Georgetown resident Tom Birch couldn’t get a decent night’s sleep on weekends in the late 1980s. From his home near M Street NW, he would often be woken up after 3 a.m. when drunken revelers left the bars and clubs.
“There were fights. There was screaming,” says Birch, now a commissioner on Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E. “And then there’d be incidents of what I guess I would call minor vandalism… You’d see bushes ripped out or pots turned over and crashed. And then a lot of litter in the gutters, in the treeboxes, and even on our front steps.”
In 1989, in an attempt to curb nightlife nuisances, Birch and many other Georgetown neighbors successfully pushed for D.C.’s first—and largest—liquor license moratorium.
But Birch now says the problems that plagued Georgetown three decades ago are gone. The nightclub scene has dissipated. Retail stores are outnumbering dining options. Neighbors want more restaurants.
The problem now? Not a lot of restaurateurs want Georgetown. While the neighborhood has gotten some hot additions like Chez Billy Sud, Fiola Mare, and The Sovereign, most of D.C.’s recent restaurant boom has occurred in moratorium-free zones like 14th Street NW, H Street NE, and Shaw.
And so for the first time ever, ANC2E, the Citizens Association of Georgetown, the Georgetown Business Improvement District, and other business groups all agree: The 27-year-old moratorium on restaurant liquor licenses needs to go. Representatives from all those groups testified in front of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board last week and expressed their support for lifting restrictions on how many restaurants can serve alcohol in the neighborhood. The liquor board continues to accept public comments but is likely to let the moratorium on restaurant licenses expire on April 9.
Outside of Georgetown, the tides are also shifting against moratoriums. Before 2012, the city had restaurant liquor license moratoriums in five neighborhoods: Adams Morgan, Dupont East, Dupont West, Georgetown, and Glover Park
Now, only two—Georgetown and Glover Park—cap the number of alcohol-serving restaurants in their boundaries. The liquor board will hold a hearing about the Glover Park moratorium on March 30, and neighborhood groups there are likewise pushing to lift restrictions on restaurants. That moratorium expires on May 3. (Adams Morgan, Dupont East, Dupont West, Georgetown, and Glover Park, however, continue to limit bars with tavern licenses and/or nightclubs.)
Meanwhile, a proposal to create a new moratorium along the U Street NW corridor failed in 2013.
“We were sort of the lone holdout,” Birch says. “We wanted to signal that times have changed, the situation is different, and it just didn’t seem to make sense any longer.”
Bill Starrels, who like Birch is a vice-chair of the Georgetown ANC, adds that they saw what happened in other neighborhoods that lifted their restaurant moratoriums, “and quite frankly, things have worked out well.”
It’s not just that things have changed in 30 years. After all, the last time the Georgetown moratorium came up for renewal only five years ago, resident groups were still in favor of it (although they did support seven additional licenses).
Georgetown BID President Joe Sternlieb says his organization has made a concerted effort to do away with the restaurant moratorium in the last several years, including issuing a white paper on the subject last fall. Previously, he says, nobody was organizing to end the moratorium, but there were people who were organizing to keep it.
Sternlieb also claims he gets more complaints from residents about the lack of new restaurants coming to the neighborhood than any other issue, especially as D.C.’s dining scene has exploded elsewhere in the last several years.
“We’re turning into foodies,” Birch says. “Every neighborhood wants the restaurants.”
But Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington representative Andrew Kline argues getting rid of the moratorium won’t make much of difference, although the group opposes moratoriums. Even though the 68 available restaurant liquor licenses in Georgetown are claimed, 16 of them currently aren’t in use. “Nobody wants them. They’re there,” Kline said at last week’s liquor board hearing. “Extend the cap, don’t extend the cap, it really doesn’t make any difference. It’s not going to affect the marketplace in Georgetown one way or the other.”
