City Paper is not for tourists
At the main intersection is what residents call the “historic” McDonald’s. Down a side street is the Faith United Church of Christ. Surrounding the small collection of businesses and institutions: acres of semi detached houses.
Welcome to North Michigan Park, which feels like a suburban neighborhood save for a few commercial establishments on South Dakota Avenue NE. Its residents are proud of their civic heritage, and of being one of the highest voting precincts in the city. It’s where the mayor was raised.
Now its residents are raising hell over a change they say will, in one fell swoop, attract crime, lower property values, and encourage loitering: the addition of a liquor store.
“Here we are fighting for our lives,” said resident Deborah Grimstead on Wednesday night, when about 40 people opposing the store stuffed the hearing room of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board for over six hours.
The fight against the liquor license has pulled in all of the neighborhood’s luminaries—the mayor’s father, Joe Bowser, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, and notables who lead the civic association and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5A.
Pitched by an operator who previously ran two liquor stores in the District, the establishment would fill a vacant unit at 4944 South Dakota Ave. NE, in a small strip mall with a Chinese carryout and a dry cleaners. In late December, multipleprotests at the address drew half a dozen people, including Bowser.
The applicant, Chang Chuoi, says he can acquiesce to some demands, such as placing “no loitering” signs and hiring neighbors. Chuoi promised a “clean, calm, and peace[ful]” establishment at Wednesday’s hearing over his liquor license application.
“I like peace,” he said. “I’m not [the] enemy.”
The ABC Board will release their decision on the matter within 90 days. The opponents, led by ANC 5A chair Ronnie Edwards and vice chair Gordon Fletcher, called up 10 of their witnesses during the hearing on Wednesday. The matter has been simmering for months, with the ANC voting to oppose the license after initially attempting to broker a settlement agreement.
“The community definitely went into an uproar,” says Angel Alston, a 38-year resident and a former member of the ANC.
It’s not the first time the neighborhood has fought the specter of booze. On the same block, the North Michigan Park Civic Association protested a liquor store permit in April 1964, the Washington Post reported at the time. Four years ago, the owner of the convenience store 4 Seasons, across the street from the proposed liquor store, withdrew an application to sell wine in the face of hostility.
The last establishment to sell alcohol, a long gone fish market that served beer and wine, was at the same strip mall. Even that bothered residents like Bill Smith.
“Behind this proposed site, you can see—wait till spring time, when it gets all green and what not—that was where they went to drink,” he testified as a witness. A liquor store would only breed more loitering, residents said. Several people who testified on Wednesday said the area is home to many retirees, who don’t demand alcohol, and children, who shouldn’t have to grow up near a liquor store.
“Too many children frequent the historic McDonald’s to have a liquor store next door,” Fletcher told the ABC Board. That McDonald’s was the first one to open in the District, several residents said, and is today a hub for the community. “Many children will be unduly attracted to the establishment.”
Councilmember McDuffie tells City Paper that the area needs more neighborhood-serving retail, agreeing that a liquor store can bring crime. He says that with the history of North Michigan Park’s “close knit, civic minded” culture, the organized resistance is to be expected.
At the hearing, Choui and his attorney tried to allay concerns, which included traffic and parking. He said he would erect signs that only permit customer parking inside the lot, which has 11 spaces for three businesses—too few, opponents argued. Choui also said he wouldn’t allow anyone under 21 to enter the store alone.
Many witnesses described how the community felt when they moved in decades ago—which is to say, as idyllic as it feels today. The testimonies stretched on past 10 p.m. One man recounted conversations with students from the University of District of Columbia, which has a community college nearby, about the lack of food options in the area. The chair of the ABC Board, Donovan Anderson, reminded witnesses to stay on topic, and a few times gaveled for quiet after the audience called out or laughed particularly hard. He facepalmed on the dais as the meeting extended into the night.
Representing the property owner, the son of the landlord said a lease agreement is already in place with Choui. “We do support the tenant,” said Simon Chan. “We received several applications and he had the strongest application.”
But violence remained the top worry for opponents.
“Based upon all your years of living in the community, you’ve seen it change,” said Fletcher, teeing up a question for Smith, who was on the witness stand. “Why is it that there is no crime and no issues of peace and quiet in North Michigan Park right now?”
“Because there are no liquor stores,” Smith answered.