City Paper is not for tourists
Before this May Dangerously Delicious Pies was best known for serving sweet and savory treats until 3 a.m. on weekends. But then a very public spat between the decade-old business and a resident living just off H Street NE went viral. It became part of the conversation about the urgent need to preserve D.C.’s musical traditions—the #DontMuteDC movement—which started when a D.C. resident tried to compel Central Communications, better known as the MetroPCS store in Shaw, to stop playing go-go music in April.
What’s transpiring between the neighbor, attorney Ramsey Taylor, and Dangerously Delicious Pies is not outside the norm of typical disputes, but it’s emblematic of tensions that exist throughout the city in pockets where music venues, bars, and clubs are within shouting distance of housing and hotels. Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6A Alcoholic Beverage and Licensing Committee (ABL) Co-Chair Jay Williams says that while he’s seen an uptick in similar disputes recently, this particular incident got “blown way out of proportion.”
As the H Street NE neighbors continue to stew, City Paper did some research and found that lawmakers in London and San Francisco have been to this same rodeo, and came out with a game plan to keep live music in their cities. Their solutions take buy-in from residents, real estate developers, politicians, and entertainment venues alike.
Taylor moved into the neighborhood in 2016 and into his home in 2017. “We really like the Atlas Performing Arts Center, the walkability, the community, the street car, Atlas Vet, Gallery O on H, restaurants ranging from Tony’s Breakfast to Toki Underground and Ben’s Chili Bowl, and the idea that businesses and families were growing in a formerly economically blighted area,” he tells City Paper by email.
He says he visited his potential new residence to evaluate noise prior to moving in, but that was before Dangerously Delicious Pies added Pie Shop, a second floor live music venue and rooftop bar, in July 2018. He insists the glass door leading to the rooftop bar allows music to escape and bounce off the second floor of his home located down an alley behind the business. When Dangerously Delicious Pies’ liquor license came up for renewal this spring, Taylor asked his ANC for help negotiating a solution.
In most cases, a liquor license comes up for renewal every three years. During the renewal period, the establishment posts a placard for 45 days informing the community of their opportunity to air grievances. Many ANCs protest liquor license renewals to address issues because they often lead to settlement agreements that keep the peace through compromise. A protested license doesn’t mean the ANC is trying to close a business or ask it to eliminate live music altogether.
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen says ANCs used liquor license protests to address wide discrepancies of outdoor music hours at bars and clubs on H Street NE about a decade ago. “The ANC used the tools they had, including protests, to get voluntary agreements in place to standardized licensing,” Allen says.
At an April ANC 6A ABL committee meeting, Williams and others suggested Pie Shop add velvet curtains to swallow some of the sound Taylor says hits his home. “I agreed to this solution and went home thinking it was over as it seemed that an agreement had been reached by all parties,” Taylor says. “Dangerously Delicious Pies then, out of nowhere, started a misleading petition.”
As of June 4, the petition asking Washingtonians to “Support Your Local Pie Shop” had 4,334 signatures on an online platform called The Action Network. Co-owner Sandra Basanti launched it May 15 leading up to a May 20 roll call hearing after she says she spoke with Allen’s office, the Office of Nightlife and Culture, and H Street Main Street, all of whom recommended amassing letters of support. Some online commenters criticized the petition for being vague. It didn’t mention the music venue or rooftop bar.
The introduction reads, “A tale as old as time: We, an established DC small business, literally a mom and pop business run by a husband and wife team for over 9 years in the H st corridor, are being challenged by a neighbor who moved in just 1 year ago.”
“Anyone who is a supporter of ours probably knows that in the past year, we’ve opened a music venue on the second floor,” Basanti says. “Anyone can go to our website, and the first thing you see is pictures of bands and our calendar.”
She insists Pie Shop was “being neighborly” when it voluntarily set a curfew on live music—11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends. She adds that the stage is on the H Street NE side of the building and there are at least 175 feet separating the stage from the alley. “I didn’t know [the petition] was going to get quite as much attention as it’s gotten,” Basanti says. “It’s a hot topic and a major issue affecting a lot of businesses all over the city.”
Basanti also called in Chris Naoum for advice. Naoum, the founder of local music activism group Listen Local First and a driving force behind many music events around the area, is a telecommunications media attorney by day. He denies that Pie Shop has a noise issue.
