Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Metro Board Threatens Yellow Line Service Cuts

Just received the following from the Mid-City Business Association. This is an important issue for our neighborhood in terms of transit access and development, and I encourage everyone to follow the link below to sign the petition.


Save the “Yellow Line” now! Sign our petition to the WMATA board!

CLICK HERE TO SIGN THE ONLINE PETITION OPPOSING THESE CUTS! http://www.midcitylife.com/action/#petition

Hello everyone,

I have heard from Councilmember Graham regarding the series of hearings occurring now, regarding the WMATA budget shortfall and the potential elimination of the Yellow Line extension and late night hours on weekends as ways to address the shortfall. As someone who fought hard on the Metro Board for both late night weekend hours and the Yellow Line extension, Councilmember Graham voted not to include either provision as items to be considered. However he was out voted.

WMATA has proposed numerous options to address their budget shortfalls, many of which will directly impact the DC neighborhoods that were hardest hit by original delays in constructing the system. WMATA is proposing to:

End the Yellow Line Extension from Mount Vernon – Fort Totten
End the Yellow Line entirely at 9:30 during the day and all day weekends
Close the 10th & U entrance at U Street/AACWM/Cardozo stop on weekends
Close the 8th & R entrance at Shaw/Howard U entrance on weekends
End service on weekends at midnight at all stations.

CLICK HERE TO SIGN THE ONLINE PETITION OPPOSING THESE CUTS! http://www.midcitylife.com/action/#petition

While WMATA is holding a meeting on April 1, at All Souls Church at 16th & Harvard, these cuts are not an April fools joke, they are on the table for real, right now, and your voice is needed to make sure they don’ happen!

Scott Pomeroy
Save the Yellow Line Coalition

Another way to voice your opposition to th cuts is to visit FairShareMetro.com and ask the Mayor to fully fund DC's appropriation for WMATA as other local jurisdictions have.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Logan/Shaw/U Street Businesses Clean Up in City Paper Poll

The City Paper's annual "Best of..." issue was released last week, and area businesses could be found in abundance amongst the winners.

Beer-lover's paradise ChurchKey scored big wins as "Best New Bar" and "Best Beer Selection" (although, considering that no one can get in the door at this place, it's questionable how useful this information is). Garden District won as "Best Garden Store", Nellies won for "Best Sports Bar", Miss Pixies got the nod for "Best Home Furnishings Store" and--in a bit of a surprise--Thaitanic was selected as the city's best Thai restaurant.

Now, keep in mind that this is the City Paper's readership poll, so many of the results are likely to be a popularity contest. (Whole Foods is the best specialty foods market? Really?) And there's a certain level of predictability--Ben's Chili Bowl will likely hold the title of the city's "Best Drunk Eats" until the Rapture. Still, the poll is nothing if not a statement on how dominant the Dupont-to-Shaw corridor is in terms of the District's commercial world.

Borderstan has a run-down of all the area businesses who won (or were runners-up) in the poll, including those who aren't members of the Mid-City Business Association. Go vie it a look-see; meanwhile, I'll be taking by out-of-town friends up to Busboys and Poets.

News Flash: DC is Expensive

A little fodder for a Sunday afternoon conversation...

This past week, the Center for Housing Policy released a report that showed DC to be the nation's sixth most expensive rental market (although, interestingly, only its 25th most expensive home buying market). The housing market numbers actually surprised me a bit--I had assumed they would be higher--but still represent on of the highest markets in the nation.

The CHP's study examined the question from a perspective of affordability: are American cities becoming increasingly unaffordable to American workers? Some quick number crunching shows the difficulty that many face when buying a home in a market such as DC. Consider a family with a household income of $75k a year. The average 2BR apartment in DC goes for around $1500 a month. Looking at rent as a proportion of a household's monthly take-home pay, that $1500 a month slots right into the recommended 30-35% of income that should be spent on housing in order for the housing to be considered "affordable". Unfortunately, the median household income in DC--$58,500--is substantially lower than the $75,000 figure. And for that family making $75,000, purchasing a home becomes an even tougher proposition, when associated costs such as real estate taxes, condo fees, insurance and other expenses are factored in. Neighborhoods such as Logan are essentially completely out of reach.

