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For three months, the streets of Adams Morgan have been filled with dust and din. Jackhammers and backhoes tear their way through road and sidewalk reconstruction. Pedestrians have to skip around Jersey barriers and heavy equipment to get where they’re going, cars at the bottom of 18th Street stall in one-lane bottlenecks, and the fumes of freshly-laid asphalt lend an acrid cast to the air.
Adams Morgan’s physical environment, though, is peaceful and pristine compared to the rancor among its citizens lately. Message boards, email exchanges, and public meetings have all burned with a higher-than-average temperature in recent months.
Local residents have long fought the nightlife industry that brings a stampede of brawling drunks to 18th Street on the weekends. Streets littered with pizza crusts and broken glass are the kind of scene that underlies the refrain “we don’t want to become another Adams Morgan” in neighborhoods across the city.
But right now, Adams Morgan is facing some big changes. A proposal for a luxury hotel that would be built on top of and behind the First Church of Christ Scientist near 18th Street and Columbia Road pits businesses that want more foot traffic against some residents who fear for their peace and quiet. Brick and mortar restaurants battled a three-year-old weekly gathering of outdoor food vendors, and finally won. In August, the Department of Small and Local Business Development* held a hearing to reauthorize the Business Improvement District for five more years; many retailers came out to complain that the BID catered only to nighttime businesses. Meanwhile, daytime businesses are suffering from the construction—which was supposed to have come with more solid assistance from the city than the no-interest loans that are available now—and talking about suing the District for relief.
The general discourse has gotten downright uncivil, so much so that it’s become exasperating to onlookers.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the backbiting and nastiness at this level,” says Bryan Weaver, former chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C. “And now I’m like, a pox on all your houses.”
Long-entrenched personality conflicts play a role in Adams Morgan, just as in any neighborhood. But much of the acrimony can be traced to a fundamental tension between two imagined futures. In one, Adams Morgan becomes a quiet, residential neighborhood with retail that serves the local community. In the other, it’s a playground for tourists and out-of-towners who want some local color during the day and a bar crawl at night.
Neither of those poles is realistic or desirable. The question, then, is whether one can live with the other.
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It took time for Adams Morgan to become the District’s most infamous party zone. Two decades ago, the 1991 riots in Mount Pleasant created a chill that spread to surrounding neighborhoods. Bars replaced shops that folded or fled. Even when a liquor license moratorium went into effect in 2000, restaurants upgraded to tavern-class licenses, allowing them to stay open later and serve less food. The number of tavern licenses is now capped at 10, although from the mayhem on any given Saturday night, it’s hard to tell.
The Adams Morgan Business Improvement District, which levies an extra tax on property owners within a defined area, was formed in 2005 as a kind of compromise between the daytime and the nightlife. The co-presidents are Steven Greenleigh, a landlord who rents to several bars on 18th Street, and Constantine Stavropoulos, who owns Tryst and the Diner.
Denis James, a carpenter who for the past seven years has crusaded against liquor license holders as president of the Kalorama Citizens Association, says the BID just cleans up after the mess the bars allow their customers to make. Last week, he penned a letter to the Adams Morgan Yahoo Group entitled “Adams Morgan, Inc.” complaining about the nightlife industry’s domination of the BID’s affairs. “The way I look at it, they take a crap in the middle of the street, and clean up after it and say hey, we’re doing our job,” James says.
Kristen Barden, the BID’s executive director, sees James as an anti-business zealot. “Sometimes I think it’s amazing to me that people survive, because he does everything he can to destroy them,” she says. “What do you want, vacant storefronts? Do you think that’s going to help your property values? That’s just backward thinking.”
It’s easy to peg Adams Morgan’s problems as a conflict between residents and businesses. That divide does manifest itself: The ANC has already passed a resolution demanding a maximum width of the newly widened sidewalks be reserved for pedestrians, rather than outdoor cafés for businesses, once they’re complete.
But the Adams Morgan business community itself is still divided, with daytime shops feeling that the BID spends too much—a total of $45,000 in fiscal year 2012—for off-duty police officers* to keep the peace after midnight. Several businesses and property owners testified against the BID’s reauthorization during the August council hearing (a year after it was supposed to have happened, since its authorization expired in 2010).