“You can’t hear anything by [Taylor’s] place,” he says. “The sounds of the cars in the neighborhood is what you hear. This is the problem that’s happening in the city right now. The fact that [Pie Shop] is being forced to go to a mediation over a complaint that’s completely unjustified … They shouldn’t be forced to take additional steps to soundproof their place.”
Pie Shop isn’t Taylor’s first target on the block, according to both Naoum and the language in the petition. “This guy has harassed people for a year,” Naoum says, pointing specifically to Rock & Roll Hotel, a bar and club at 1353 H St. NE.
Kaitlin Wilding, the talent buyer and general manager of Rock & Roll Hotel, confirms the club has been in contact with Taylor regarding nights when DJs perform on its roof deck. Wilding says he initially complained about the speakers. “We were like, ‘Oh, sorry, we’ll turn it down,’” she says. “Next, he came into the club. I was there. He was like, ‘You guys lied to me and said it would be quieter.’ We had to ask him to leave. He was following me around.”
“I have only asked the Rock & Roll Hotel to abide by their settlement agreement with the ANC,” Taylor responds. “This includes that music should not be played outside on their deck after 8 p.m., and it should not be so loud that it can be heard inside residences.” Wilding admits that she didn’t know such an agreement was in place. “That was on me,” she says.
Taylor says he received an email from club co-owner Steve Lambert “asking me to stay off his property after I went in and photographed pictures of speakers, in excess in terms of numbers and size of what they reported using during rooftop parties, and reported this to the ANC.”
In the email obtained by City Paper, Lambert wrote (sic throughout): “It’s 7:30pm on a Friday night in a commercial district of Washington, DC. We have been, and continue to be, good business owners over the last 12 years in the H St corridor. We do all we can do. You are not the leader of this long and very old established, majority African American, DC community.” Neither men are African American.
With Pie Shop, Williams believes Taylor has a legitimate complaint. “There have been times where I’ve had people come to me and complain about noise from a nearby establishment,” he says. “I’ve looked into it, gone to the establishment multiple times, and haven’t moved forward either because the noise coming out is to be expected or the person has a vendetta against the establishment. I do my best to parse between those situations. There are also times when neighbors might have concerns that are valid but aren’t raising their concerns well.”
Allen is confident a resolution is in sight. “Dangerously Delicious Pies is a long-term and great business on H Street,” the councilmember says. “They already said they want to work towards a resolution on this.” Mediation is scheduled for June 6. If it doesn’t generate a resolution, a protest hearing will take place on July 31.
The back and forth between businesses and residents is nothing new. “But I don’t like being in a position where the ANC has to constantly protest,” Allen says. “Why can’t we try to work a little harder, all of us, to make sure we have the right type of requirements in place so those on commercial corridors have the right expectations? We could be more creative in how we manage it as a whole corridor so we don’t always find ourselves in disputes like these.”
Some cities have sought innovative solutions to ensure live music venues can continue to thrive even as new residential developments are erected nearby. “I always say it’s not about creating places to live, but creating places to live for,” says Shain Shapiro, the founder of Sound Diplomacy, a London-based company that helps cities incorporate music and culture into urban planning through policy. “I believe that expressing ourselves or experiencing culture is as much a basic human right as clean air and water and a place to eat and sleep.”
“Music, because it’s available everywhere and it’s relatively cheap, we assume it’s always going to be there,” Shapiro continues. “But when we’re planning the cities of the future, we tend to ignore needs that are separate to housing and work-based needs.” A lack of intentional planning, he believes, results in music venues butting up against other types of buildings, instead of complimenting them, which can ultimately lead to their demise.
According to an April 2019 Guardian article, 35 percent of music venues across the United Kingdom closed over the past decade. The country’s first live music census, released in 2018, showed that small music venues are struggling. Twenty-nine percent of them reported problems with noise complaints from residents in nearby properties.
“People move in and can’t sleep,” Shapiro says. “When you can’t sleep you get very angry. All of that could have been mitigated if we had a proactive process that puts safeguards in place whilst promoting responsibility on all sides.” In the U.K., they have the “Agent of Change” principle that became law in July 2018. Shapiro was part of the team that worked on the initial language, which establishes that the entity bringing about change must take responsibility for its impact.