In short, it is increasingly difficult to comfortably afford housing in DC unless your household income exceeds the median by a not-insubstantial amount. Those wishing to peruse the CHP study can do so here.

But my question is one whose answer is grounded less in facts than in terms of perception: has the recent spike in real estate values caused DC to become an overpriced market? There are some whose immediate answer to that question is a simple 'no': the market is what it is, since people are willing to pay the prices offered here, the market cannot be overpriced. There's a basic reasoning behind that argument that seems sound, but there's another perspective on this question that warrants consideration that relates to the general affluency of the DC area.

It's no secret that DC is one of the nation's most affluent regions. Six of the ten U.S. counties with the highest median income are in the DC area, and generally wherever incomes are higher, housing costs will rise. But they do not always rise in direct proportion to a city's livability factor, nor in proportion to the amenities it offers its citizens. And that's where the question of the appropriateness of DC's housing costs comes into play. DC is now in a position where it plays with the big boys--the New Yorks, the San Franciscos, the Los Angeleses--in terms of housing costs. But do we stack up with the nation's most expensive and populous cities in terms of amenities?

In certain neighborhoods, unequivocally so. DC's commercial centers--particularly in many NW neighborhoods--are truly outstanding neighborhoods by any comparison. Unfortunately, the housing market isn't applicable only to Dupont, Georgetown and Capitol Hill. Housing prices in neighborhoods like Brightwood, Brookland and Takoma have risen commensurately as well, as more desirable neighborhoods far exceed the realm of affordability for many buyers and renters. But is a 3 BR townhome in Petworth truly a good value at $485,000? Is a brick colonial in Brightwood a reasonable investment at $735,000? I can't say for certain--perhaps they are (after all, as I alluded to above, if people are willing to pay...) But I do feel that these are questions worth asking, particularly in such a competitive and volatile market.

And this doesn't begin to address the even larger and more perplexing issue of affordable housing in DC--what qualifies, who qualifies, how it is implemented, and so on. Another topic for another day, I suppose.

So, I'll leave you with a question: do you find DC's real estate market to be essentially appropriately priced for the kind of city one is buying into, or do you feel that the last decade's worth of rising housing costs has led to the market becoming overinflated? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

New wine bar for 14th and Florida promises small plates, short fuse

So the Mrs. and I just returned from a lovely weekend up in NYC, filled with sunshine, lots of walking and some great food. I don't know that the NY aesthetic necessarily appeals as a place of residence, but I do love visiting there.

And speaking of food, while we were away word got out about a new wine bar/restaurant opening up in the Solea condo building at 14th and Florida. (Thus filling our neighborhood's gaping hole in the wine bar department...j/k.) Du Vin Osteria seems to be your prototypical wine bar, serving a selection of cheeses, small plates, charcuterie and other goodies. I'm sure it will be good. And while the business model might seem a tad bit redundant, were always happy to see new businesses opening up along the corridor.

However, it seems that Du Vin's owner, Mr. David Shott, wasn't too happy about a comment made about his establishment on ustreetgirl's blog:

Tonight, I removed a comment on my post “Du Vin Osteria coming to 14th and Florida” because the owner of Du Vin Osteria, David Shott, sent me an email requesting me to do so, because he found the comment libelous. He also stated he would take legal action if necessary.

It is with regret that I write this post and removed the comment. I wish Mr. Shott had come to me in a more friendly manner and had not immediately written the words “legal action” to a young professional who blogs on her spare time. I was trying to promote Mr. Shott’s business. I posted the comment because it seemed to raise relevant concerns about Mr. Shott.

Now, to be sure the blogging community has a duty to act responsibly with regards to the posting of potentially libelous/slanderous information, and that includes the comments that are posted on our blogs. But the tactics employed by Mr. Shott are...questionable, at best. Threatening legal action? How very "DC" of him. What about saying, "Hey, there is a comment on your post that isn't accurate. I'd really appreciate it if you would take the comment down. In the meantime, I'd love to meet with you to tell you more about what we're planning at the restaurant and to share some photos with you."

