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Darrow Montgomery

“It almost has a catastrophic look to it—there are cops and ambulances everywhere and people are so drunk and blacked out that they’re leaning against railings and trees vomiting,” says a fed up Adams Morgan business owner who we’ll call Frank because he wants to remain anonymous. He shoots video snippets of what 18th Street NW looks like on Friday and Saturday nights. 

“It’s very Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” Frank continues. “The rest of the time this is a beautiful neighborhood with great history and culture.” He says pervasive binge drinking and associated violence keep his regular customers away. “The stigma against the neighborhood on the weekend pushes away some folks who don’t want to have a knock-down, drag-out vomitrocious evening.” 

With more than 50 licenses to serve alcohol in just a few blocks, it’s no surprise that Adams Morgan swarms with overserved patrons and has a soundtrack made up of sirens. The Metropolitan Police Department, a tangle of city agencies, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, and Business Improvement District try to keep the peace.

Since 2000, the ANC and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board have instituted liquor license moratoriums to tamp down unwanted activity. (The ABC Board oversees the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, or ABRA.) Most new liquor licenses were off- limits at first, but five years ago the ANC voted to lift the ban on new restaurant licenses, leaving the moratorium in place for tavern and nightclub licenses.

At a July 11 ANC meeting, commissioners voted 5-1 to extend that moratorium on new tavern and nightclub licenses for five more years. They also expanded the area it covers from a 1,400-foot radius from Wok & Roll (2400 18th St. NW) to an 1,800-foot radius from Tryst (2459 18th St. NW). 

One of the chief impetuses for geographically expanding the moratorium involved a liquor license application that Infusion Club and Restaurant filed. The owner was seeking to take over the Chief Ike’s space on Columbia Road NW. According to ANC Commissioner 1C01 Amir Irani, residents were upset about the business’ proposed 600-person capacity and potential for noise.

Liquor license moratoriums are contentious because they pit residents against the business community. But controlling the scene in Adams Morgan is more nuanced than putting a kibosh on new bars and clubs. Business owners, residents, and ANC commissioners question whether there’s enough enforcement by government agencies, especially of so-called “bad actors” that they say spoil the street for everyone. 

“With the moratorium zone, we’re hoping to preemptively keep the problem from metastasizing,” says 1C03 Commissioner Ted Guthrie who has lived in Adams Morgan for 20 years. 

Some of the places with bad reputations are restaurants that patrons could easily confuse for clubs. A restaurant license holder must make 45 percent of its gross annual receipts off of food (or $2,000 per occupant as determined by its certificate of occupancy), have its kitchen open until at least two hours before closing, and operate regular hours that are clearly marked with no barriers to entry. But restaurants can apply for special  endorsements, allowing them to play live music, bring in a DJ, have a dance floor, and charge a cover.

Take Johnny Pistolas. The ABC Board held a fact-finding hearing in October 2016 after a patron was struck over the head with a beer bottle on the Mexican restaurant’s crowded balcony. According to testimony from ABRA Investigator Mark Brashears, the police found the victim and several others covered in blood. He testified that MPD said that the victim was slurring his speech. 

Six security guards were on duty, but none saw glass hit skull, according to testimony. “As a restaurant they’re not required to have a security plan,” Brashears said at the hearing. “They mentioned they had an internal plan, but no one really seemed to know where they were supposed to be or do.”

District Nightclub also held a restaurant license. In October 2013, a jury determined the bar was negligent in the death of a pedestrian who was hit by a car at 18th and U streets NW in 2010. The lawsuit alleged that bartenders served a female patron five drinks in 40 minutes before she got behind the wheel of her car. On New Year’s Eve of the same year, five people were stabbed inside or immediately outside of the establishment. ABRA revoked the restaurant’s license in 2015 after finding that the restaurant cleaned up the crime scene.

Then there was NY NY Diva. “They managed to violate every single rule or regulation,” Guthrie says. ABRA revoked their restaurant license in October 2014. The Board’s report said it was “one of the most poorly operated businesses in the city.” Testimony at a fact-finding hearing in February 2014 detailed a brawl that involved 50 people, broken glass, overturned chairs, and blood. 

Momentum is now building to oust Club Heaven & Hell, a tavern license holder run by Mehari Woldemariam. “It’s going to take actual enforcement to throw this guy out of the neighborhood,” Irani says. “If you go to a place where anything goes and you get all turned up there, when you leave the place, you’re not going to be quiet. If an establishment is the Wild West, then the Wild West spills out onto the streets.” 

The city requires Club Heaven & Hell to have security cameras, hire Reimbursable Detail Officers (RDOs), and have a security plan on file with ABRA. RDOs are off-duty police officers who business owners pay to maintain order surrounding their establishments. 

