Thursday, March 4, 2010

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:

" 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.


IMGoph said...

the problem is one of engagement. most of these places (like hank's) are approved of by a vast majority of people in the ANC (or even in the SMD). the problem is that, for almost all projects in DC, those in favor of a project don't show up at the meetings.

those in opposition, on the other hand, are always well-represented at community meetings. it makes sense, if you think about it. if you're in favor of something, why rock the boat. a restaurant proposes to expand? sure, no need to say anything about that, you just nod your head and go about your business. but if you live next door and don't want to smell more oysters? by damn, you're going to show up at that meeting and raise holy hell. it's just easier to feel a visceral need to act when you have a negative position.

if you want to support places that you feel are a good fit for the neighborhood, you have to show up at these meetings. show the commissioners that there are people out there who actually care about and approve of the expansion of hank's...

Joel Lawson said...

We'll all have to see how Jamie's negotiations proceed, but I'll simply say this:

I've seen no indication whatsoever that the ANC is likely to be the source of her frustrations. For that reason, I feel the headline and other elements of this post could create a false sense of suspicion and hostility regarding the ANC.

And I say that fully aware of what Jamie faced last time around; in my opinion, it was unnecessary and tremendously unhelpful to any genuine sense of community.

There are other potential players in this, far more likely to create complications if given unwarranted indulgence.

Jack Jacobson said...

I think we're really mixing apples and oranges here. The ANC does not currently have a VA in place with Hank's. The ANC lost its standing to enter into a VA with Hank's several years ago when procedural mistakes were made. It is a group of 5 or more individuals who signed the VA in question here.

Additionally, I think the ANC is being erroneously targeted in this posting. In fact, I led the last round of the moratorium renewal on 17th Street, and when we heard that several restaurants - including Hank's - wanted to expand, we crafted an agreement that passed the ANC unanimously that would allow 2 expansions. Hank's was last in applying for an expansion, so in the original "emergency" moratorium renewal, would have been prohibited from expanding due to moratorium rules. However, the ANC worked closely with ABRA and "surrendered" an unused license within the moratorium zone so that a 3rd business - Hank's - could expand.

I love Jamie and I love Hank's. I am becoming increasingly concerned that she's blaming the ANC when we should be applauded for working diligently to accommodate her expanding business.

Anonymous said...

Reading the interview, Jamie only mentions the group of 5, not the ANC.

Mr. Other Upper NW said...

Jack - thanks for the clarification. I've edited the post to reflect that the VA is not with the Dupont ANC.

The subject of the post is not ANCs in particular, but rather the VA and protest processes which, IMO, can be abused.

Anonymous said...

ISn't Lawson leading a protest against an expansion at popular Masa 14? So, why is he against a protest/VA for Hanks expansion?


Joel Lawson said...

Hi "Anon." Nope, he (me) isn't leading a protest against expansion of Masa 14. I'm not leading any protest, nor even co-leading any protest. I'm just one of appx. 85 residents who signed a petition letter, led by some neighbors, seeking a Voluntary Agreement (VA) with Masa 14 re: their rooftop expansion. That doesn't mean they/we are "against Masa 14" or even that we signed something "against the expansion." In fact, the petition letter stated: "We appreciate and encourage positive development of the property in question, and we undertake this protest with every hope we are able arrive at a Voluntary Agreement that establishes a healthy balance between that development and we, the nearby residents." Masa 14 is popular, gorgeous frankly, and led by a good guy (whom I helped with a regulatory problem at his place on 17th; happy to send a link to an article where he complimented my help).

You're also mistaken in stating that I'm against a VA for Hanks. A VA is part of the process and regs. I'm not against a VA at all. The question is, how do they get one without the kind of neighborhood toxicity that resulted last time, without letting some residents who lack reasonable motivations steer the process into trench warfare?

Your confusion gets to some of the points raised in the original posting, so I hope the above helps. ( As for the separate topic of Masa 14, if you want to discuss more with me, or the actual leads of that, email me directly: lawson.joel [at] ).

Scott Pomeroy said...

Following up on the response to Anonymous's questions, there is also a major difference in the two proposed expansions. Hank's wants to expand into an adjacent structure, where Masa 14 wants to create a very large outdoor space on their rooftop. The potential impacts are very different.

Living in the city, one of my favorite things to do is enjoying a rooftop for dining, drinks and company. I have speakers on my roof, so I enjoy businesses that have opened that provide rooftop and deck experiences for socializing.

However, I have also seen some very bad designs approved that fail to consider how sound travels.

Rear oriented decks that back onto residential areas should be totally discouraged. If allowed, no music should be played outside and the outdoor hours should be limited. Doors and access to the outside area should include methods of restricting indoor volumes from projecting outdoors.

Masa 14 has the right design, however it is very big for an outdoor space and there is good reason for residents to be concerned about potential impacts from sound projecting from the inside portions of the roof kitchen/bar/dining area when the doors are open, particularly when you add the volume of the activities of the patrons who are outside on the deck.

Right now the VA process is the only tool the community has to put safeguards in place to address the types of concerns raised by the proposed expansion, so I understand the need to use it right now.

However given the current VA process in order to get standing to discuss these issues and be part of negotiations you must "protest" the license and this only occurs after the building gets posted and by then the clock is already ticking where leases are in place.

Once that happens you tend to get lumped into a "group" whose motivations are defined as being against the business.

That "group" does include very vocal individuals whose desire is to not allow any more alcohol related capacity to be created indoor or outside in the area. The process does not always allow for making distinctions regarding these motivations.

So the result is that an adversarial relationships are created by the current VA process, which is only the contract, and sometimes not all the issues and concerns get addressed because people like myself don't want to be part of a "protest."

There are other tools besides a VA that are proactive and tangible, that create involvement earlier in the process, that when coupled with a type of contract like a VA, create a much more community minded win-win-win approach that fits the type of mixed use community this is where businesses and residents co-exist and are often one in the same.

Scott Pomeroy

Unknown said...

"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."

I like your blog sometimes, but damn you can be a Debby Downer.

1. Floriana: I've had really good meals, especially Sundays with a half price amarone
2. Komi is without a doubt one of the top five restaurants in the city
3. What about one of the most fun food places in the city: Mr. Yogato?

Boo to the negativity.