It's called dialog, and it can go a long way towards building solid, positive relationships with those in your community--bloggers, residents, etc.--who can help your business. Instead, what he has created is a lot of negative publicity for his establishment. (As you'll note, we aren't the only ones to pick up on this.) Let's hope that Mr. Shott's skills at restaurant management are better than his media relations skills.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

14th Street Burger Joint Running Into Strong Opposition

Thaddeus Curtz, a cook at esteemed Cathedral Heights pizza place 2 Amys, would like to bring a bit of Manhattan to 14th Street, but things aren't looking too good for his business plan.

Curtz is looking to a "burger joint" known as Standard (what's with the restaurant names these days?) modeled after Danny Meyer's eatery in Manhattan's Madison Square Park, in the former Garden District space (and, briefly, proposed home of the never-to-be-seen Crepes on the Corner) at the northeast corner of 14th and S streets. I think pretty much everyone in the neighborhood would welcome a place to swing by and pick up an inexpensive burger, hot dog or order of fries for dinner (Curtz has indicated that nothing on the menu would be more than $6). However, his application for a liquor license, operating hours until 1 AM during the week, and outdoor occupancy totaling 130 people have worried a lot of neighborhood residents.

There is so much concern, in fact, that the license has been protested by both ANC 1B and ANC 2B. (Typically, only one ANC protests a liquor license application, even if the operation in question could affect residents in both.) 2B commissioners voted unanimously to protest the license at last week's meeting, with many voicing concerns over the affect that the late hours and high outdoor occupancy could have on the nearby residents. It was noted, for instance, that no one on the Commission could recall an applicant coming before them and requesting such a sizable outdoor permit.

Privately, I have been told by those close to the negotiations that an agreement could be worked out if Curtz was willing to cut back his outdoor seating hours until 9 or 10 PM during the week. However, Curtz may be reticent to do that, since the indoor space only allows for seating of approximately 15 patrons at a time. As was noted at the 2B meeting, at the price point Curtz is proposing, he would need to sell a lot of hamburgers in order to afford the lease rates at that location.

Another potentially confounding factor is that the site may in fact have environmental remediation issues, as it is believed that at one point a gas station existed on the property (which would, in fact, serve to explain the awkward arrangement of the parcel.) If true, it would present another potential hurdle for Curtz--or anyone else, for that matter--opening a restaurant on the premises.

To the matter at hand, however, it's not hard to see the point of view of the ANCs on this issue. The space in question sits directly across from, and just down the street from, numerous residences, who undoubtedly would be affected by the noise emanating from upwards of 130 people outside drinking at midnight or 1 AM. I have a limit to my sympathy for people who complain about the general noise and din of 14th and U streets--this is, after all, very much an urban neighborhood. But the size and hours that Curtz is requesting for his venture seem unreasonable considering the location of his proposed establishment.

That said, I also feel confident in saying that a business like the one he is proposing would certainly be welcome in the neighborhood, which leads me to a point that I raised last summer during the discussions that took place during the meetings of the Arts Overlay review committee. Currently, individuals wishing to open an alcohol serving establishment essentially have two options to choose from: restaurant or tavern. Restaurant licenses come with strict requirements regarding food service, the hours during which a chef must be on premises, and so forth which many owners may find untenable. A tavern license, however, is far more likely to be protested due to the nature of the operation and the late hours during which they are allowed to operate. Why not create a third classification of license--call it a Pub class license--that provides for food requirements less than restaurants, greater restrictions on hours of operation, but greater freedom to operate in or near residential areas--something that a tavern license owner would likely face strong opposition against?

An establishment requesting a pub license, for instance, might agree to operate their outdoor seating areas only until 10 PM during the week and until 11 PM on weekends, and to be closed down completely by midnight, along with a 25% food requirement (25% of their income must be derived from the sale of food products, rather than alcohol). In exchange for this arrangement, the license holder could operate at a location such as the one in question at 14th and S streets that is near residential properties and would otherwise likely be prevented from opening.

The model for such a license would be the many corner pubs one finds sprinkled throughout the neighborhoods of London, frequently in or near residential areas. These pubs provide a place of enjoyment for those in the neighborhood that is close to their homes, yet close early enough so as not to be a nuisance to nearby residents.