Mark Lee, the executive director of the D.C. Nightlife Hospitality Association, piled on: “Allowing more of something for which there is demonstrably no takers is rather disingenuous.” He thinks there shouldn’t be a moratorium on any type of liquor license.
Currently, a new restaurant in Georgetown couldn’t simply apply for a liquor license from the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration like it could in other neighborhoods right now. Rather, the restaurant would have to buy and transfer a license from a business that has one it’s not using. ABRA holds onto unused licenses for “safe keeping” until the licensees resume business or transfer their license to a new owner.
“There was this extra step where you had to deal with a private person and negotiate a price,” Sternlieb says. In the past, restaurant owners would try to sell a license for $40,000 or more.
Restaurateur Ian Hilton, who owns Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown, likewise doesn’t think lifting the restaurant moratorium will make a difference in the number of new restaurants coming to the neighborhood. “Maybe north of M [Street NW] there might be a little more activity. It seems like there’s more opportunity for growth that way,” he says.
Hilton says the “overwhelming factor” keeping new restaurants out is actually high rents. Also, because Georgetown is a historic district, build-outs and renovations tend to be complicated, time-consuming, and expensive.
While those issues aren’t necessarily going away, Georgetown leaders say even if restaurants aren’t taking the liquor licenses not in use now, lifting the moratorium will eventually bring in more eateries because of the message it sends. It’s symbolic as much as it is practical.
“We were feeling that it might be a perception problem, keeping some potential restaurateurs from seriously considering Georgetown,” Starrels says.
Sternlieb doesn’t expect a bunch of restaurateurs to rush to Georgetown overnight once the moratorium is lifted. He says it could be at least five years before anyone notices a difference. “My prediction is that it will again become a place where people think of to go specifically for food in the way they think of 14th Street now,” he says.
Still, restrictions on bars with tavern licenses and nightclubs are in place and seem likely to remain. The Georgetown Historic District limits the number of businesses with those licenses to six. When one of the elusive Georgetown tavern licenses became available in April 2014, a couple people literally camped overnight in tents in front of ABRA’s office for a chance to snag it.
“What’s being proposed is not an end to a moratorium,” says Lee. At last week’s liquor board hearing, he pointed out that the moratorium would remain in place for all liquor-selling businesses except restaurants. He argued that the moratorium is “an experiment gone wrong” and a “painful memory of a bad idea from a bygone era.” He went on to call Georgetown a “commercial district long in decline.”
Sternlieb takes issue with that characterization: “We have the lowest vacancies and the highest rents in the region and somehow he viewed that as being in decline,” he says. “It’s in decline for the one very narrow category of late-night, fall-down-drunk bars, perhaps.”
Although the Georgetown BID has led the fight to lift the restaurant liquor license moratorium, Sternlieb isn’t super interested in doing the same for tavern or nightclub liquor licenses. For starters, he says his members aren’t really talking about it. Plus, his group has 75 “action items”—from sidewalk widenings to a gondola study—it’s trying to accomplish by 2020. “To get all those 75 items done, we have to keep peace between the business community and the residential community.”
And for its part, the Georgetown ANC shows zero interest in changing the moratorium on tavern or nightclub licenses.
“We’ve had too many less-than-happy experiences over the last several years,” Starrels explains. “When you have a bad actor—and we’ve been around the block with more than a couple over the years—it’s not an easy process to correct something of that nature.”
But a rule meant to keep out rowdy nightclubs could also potentially limit high-end cocktail bars or wine bars that don’t serve enough food to qualify for a restaurant license.
“We’re seeing more and more interesting places that can’t open in Georgetown because of the rules,” Sternlieb admits. That’s not to say Georgetown residents won’t address the issue someday, but it’s not likely to happen soon. “I would say it’s many years away, and it’s not something I’ll be working on.”
CORRECTION: The initial version of this story incorrectly stated that the liquor board held a hearing about the Glover Park moratorium this week. The hearing is actually on March 30.
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Illustration by Lauren Heneghan