But problems persisted. In May 2018, an ABC Board order required the bar to pay a $6,500 fine for several offenses including failing to comply with its security plan and serving underage patrons. The multi-floor bar will also have to close from Aug. 20 to 24 due to the ABC Board suspending its license. According to ABRA, Heaven & Hell currently has multiple pending cases with the Office of the Attorney General. 

“The problems of bad actors, the establishments that continue to break the law, they’re very well known,” says Matt Wexler, a real estate developer who has several properties in Adams Morgan. “I think a moratorium of any sort is bad public policy. But in this case, absent of really strong enforcement by ABRA, it’s something.” 

Several people point their fingers at ABRA. “MPD is doing a great job considering what they’re up against,” Frank says. “ABRA keeps coming up. If their rules were enforced, there would be some improvement. The moratorium seems like the best we can do if the rules aren’t being enforced.”

Those screaming for better enforcement complain that bars and restaurants are aren’t consistently checking IDs, aren’t meeting minimum food sales requirements, are operating after hours, are exceeding their capacities, aren’t doing enough to abate noise, and aren’t meeting their security detail requirements. 

ABRA says its team of investigators works seven nights a week until at least 4 a.m. to make sure businesses are in compliance with the law and any settlement agreements forged with the neighborhood. Spokesperson Aaron King says in fiscal year 2017, ABRA conducted 12,962 regulatory investigations and 1,246 sale-to-minor checks, and issued 481 citations. They conduct a regulatory inspection a minimum of two times per year at each licensed establishment, according to King.

ABRA also works closely with police. About five years ago, MPD created a nightlife unit with officers that police Adams Morgan.Commander Stuart Emerman says the majority of calls come in on Friday and Saturday nights and are typically for fights, lost property, and intoxication. When MPD is able to link events to establishments, MPD notifies ABRA. Police can also request fact- finding or closure hearings. In situations where there’s an immediate public safety concern, the chief of police can close an establishment for 96 hours. 

Finally, those who are frustrated put some of the blame on landlords. A business owner might intend to open a restaurant that cares more about its cuisine than its club scene, but then they realize that it’s tough to make money off of food. “People wanting to run a restaurant weren’t making enough during dining hours to make these extravagant rent payments so they bring in a promoter that says, ‘I can make you big bucks,’” Guthrie explains.

“We need the landlords to recognize the good tenants and encourage them and not be overly greedy,” adds Jack Rose Dining Saloon owner Bill Thomas. He’s owned businesses in the neighborhood for 25 years, lives there, and serves as a board member on the BID.

Thomas explains that the neighborhood can serve as a small business incubator—narrow, well-worn row houses are more attractive to first-time restaurateurs than large chains. He hopes to play a role in making sure the “right kinds of businesses” succeed by establishing a peer-mentoring committee.

“I will go through your business plan, your lease, and try to tell you if you’re not going to make it here or if this is a great idea,” he says. “We have to stop people from being put in a situation where their back is up against the wall so they don’t lose their house that’s up for collateral.”

He’s optimistic that bars that churn out belligerent patrons are finally on the outs. “There are few that are left and they’re on their last leg,” he says. “We’re not going to be having this conversation in two years.” 

Adams Morgan residents City Paper interviewed yearn for more retail to counterbalance the high concentration of bars and restaurants. Sasha Arias moved to the area recently. She plays pool every Tuesday at Bedrock Billiards on Columbia Road NW. 

“You’d think Tuesdays would be mellow,” she says. “I was walking through a group of younger rowdy men. There was vomit all over the sidewalk. It was Tuesday at 11 p.m. No matter what time it is or what time of the week, if it’s later in the evening there’s either sketchy people or people who are near belligerent or some sort of unsafe traffic pattern.” 

Instead of new bars and restaurants, Arias would prefer some of the empty storefronts host art studios, bookstores, pet stores, and other businesses “that serve the community as a whole as opposed to just nightlife.” 

Jim Steck has lived in Adams Morgan since 2000 and avoids 18th Street NW on weekends. “I don’t want to be part of that mess,” he says. He too wants more retail. “There are lots of empty storefronts, part of that is landlords asking for too much rent.” 

No one seems to want Adams Morgan to lose its funk and charm. 

“One of the things I like about Adams Morgan is that it’s gritty and authentic,” Frank says. “You can’t change too much. You don’t want it to become totally gentrified with really expensive hipster spots. But at the same time, isn’t there a third way to stay diverse and cool as opposed to being totally drunk and not cool? It’s about the level of the drinking culture. Why does it have to be so grotesque?”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.