Since no such license currently exists in DC, such arrangements would have to be worked out through the voluntary agreement process, a cumbersome, time-intensive and, at times, adversarial process. While I don't know if Curtz would be amenable to the type of operating hours restrictions that are being discussed, I would be hopeful that a workable compromise could be worked out. In the longer term, it would be helpful for ABRA to consider the evolving nature of many of the neighborhoods in DC, with an eye towards creating liquor license laws that provide for adequate protection of residents whilst promoting development and growth throughout the city.

As far as whether we'll see Standard at 14th and S anytime soon: I will keep you posted.

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood for shopping, dining...and a robbery?

Well, today was certainly a lovely day. The Mrs. and I took advantage of the wonderful weather and dined al fresco on the second floor deck of Bua this evening--and tomorrow looks to be even better.

Which is good news for the businesses in the neighborhood. As it happens, tomorrow is the date of the monthly Third Thursday, where area businesses stay open later and offer special deals and discounts, with a number of area restaurants providing free treats for the browsers. Pretty much every area business seems to be participating, so there's far too many to mention here, but you can head over to the Mid City Business Association's website for more information. Hope to see you out tomorrow evening.

And, sadly, one additional way we know warm weather is here: word came through from the Alert DC system this evening of a robbery involving two women with guns at approximately 10 PM along the 1600 block of S Street. Sigh.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Last Chance to Vote for "Best of DC" 2010

Do you have a favorite Logan/Shaw/Dupont business that you would like to see recognized in the City Paper's annual "Best of DC" poll? If so, you need to hurry to get your vote in to the annual popularity contest. Voting closes tomorrow (Monday) for people wishing to cast a vote for their favorite bartender or yoga studio.

The Logan-Shaw area offers a wealth of possibilities for victory: is Longview, Plan B or Transformer the best gallery in the city? Is Garden District or Old City Green the best garden store? Is one of our area hang-outs the best coffee shop in the District? Which one of our innumerable Ethiopian restaurants is tops in the city?

Click here to go and cast your vote. If you're curious who won what last year, the 2009 poll is available by clicking here. Happy voting!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Spring must be around the corner - street sweeping to resume on March 22

My, but wasn't this just a lovely weekend. It's hard to imagine that it was only a month ago that we were in the midst of the snowiest week in DC's history. This weekend's sunny skies and near-60 degree temps seem to bring the entire city out of hibernation. Mr. and Mrs. 14thandyou took advantage of the nice weather by embarking on a casual stroll into Georgetown on Saturday, plans which seemingly were shared by half the people in the metro area. Normally, we might be a bit more averse to sharing the sidewalk with so many Virginians and Marylanders, but considering that it was the nicest weekend we've had since at least November, we didn't mind so much. Drinks and munchies at the Brickskeller (and a Caps win) capped off an enjoyable day.

Nice weather doesn't just mean more people out in the dog park and dining al fresco, it means something else to DC's residents: the start of another year of street sweeping. As in years past, residents and others will be granted a one week grace period from receiving fines for street sweeping parking violations, after which time--beginning the week of March 29--tickets will be issued. Considering the mountains of trash and other detritus left over by this season's storms, I'm actually quite excited at the prospects of the city's street sweeping vehicles coming by and sucking it all up. But street sweeping also means alternate-side parking and, most likely, a parking ticket or two for those among us who forget to move their cars.

Such is life in DC, I'm afraid. Those looking for more information about the city's street sweeping program--including the enormous amounts of gunk that gets picked up by the sweepers every year, head on over to DPW's website.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Couple of 14th Street Projects Stalled

To some, the pace of development along 14th Street shows no signs of slowing: Room and Board continues to plug away at their building at 14th and T, the Copperstone Building near 14th and N is prepared to host tenants in its rehabbed structure, and new restarants and other businesses continue to pop up all along the corridor.

However, a few large scale projects are currently stalled, with no immediate plans for moving forward. Recently, we wrote about the problems being faced by the Central Union Mission and its efforts to find a new home in order to clear the way for a redevelopment of the massive 14th and R space. North of U Street, two additional projects are mired in the lack-of-financing quicksand, and show no signs of getting off the ground anytime soon.

