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Is the Black Cat using the smoking ban as a cover for its expansion plans?

Hipsters who get herded from the Black Cat at closing time don’t scatter too well. On a recent Sunday morning at 3:00 a.m., several Black Cat patrons are lying on the sidewalk. A group is kicking a Hacky Sack, and the lingerers have created their own little party. A half-hour later, a sizable contingent is still milling about. “It’s hard to clear a crowd once it forms,” says Black Cat owner Dante Ferrando.

Early morning al fresco socializing isn’t quite the amenity that Logan Circle gentrifiers longed to establish on this once-blighted corridor. Yet once the citywide indoor-smoking ban goes into effect Jan. 1, warns Ferrando, there’ll be a lot more of it.

On a busy night, Ferrando’s joint hosts three bands. That means three intermissions and three mass smoke-breaks at the club’s doorstep. “Imagine that crowd three times a night instead of just at the end of the night,” says Ferrando. “It would become its own social scene,” he says. If locals want to get a sense of how things will go, says Ferrando, just check out the Big Apple, which has had a smoking ban in effect since 2003. “Blocks in New York have become street hangout places,” he says.

To prevent 14th Street from going to the mob, both the club and neighbors have taken action. Ferrando has put forward three solutions: a rooftop deck, an outdoor, cafe-style seating area, or a deck above the back parking lot. Immediate opposition led him to drop the sidewalk cafe, but he’s moving forward with the two decks. City regulations require that he apply to the liquor board for approval, as the changes will be substantial. The new space would include liquor service as well as background music—the better to keep smokers off the street, as Ferrando sells the notion. The reaction from around the corner has been predictable: Two community groups objected to the Black Cat’s proposed changes when Ferrando took them to the liquor board.

Ferrando hasn’t gotten much further with the area’s advisory neighborhood commission (ANC), which voted 9-1 against the proposed patios. The liquor board sent the dispute to mediation, but the negotiations went nowhere. The full board will now decide the fate of the outdoor space at a formal hearing in November.

Dee Hunter, the chair of the ANC that protested Ferrando’s proposal, argues that the club is using the smoking ban as an excuse to expand its capacity and threatens Ferrando with closure of his club if he pushes for the rooftop deck. “Dante saying he wants a rooftop deck to accommodate smokers is like saying George Bush went into Iraq to look for weapons of mass destruction,” he says. “I’m absolutely certain that the renewal of his license will be opposed if he proceeds with this.” Opposing a liquor-license renewal is tantamount to an attempt to shut down the business.

Hunter also questions the time of the move. At the mediation, he says, Ferrando said outright that he wants the deck now, before the street is fully gentrified. Just up the block, a condo tower is on its way. “He said he wants to get it done as soon as possible, before more people move into the neighborhood who will complain, before the condos across the street come in.” Phil Spalding, an ANC member who was at the meeting, also remembers him saying that. “That’s not a completely inaccurate representation,” says Ferrando of Hunter’s recollection. “It’s not a gentrification issue. I’d just like to get it done before we have large condos across the street.” Ferrando stresses, though, that it shouldn’t matter why he wants a rooftop deck. Either he can have one or he can’t.

Spalding and Ferrando, however, see a way out of the dispute. Even if Ferrando wins the November hearing, the deck won’t be ready for the ban’s Jan. 1 premiere—which will mean 14th Street will get its sidewalk crowd one way or the other. Because of the intense community opposition to the club’s expansion, the parties are hoping that the city will throw its hands up and let the Black Cat slide on the smoking ban.

“Maybe they’ll carve out an exemption next year when all the neighbors are screaming about it,” says Ferrando. “I think that would be great.” Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who chairs the committee that oversees the liquor board, doesn’t think there will be any specific Black Cat exemption but says he does think the council will reevaluate the specifics of the ban to see what parts need to be changed.

A Black Cat loophole wouldn’t sit well with club owners who don’t get a similar deal, many of whom will be in situations much like the hipster music hall’s, albeit to a lesser degree. In August, the Dupont Circle ANC voted to protest a request by the club Five for its own 50-seat rooftop deck, though the commission agreed to a short trial period.

“If you have ANCs deciding a rooftop deck is bad, obviously dumping people on the sidewalk isn’t a solution, either,” says Ferrando. “If we lose the [protest hearing], I’m not crying about it. At least we can say we tried to solve the problem.”—Ryan Grim

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