cited, among other things, the sound of "clinking glasses" as something that might disturb the peace of the area--WTF?) and a whole lot to do with the fact that he's running for a Council seat and thinks that going after a rock club who dares attempt to expand their club is a good way to score points. And I have no idea why a P St. group would be protesting this--I probably have as much of an effect on the peace and quite of P St. (an oxymoron if there was one) as the Black Cat does.

Like imgoph said, anyone who has moved to this area within the last 10 years should know what they are getting themselves into. And while that isn't carte blanche for businesses to behave recklessly or in any manner they choose, they *should* have the right to expand their business when such an expansion isn't a drastic change from their current operation. And I'm failing to see how the construction of a deck at the Cat would change that.

J said...

There are many, many serious factual gaps in the reporting on this case.

The most recent is in mr. 14th & you's contention that he has "no idea why a P St. group would be protesting this." By "P Street Group," I can only assume you are referring to the ANC that includes that street. That ANC also includes condos and townhouses that line the northern side of the 1300 block of S Street. Residents of those homes are in direct line of sight to the Black Cat's rooftop! If that isn't a legitimate concern, I don't know what is. A number of those residents have expressed their opposition, including attending meetings and the very first ABRA hearing, and their concerns are known by *their* ANC, which is the "P Street group" to which you refer.

"This whole thing is pretty one-sided." Yes, in a way: there hasn't been a single resident testify in support of the club's plans, while ALL the ANCs surrounding the club have opposed, and anywhere from 78-100 residents in the immediate surrounding blocks have expressed their opposition. We've driven this process, and yes we're thankful that our ANCs, including Dee's (it's in his ANC, after all) have provided solid support. Representation--that's his job, that's the ANC's jobs, period.

Length of residency: I have lived in this neighborhood, within one block of the club, since 1991. A woman who testified at the ABRA hearing today has lived here since 1996--long before the club moved to its current location and greatly expanded its capacity. Another, from the "P Street" group you mention, has lived here for decades. Another, who testified today, has also been in the neighborhood before the club's relocation and expansion. A majority of the opposed residents on the 1400 block of Swann were here before the club's relocation and expansion. And a large number of the remainder have been here for anywhere from 5-20 years.

Your attempt to portray this as "Dee v. Dante" is simply narrow, and inaccurate. The "petition" you reference was signed and delivered to the ABRA long before Dee was involved, and a much larger collective letter to the ABRA also pre-dates Dee's involvement.

This is, in reality, a matter of a club's desire to expand their party to the roof, with significant opposition from a very large and diverse number of surrounding residents.

J said...

Postscript: I also wanted to point out a serious inaccuracy in your earlier post about the Black Cat's potential impact. You wrote:

"...the Frontiers condo association president (and a resident of our ANC) is concerned that the sight lines from the deck would be directly into the homes of Frontiers residents. Stand on the east side of 14th Street and judge for yourself."

Why suggest people judge a sight line from nowhere near the sightline? The Frontiers residences line the northern side of the 1300 block of S Street. From where *you* asked people to judge--the East side of 14th--you can only gauge...the sight lines from THAT location.

The only way to judge a line of sight is to either go into a Frontiers home, or on the Black Cat's roof.

In the ABRA hearings themselves, detailed testimony and maps and photos --from the club's very own roof *and* from Frontiers--clearly showed a line of sight. The Black Cat's roof looks directly down into the bedroom and bathroom windows of an entire row of Frontiers residences. And all of that evidence is in the public record down at ABRA.

14th & You said...

Hi, J. Thank you for your comments. Admittedly, I have only my conversations with Hunter and Ferrando to go on; I did not do thorough newspaper-style interviews with every involved party -- just not enough time. I did hope though that seeking out both Hunter and Ferrando would help to show both sides of the issue. I should also say the P Street protest group information was given to me by Mr. Hunter, and I did do my best to transcribe our interview word for word. I'm sorry that you felt it didn't portray an accurate picture.

My main point in starting this debate is that I think that the ANC procedure is flawed -- even when citizen complaints/concerns are legitimate. I do not like that ANC 2F made a decision to support the protest without seeing design plans for the deck and without inviting any dissenting opinion; we all live here and we all have a right to have our input.