Up at 14th and W, the long-awaited "14W" project remains little more than a pile of gravel surrounded by a chain link fence. The project officially broke ground in September 2008--which, for those keeping score, was right around the time the economy took a nosedive. As reported on DCMud, Brian DuBose, a spokesperson for Ward 1 councilmember Jim Graham indicated that "nothing is happening" with the project, since financing has not been obtained. The 236,000 sf apartment project was also slated to have in excess of 12,000 sf of retail space, along with a new YMCA.

While the plans for the building remain in place, it's looking increasingly unlikely that anything will move forward prior to the end of the year.

Almost across the street, the same fate has befallen the large, vacant space that once was the blighted Nehemiah Shopping Center. The Center--one of the most egregious examples of ill-advised urban development--was torn down in order to make way for the massive apartment project, which was to include over 250 units along with 17,000 sf of retail space. Unfortunately, financing problems here have also crept up and put an indefinite hold on the project.

You may recall that the lot was originally purchased by DC-based Level2 Development, the same team that is currently putting the finishing touches on View 14 at 14th and Florida. However, in 2009 they sold the development rights to Texas-based UDR in order to focus on the View 14 project.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

14th and U: The Nexus of DC Nightlife?

So sayeth the New York Times. Seems the Times has trotted out their annual hey-DC-is-cool-now article which focuses, not surprisingly, on the "Mid City corridor" (roughly Logan Circle, eastern Dupont and western Shaw). The article takes a look at what the Times calls DC's burgeoning nightlife scene, and gets itself all worked up over the fact that we have themed parties here now. (Something I'm certain our Williamsburg brethren would scoff at, such things having been moved on from in 2008.)

Overall, the NY Times seems to like our hood, which is nice. They published a similar article last January, as a tie-in with Obama's inauguration. Way back then, they had this to say:

Long the cultural center for many in the city’s African-American community, U Street went into economic free fall in the 1970s and ’80s. By the late 1990s, business started to re-emerge in fits and starts. Now, dozens of clubs and restaurants stay open late, pulling crowds from all over town and even the suburbs.

And today?

The nexus of the new energy is at 14th and U Streets...recently, local, national and political events — not the least of which was the election of Barack Obama — have met and married, helping to rejuvenate a night life culture that’s uniquely D.C.

Hey, it's nice to have our hood recognized up in big 'ol New York, but maybe they could take a different angle next time? Like, how we're rivaling the Lower East Side in terms of GPB (graffiti per building). Now that would be special.

If you have a few minutes, it's worth a read.

Could Hank's Be Driven Out of Dupont?

Whenever the discussion on this blog turns from snow and graffiti removal towards neighborhood business issues--in particular, restaurants and bars--the conversation inevitably turns towards the role that the ANC and other neighborhood groups play in neighborhood business affairs. It's an argument I can honestly say has two sides.

For example, the ANC can provide a valuable service to the neighborhood and its residents by serving as a sort of "buffer" between the operators and managers of bars and restaurants in the neighborhood, and the citizens who live nearby. We have to live near these places seven days a week, the neighbors say, and thus our voice must carry great weight with those in the city tasked with granting liquor licenses and other applications. And so it is.

The tool used by the ANCs to accomplish this is, of course, the "voluntary agreement." The voluntary agreement, or VA, is somewhat misnamed, as there is little "voluntary" about it, at least from the proprietor's point of view. Restaurant and bar owners forsake the VA process at their own peril; without one in place, the ANC will almost assuredly carry their liquor license protest all the way to an ABRA hearing, where the applicant risks losing the opportunity to obtain a license entirely, likely dooming the business. And although my experience has been that applicants are generally able to negotiate an agreement that works for both the establishment and the neighborhood, there have also been occasions when the process has become unnecessarily adversarial.

Why am I bringing this up now, you ask? After all, the issue is pervasive, affecting every liquor license holder within the boundaries of the neighborhood--in other words, it's nothing new. And I would agree. But every once in awhile, an issue arises that highlights the problems when a handful of individuals in a position of authority behave in a manner that is clearly at odds with the best interests of the neighborhood. In this particular instance, the issue surrounds a popular neighborhood establishment and the process by which a VA was negotiated.

