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The party at Republic Gardens is over, at least for now. Whitney Restaurants Inc., the company that operated the club at 1355 U St. NW since 2003, was evicted Oct. 29 because the business owed more than $200,000 in back rent and taxes, according to landlord Henry McCall. The U.S. Marshals Service, which handles all evictions in D.C., carried out the order Monday morning. “That building has been gutted out,” McCall says. A day later, McCall changed the locks and padlocked the two doors at the club’s entrance. “I’ve never seen anybody I’ve wanted to shoot as much as him,” he says of Whitney Restaurants Inc. President Elbert Robinson, his former tenant.
According to McCall, Whitney Restaurants Inc. stopped paying rent, water, and electricity bills several years ago, prompting him to sue his tenant in July 2005. In February 2006, the two sides discussed a possible settlement of $105,029.05 in rent—less than the company actually owed, says McCall’s attorney Robert Bunn.
The settlement never came to pass. Robinson says that’s because McCall was “unreasonable,” unwilling “even to make an agreement, even though we had the funds to pay him.” He suspects his landlord wants to redevelop the valuable U Street property, whose assessed value is more than $1.6 million.
Bunn says the company never paid the settlement money. When the lease expired in 2006, he says, “no new lease was ever entered into.” The parties continued to battle in court through the spring. “We went to court and got judgment,” says McCall. “They were supposed to pay the money. When they didn’t pay the money, we got them evicted.”
McCall says he hopes to replace Republic Gardens with another nightclub. “I’d love to put a club there, because I feel they’re the ones making the money that can afford to pay,” he says.
And, according to Robinson, Republic Gardens will live on, too. He’s now “looking for a more suitable, more profitable location to go to,” he says.
That’s good news for the club’s loyal fans, who’ve swarmed the U Street institution since Marc Barnes owned the place in the ’90s. (Robinson bought the business from Barnes in 2003.) Daryl “Uncle Q” Francis, who DJ’d there a couple of times and hung out there often, says Republic Gardens “was one of the only establishments that catered to…sophisticated black folk without a too-upper-class attitude.…It was always a nice place where you could see nice women.”
Alexis Diop, his girlfriend, was one of those women. She began bartending there soon after Robinson took over and says “the staff was like a family.” A family with some secrets, perhaps: Diop says she didn’t know anything about the financial troubles the club was facing. Francis says he’d heard rumors but had no idea Republic Gardens was on the verge of eviction. “I was there Saturday night,” he says. “It was very much a surprise that it happened.”
Ticketing a Beat
Club owners have long complained about how much it costs to hire overtime police officers to patrol the areas outside their clubs. Barnes, who now owns the nightclub Love, testified before D.C. Council in March that he paid more than $240,000 annually in “reimbursable detail” fees (Show & Tell, “Looking for the Perfect Beat,” 4/25). The extra security was crucial, he said, but the cost was crippling. “We just don’t want to be gouged,” he testified.
Pretty soon, though, club owners like Barnes are likely to have some relief. Under a 12-month, $1 million pilot program initiated by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, bar and club owners will be eligible for subsidies of up to 50 percent to offset their reimbursable detail costs. The program will be administered by the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration and will be implemented as soon as council approves a rule-making on the subject, ABRA director Maria Delaney says.
Graham says he authored the pilot program as part of the ’08 budget because “providing reimbursable detail officers was very expensive indeed.” And thanks to some outside-the-line-item budgeting, the new program will be funded by, of all things, parking tickets.
“We realized during the budget process that there were a number of vacancies” in the ranks of parking control officers, Graham says. So, as chairman of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment, Graham decided to give those positions a financial boost. “We increased salaries [so that the] job will be more attractive, and that will fill the vacancies.”
It worked. Approximately six months ago when Graham first heard about the issue, he says 30 percent of the parking attendant slots were vacant. Now, 8 percent are vacant. That means more tickets and more money for the initiative. “This raises a whole lot more money than the $1 million” the pilot program costs, he says.
Anne-Marie Bairstow, executive director of the Adams Morgan Business Improvement District, says the new subsidies will be “great for us.” Her organization shells out about $65,000 a year to supply the nightlife-saturated strip of 18th Street NW with reimbursable detail officers. “That’s a lot of money,” she says. “This [subsidy] would save us money which could go to all the other things the BID does in terms of cleaning, improving tree boxes, putting up banners, and marketing the businesses.”
Graham hopes the savings will also spur more clubs and club zones to hire overtime officers. “We want to encourage this elsewhere so people will be safer,” he says.
But Rob Halligan, president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association, calls Graham’s budgetary move “sneaky.” After all, he says, clubs shouldn’t rely on parking tickets to prevent violence. “Why should we be subsidizing them for needing extra cops?” he asks. “It’s just silly.”
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