I will also admit that I am biased; as stated in one of my posts, I am a patron of the Black Cat. (I've also been connected to Logan Circle since 1987 when a family member first purchased property here -- if length of residency is a qualifier in this debate.)However, my suggestion that folks go and judge the sightline issue for themselves is simply that. From my observation, the Black Cat's building is fifth from the corner, and the Pulp building near the corner is the same height if not a tad bit taller. I assumed, perhaps incorrectly, that someone on the roof would only be able to see down onto S street at an angle that might not be sufficient to see anything more than the very tops of the upper floor condo windows. Ferrando did, however, seem very willing to put up 8' high walls to eliminate the sightline issue and dampen noise. I do not know if he has been able or has tried to share this with your neighborhood group, but he did express his intent to me.

Also, I will admit that I support the growth of Black Cat. Ferrando's been a DC business man for many years and he's dealt with the business climate changes such as the smoking ban and the underage curfew. I feel that the 14th and U corridor has always had a mix retail, nightlife, and residences. I support that mix and the local businesses. I also am concerned that some neighborhood ills are wrongly blamed on bars and clubs. But, again, this is just one person's opinion. Take it or leave it.

J said...

Dante did offer to build a wall--75% of the length of that wall is only 4 feet high, with the small remainder 8 feet high. That would not eliminate the noise impact of a 200-capacity roof bar down into homes directly below. 200-person bar noise goes over and across chest-high walls, obviously.

I agree with you that any vibrant neighborhood is a balance. I feel we have a pretty good one going, including the Black Cat as it is, and what it has contributed to the neighborhood. I don't oppose the Black Cat as it is today (and its growth hasn't been stunted--it has moved and tripled in size, including a dramatic increase as recent as 2002). This is probably why Dante has said we are reasonable.

A 200-person rooftop bar party space, however, would upset our good balance. People live--and yes, have to sleep at some point--all around that immediate location.

You put time and effort into a blog. You obviously care about DC's neighborhoods. We can't be neighborhood minded while being dismissive of the needs and experiences of residents--new, old, and in between.

Thanks again.

Mr. 14th & You said...


I guess I'm simply failing to see the tremendous detrimental impact Dante's proposed expansion would have on the immediate neighborhood. You say you're happy with the current set-up of the Black Cat, and I believe you. However, I can't help but think that if the Cat didn't exist there now, and was instead proposing to open the club in its current form at that space, the outcry from residents from throughout the neighborhood would be tremendous.

Regardless, I'm not saying that there aren't legitimate concerns which need to be addressed with Dante. However, as I mentioned in my previous comment, my concerns here are twofold. One, I'm bothered by the fact that a person such as Hunter is soliciting support for his protest from neighboring ANCs with no representative of the Cat present and no opposing viewpoints expressed (Commissioner Dwyer expressed this concern before proceeding to vote to support the protest). I'm all for open communication and debate, but the night Mr. Hunter attended our ANC meeting to voice his concerns, his appearance--much less his objective--wasn't even included on the agenda. I blame our own ANC as much as anyone for allowing an unscheduled protest of this nature to come before the panel--and subsequently vote to endorse it.

Secondly, the misinformation being spread about the project is troublesom. Hunter distorted the size and scope of the project--telling our ANC that the deck would hold "450 people" and would host "live music", neither of which are accurate. And it was Hunter who made mention of the "P St. group" and "Swann St. group" alleged to be protesting the expansion, without any further discussion as to who those groups were and what standing they had to protest the expansion. The Black Cat's own ANC Commissioner supports the expansion, and I too share Mr. Hunter's incredulousness that a Commissioner would support a single business owner against an entire district's residents who, in Hunter's estimation, are vehemently opposed. That is indeed peculiar.

As a business owner who has contributed greatly to the ongoing revitalization of 14th St., and with rising real estate assessments and taxes hitting small businesses, I support Dante's efforts to expand his club. Not at the expense of the neighborhood's residents, mind you, but a reasonable expansion that allows him to continue to run a viable business.

At any rate, thanks for the comments and the dialog. Issues such as this are precisely why we decided to start this blog.

J said...

I'm sorry, but you are making outrageous assumptions about residents in this matter, by speculating what their actions would be if the Black Cat were newly seeking to move into the neighborhood. That's highly speculative on its face, and at worst smears the intent of people that even Dante has repeatedly called "reasonable" and otherwise complimented, even in their opposition.

Let's have a good dialogue about neighborhoods, but let's not introduce stereotypes (much less imgoph's shots from the lip, such as "move to the suburbs").

Let's stick to the question at hand: whether a 200-capacity open-air bar (400 or so was the pre-amended application, btw) would upset the balance, esp. for residents living all around the club.