The most recent issue of Metro Weekly contains an interview with local chef/restaurateur Jamie Leeds, of Hank's Oyster Bar in Dupont and CommonWealth in Columbia Heights. Hank's, as you may know, has been one of the few new establishments to open with a liquor license on 17th Street in recent years, due to the liquor license moratorium currently in place there. A beacon of culinary indulgence amongst a sea of mediocrity, Hank's immediately established itself as a neighborhood favorite since opening in 2005. An award-winning establishment, Hank's is one of the few reasons (the other's being Trio's milkshakes and Pasha Bistro's gyros) to dine out along 17th Street these days.

In the interview, Leeds discusses her budding restaurant empire, as well as her future plans--among them, an expansion of Hank's in Dupont. And while there is near unanimous consent amongst patrons and neighbors alike that Hank's has been a positive addition to the neighborhoods, Leeds does not have fond memories of the negotiation process for the voluntary agreement that she engaged in with the Dupont ANC a group of neighborhood protesters. Here's Leeds, discussing the possible expansion of Hank's as well as her anticipation on dealing with the process again:

"...an expansion would be great. Everybody's been so positive in wanting it, in pushing me to do it. But, you know, if I come across any more resistance, it's going to be an issue. We have to amend that [D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration] "voluntary [neighborhood] agreement," and they have to agree for me to expand. It's kind of like I'm back in the same position. If we get any resistance, it'll just leave a very bad taste in my mouth. If it doesn’t enable me to expand, maybe I'll have to move Hank's altogether."

Now, let's be clear: there are a lot of ifs, ands, and buts there. There's no indication that Leeds has any intention of moving Hank's from its Dupont location. But it is nothing short of ridiculous that she should even consider doing so. The purpose of the voluntary agreement is to work out an arrangement for the proprietor to operate his or her establishment according to his or her own desires, in a manner that does not disrupt the lives of the people and businesses nearby. It is NOT a tool to extract every possible concession from the proprietor, and it is being abused if individuals such as Leeds consider the process so daunting and adversative that she leaves open the possibility of relocating the restaurant entirely if things go in that direction again.

Sadly, this is but a singular example in an ever-increasing list of instances where individuals operating within a group that has a degree of neighborhood authority has showed themselves to be out of sync with the direction of the neighborhood and its citizens. Last week, a story ran in the Current about a group of Foggy Bottom citizens--led by a Foggy Bottom ANC commissioner--who were rebuffed in their attempt to halt construction of the George Washington University project at 2400 Pennsylvania Avenue, on the grounds that the building--located in a dense commercial zone and across the street from one of the District's busiest metro stations--was somehow out of proportion for the neighborhood. Last spring, a dispute with Cafe Saint-Ex nearly led to the ANC going to court to protest a change in status for the popular 14th Street restaurant. And we know all too well the ongoing saga of the Wisconsin Avenue Giant project in Cleveland Park, which was delayed for nearly a decade by the actions of the neighborhood's ANC.

Some may read this and respond that the time has come to reform the ANC system in order to diminish the possibility that such situations could arise in the future. However, I think that is premature. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I do believe that the ANC can play a productive role in the process of vetting new businesses for a neighborhood. In instances where a business is behaving as a nuisance and disturbing the neighborhood, the ANC--through the voluntary agreement--has the ability to step in and engage in efforts to force the business to behave responsibly, or risk forfeiture of their license. Such a process shouldn't be marginalized.

However, I would urge residents to play a more active role in the process. ANCs and others do not act in a vacuum; rather, they are comprised of elected officials beholden to the interests of their constituents. When a commissioner is shirking that responsibility, nothing prevents neighborhood residents from making their voices heard and working to ensure that their interests--rather than those of individual commissioners--are heard.

As far as the situation at Hank's goes, it will be interesting to watch the scene unfold. Leeds is currently in negotiations with the ANC on a voluntary agreement, which must be ratified by all parties and ABRA before going into effect. Hopefully, the process goes much more smoothly for all parties than it did five years ago. After all, there is no reason why it shouldn't.