James Nixon, who owns the Peruvian goods store Toro Mata, left the BID’s board of directors, along with several other retailers who felt they weren’t being listened to. Instead, he worked with groups like the Kalorama Citizens Association to get the Metropolitan Police Department to launch Operation Adams Morgan, which put many more officers on the street over the summer to try to quell the insanity. “It wasn’t the BID,” Nixon says of the operation’s success. “It was a repudiation of the BID.”
Nixon also rails against Adams Morgan Main Street, which duplicates many BID functions using grants arranged by Councilmember Jim Graham, and whose president Lisa Duperier has used an assumed name on the Adams Morgan email list to critique Denis James (she says she regrets that, but did it because many people feel afraid to speak out publicly against the KCA president). And then there’s the Adams Morgan Business and Professionals Association, run by local commercial real estate agent Pat Patrick, who uses the name of the organization even though members say it hasn’t held an open meeting in years. Under the aegis of the AMBPA, for example, he threatened to sue the city over the Latin American food vendors who used to sell at the triangle park on Euclid and Champlain streets. That finally prompted city officials to shut the market down.
Bill Duggan, who owns the venerable watering hole Madams Organ, is fed up with the groups that are supposed to represent him. “I have never seen such a big group of underachievers,” he says, after running through a litany of complaints about competence and allegations of criminality. “They’re scum. I can’t even go to the meetings, because I can’t take hearing it.”
If anything could fix the daytime vs. nighttime business problem, it might be the 227-room luxury hotel that developer Brian Friedman wants to build on Champlain Street—on land that currently includes the offices of Washington City Paper—which would send visitors with disposable income up and down the retail strip. But this proposal has generated more heartache than anything else over the last year: It will violate the zoning overlay the neighborhood put in place over two decades ago to preserve its residential character. Recently, leaders of the Reed Cooke Neighborhood Association took offense when Friedman called them “obstructionists,” and in turn accused Friedman of trying to pack their membership with supporters of the hotel, which he denies.
“If you don’t believe in what they want, they will attack you,” says RCNA president Maureen Gallagher, of Friedman and his partners.
That seems to characterize most people in the neighborhood.
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Can anything break up the tensions in Adams Morgan? It’s an open question. Many residents and shops that have been fighting the booze economy for years consider the neighborhood too far gone to bring back.
But the crisply milled granite curbstones of the new streetscape outline a better future. Daytime businesses will see their clientele return, and nighttime revelers might behave better with wider sidewalks.
Some residents just want their old retail strip back, so they don’t have to get in a car for basic goods. “Going back to businesses that serve the neighborhood,” says RCNA member Peter Lyden. “That’s what we want.”
But that’s not terribly likely. The retail landscape has shifted irreversibly, after all, with online shopping providing stiff competition. One of the only proven strategies for helping local retail survive is to cluster similar businesses with each other, creating nodes like a “furniture district” on 14th Street. Residents might not like it, but Adams Morgan is “the stupid drunk district,” and the bars, the most powerful interests in the neighborhood, don’t really want to change that.
If the neighborhood has any hope—because some bomb-throwers will never be satisfied—it needs to do two things.
One: Seriously invest in the kind of nightlife management strategies that have been hugely successful in cities around the country, like Seattle and Boulder, Colo. Soundproofing, community policing, an operator code of conduct to prevent over-service of alcohol, and messaging campaigns to promote better bar-hopper behavior are a few examples of the “responsible hospitality” approach to help nighttime economies coexist with their daytime alter egos.
Two: Make room for office space. People like to work in Adams Morgan; just try to get a seat at Tryst in the middle of a Tuesday. If more second and third floors were rented out to small tech or design firms, the streets would be busier during the day. Operating bars wouldn’t be the only way to make money on 18th Street.
But before any of that happens, people need to start talking to each other outside the high-pressure context of a vote on a zoning application or protest hearing on a liquor license. And it might be a good idea to just shut down all the neighborhood email lists.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
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* Revised from a previous version; the $120,000 funds a full-time security guard and part-time consultant as well as the additional police. Also, the BID reauthorization hearing happened at the Wilson Building, but was administrative, not before the D.C. Council.