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In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance signed a set of “voluntary agreements” with seven local restaurants, pertaining to trash, advertising, alcohol service—no pitchers or promotions, for example—and banning live music, karaoke, and dancing (the agreements were modified in 2008 to allow entertainment within certain hours). They’ve effectively kept the neighborhood fairly quiet in the evenings by preventing the restaurants from attracting crowds late at night, which MPNA thinks Mt. Pleasant’s sleepy commercial strip can’t accommodate.
In the last few months, however, three of those compacts have been the dissolved by order of the Alcoholic Beverage Control board, giving the Latino-owned restaurants Haydee’s, Don Juan’s, and Don Jaime’s greater freedom to have happy hours in the early evening and host bands later at night—generally behaving like a normal bar. It’s a triumph for the pro-music group Hear Mount Pleasant as well as ANC 1D, which have been working for years to loosen the MPNA’s hold over neighborhood businesses.
“The sky has not fallen, we haven’t become Adams Morgan, and I don’t think we will,” said Claudia Schlosberg, a leader of Hear Mount Pleasant, which is planning an event at Don Juan’s on April 26th to celebrate.
The disappearance of the MPNA voluntary agreements doesn’t leave the restaurants without restrictions, though. Hear Mount Pleasant has executed its own agreements with the businesses, which still require live music to stop at midnight on weeknights and 1:30 a.m. on the weekends. In fact, MPNA says it offered to relax restrictions on alcohol service, happy hours, and entertainment—essentially coming very close to what the Hear Mount Pleasant agreements stipulate.
The difference is this: A voluntary agreement can either be terminated by the ABC board or by the assent of the group of residents who signed it. MPNA was willing to modify its agreement, but it still wanted to be the one in control, since it believes Hear Mount Pleasant might just terminate its own agreement if the restaurant owner asks.
“Their heart’s not behind it,” said the MPNA’s representative Sam Broeksmit, of Hear Mount Pleasant. “We want to still be, for lack of better words, at the table.”
Hear Mount Pleasant members emphasize, however, that the whole set of rules governing who has control over how a restaurant does business—the most restrictive voluntary agreement takes precedent—is counterproductive. In December, former MidCity Business Association director Natalie Avery outlined why the adversarial system wastes time that should instead be spent helping restaurants develop plans to mitigate neighborhood disturbances while still offering patrons live music and late hours. To that end, they’ve been working with Mount Pleasant restaurants to get their staff trained, manage noise, and upgrade their interiors to attract a broader demographic.
“It is exciting to see the ABC board take a stance that DC will now rely primarily on laws and the executive branch to enforce peace, order and quiet in the neighborhood rather than civic associations,” writes former ANC Commissioner Phil Lepanto. “While Hear Mt. Pleasant has a Voluntary Agreement still standing with some of these licensees, there is active discussion within the organization to make sure that we focus on bringing stakeholders together to work towards best practices rather than simply establishing that there’s a new sheriff in town.”
The other four restaurants with MPNA voluntary agreements still in place—Marx Cafe, Tonic, Radius, and Corado’s—may apply to terminate them as well when their liquor licenses come up for renewal. But Schlosberg notes that it tends to be a long and difficult process, which Haydee’s, Don Juan’s, and Don Jaime’s could only accomplish with the help of extensive pro bono legal assistance. Plus, some of them have live entertainment anyway, voluntary agreement or not—Avery says the fact that Marx Cafe has late-night dance parties is due to uneven enforcement. Finally, the generally pro-business ABC Board will see a lot of turnover soon, and with chairman Charles Brodsky under investigation, mayor Vince Gray‘s nominees could be less willing to get antiquated agreements off the books.
* This post has been updated since its original publication.