If an entertainment venue goes into a residential neighborhood, it must take steps to adequately soundproof to stave off noise complaints. If a residential development goes in near preexisting entertainment (or other noise-making) venues, the developer is on the hook for soundproofing to the degree that unreasonable restrictions won’t be placed on the venue once people move in.
In 2015, San Francisco was the first U.S. city to adopt such legislation. At first it solely concerned residential developments, but was expanded to include hotels and motels in 2017. Like the United Kingdom, San Francisco was losing music venues.
Jocelyn Kane was the executive director of the city’s Entertainment Commission—a position similar to the District’s new director of nightlife and culture—when the law was enacted. She now works for the Responsibility Hospitality Institute, a nonprofit that preserves and advocates for the social, cultural, and economic value of entertainment.
“This is something that every city struggles with, and it’s a common narrative,” Kane, who just finished some work in Austin, says. “Even those places we think of as music cities, who value culture, have the exact same issues. Any place there’s a pillow, there’s potential for conflict.”
In San Francisco, the Entertainment Commission first mapped all of the planned residential developments and cross-referenced them with where the city’s live music venues were located. “They were exactly on top of where the music venues were,” Kane says. “We were then able to visually show policy makers that we had an oncoming freight train that we weren’t going to be able to manage.”
The San Francisco legislation ensures no permitted place of entertainment would “be or become a public or private nuisance on the basis of noise disturbance so long as the place of entertainment operates in compliance with the municipal code and terms of its permit.”
When a developer files a proposal with the San Francisco Planning Department, they’re notified that they’re building within 300 radial feet of an entertainment venue. That initiates a sound study where the Entertainment Commission takes sound readings at the proposed site. Then the parties hold a hearing to share the results of the study and talk through sound abatement strategies. When it’s time for residents to move in, they must sign a disclosure agreement acknowledging they’re within 300 feet of an entertainment venue and should therefore expect some noise.
“The disclosure forms sit in a database for when people call and complain,” Kane says. But it’s not a perfect system. The disclosure is lumped in with others new home owners skim when plowing through piles of paperwork. “What’s more valuable is the discussion pre-construction. If the developer plans to build a lot of bedrooms facing a certain direction and that’s the direction where the nightclub is, maybe move those bedrooms,” she says. These conversations also pressure builders to use quality construction materials. While people can and still do complain, Kane says the legislation keeps clubs out of small claims courts.
Allen and Williams have some reservations about applying San Francisco’s strategy to D.C. “I’d want to be careful to make sure we don’t unintentionally create something where a neighbor near an establishment doesn’t have the ability to work towards a solution,” Allen says. “I had a resident contact me who moved into a new apartment above a late night bar and restaurant. They called us to complain about the bar noise. I can appreciate the sentiment that says you rented a place above a bar, so you should expect some noise. But I wouldn’t want to use a tool that says the builder doesn’t have an obligation to address noise.”
Allen has seen the results of successfully planning ahead. “We opened a hotel immediately on top of a fire station,” he explains. “Do you know how many complaints I get from the hotel? Zero. They invested heavily in sound proofing in windows and made a lot of good choices about how to manage that fire trucks are pouring out of the building.”
Williams points out that while there’s some value to the proposal for future projects, it doesn’t do much to help when people move into existing rowhouses. “Some issues are from longtime residents,” he says. “It sounds like this is only for new developments.”
Taylor, the original complainant, has an opinion too. “This sounds like the sort of solution that a growing, denser urban D.C. could use,” he says, arguing the city’s rapid development requires constructive, creative solutions. But he worries Agent of Change legislation takes for granted that entertainment venues are abiding by existing noise ordinances. Enforcement would still be required.
It feels like the District is inching toward some sort of cultural reckoning. Naoum, a proponent of Agent of Change legislation, is forming a D.C. music task force. The city now has an Office of Nightlife and Culture. And Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Tuesday that D.C. will launch its first ever “DC Music Census” that will be carried out by the DC Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment in partnership with Georgetown University.
The goal, according to the Bowser administration, is to “capture the D.C. music industry and economy and provide needed data to assist city officials and community members in making more informed decisions that will strengthen and grow the District’s music ecosystem.”
If some version of Agent of Change legislation emerges out of the music census, Shapiro would welcome it. “The more people moving into a busy, noisy area will lead to it becoming less busy and less noisy,” he says. “If we don’t understand and respect our cultural infrastructure, we won’t have it. A city with one concert hall isn’t good enough.”