J said...

Forgot to mention: your support appears to hinge on allowing the Black Cat to survive financially. Not one word along those lines has been uttered as a motivation/need by Dante himself, in community mtgs nor in the many rounds of hearings. His repeatedly stated intent was to accommodate smokers, period.

If he's struggling, which he hasn't indicated in this matter, I'd fully support tax incentives--as some activists are discussing--to help indie businesses on these major corridors (hey, it's a good idea for an entirely separate blog item or feature).

Mr. 14th & You said...

"I'm sorry, but you are making outrageous assumptions about residents in this matter, by speculating what their actions would be if the Black Cat were newly seeking to move into the neighborhood."

First of all, calm down a bit. It wasn't a personal attack on you, and I'm not advocating that anyone move to the burbs. Sure, there's an amount of speculation involved in what I wrote, but I wouldn't call it outrageous. I merely said I could see a tremendous outcry from residents of adjoining streets if there was an effort to open a rock club across the street from their homes where none had existed before. I think there are a number of people who enjoy having the Cat nearby, and a number who merely tolerate its presence. But I find it hard to believe that if Dante wasn't currently operating there and announced plans to, the reception would be enthusiastic considering the vehement protests being lodged against its proposed rooftop expansion.

"Forgot to mention: your support appears to hinge on allowing the Black Cat to survive financially."

Not at all, although financial viability is a concern when I see area businesses such as the Warehouse packing up shop and moving elsewhere due to sky-high tax assessments. But ultimately, I support the right of a local business owner to conduct and/or expand his or her business as he or she sees fit, so long as it isn't burdensome to the neighborhood. Specific to the Black Cat, it'd be nice to get the smokers off the street so I don't have to play dodge 'em and walk through a haze of smoke every evening, so I will admit to a certain degree of a personal stake in this project.

J said...

Whether Dante's objectors would oppose him moving into his current location isn't the debate at hand, especially when I and 99.99% of his current objectors did not, in fact, object to his move to his current location (and his accompanying tripling of capacity).

A little neighborhood history lesson is in order. His move into the location did happen, it happened in recent years, and I was GLAD he moved into that space, because the previous club wasn't a gift to the neighborhood. Dante had a good reputation, by contrast, offering good music and supports the community.

So, that situation did happen, and what you speculate did not happen. Yes, a handful of residents can be found that oppose any nightclub's twitch or move. Dante has had tough objectors at times in the past. THIS discussion, this proposal, has nearly 100 residents opposed on all sides, and not one resident having testified at ABRA in favor. And even Dante has repeatedly called us reasonable.

Sorry, the speculation about anti-nightlife residents just doesn't fly here.

As for financial growth, he's grown. And grown again.

Mr. 14th & You said...

"A little neighborhood history lesson is in order. His move into the location did happen, it happened in recent years, and I was GLAD he moved into that space"

Gee, thanks for the neighborhood lesson. Here's another--the club only moved to its current location from a previous location down the street. So it's not as if a rock club was a foreign concept to the neighborhood.

At any rate, you're off on a tangent here, when the crux of the debate rests on whether or not Dante's proposed expansion would be detrimental to the residents of the neighborhood. Based on the information at hand, I don't believe it would--I'm simply not persuaded by arguments to the contrary. Now, perhaps Dante has lied to us, or is grossly exagerrating the accomodations he's willing to make or the support he claims he is receiving from the neigborhood, but we don't know that. From where I stand, a great deal of opposition to the expansion is stemming from speculation as to the noise and disturbance that such an expansion would create, and I think we've established the value of "speculation" on matters such as this.

J said...

"you're off on a tangent here, when the crux of the debate rests on whether or not Dante's proposed expansion would be detrimental to the residents of the neighborhood."

I was only addressing the tangents YOU introduced. I'm pleased by your decision, albeit belated, to focus on the real debate, but not impressed by your declarative summation of all the "information at hand."

You haven't read the competing sound studies, but you have a firm conclusion. You haven't spoken with the residents, but you have a conclusion on their intent. You haven't reviewed the roof diagrams, but you have a conclusion as to Dante's design.

And you accuse the residents of being speculative?

I understand if people don't have time to review the most basic facts of a debate. I do not understand, however, that same person getting on their hind legs and making empty conclusions in a public forum.

To quote someone, "I think we've established the value of 'speculation' on matters such as this."