For a few months now, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B has been thinking over how to keep a pleasant balance of retail and restaurants on the increasingly boozy Barracks Row. One of the tools for doing that is a moratorium on new liquor licenses, which a “Retail Mix Task Force” has explored through talking with representatives of other neighborhoods, as well as 8th Street SE business owners. The commissioner spearheading the effort, Norm Metzger, has been careful to qualify that they’re not pushing for a moratorium—but prospective entrepreneurs have been spooked nonetheless.
“That’s just a perception that’s out there,” said Barracks Row Main Street executive director Martin Smith, at a Monday evening meeting with landlords and business groups. In the last 60 to 90 days, Smith said, he’s been hearing from realtors that people thinking about leasing space on the Row have been dissuaded by talk of a moratorium, as well as several liquor license protests. “They say, I don’t want to deal with that,” Smith noted.
Moreover, Smith added, even retail establishments interested in locating on 8th Street often ask if they can find a space in between two restaurants, since people waiting for tables will often stop in and shop.
Few know the competitive pressures of booze-serving businesses better than Dennis Bourgault, proprietor of the pet shop Chateau Animaux. Bourgault owned his building at 524 8th Street SE, until the revitalization of the neighborhood sent commercial property taxes skyrocketing 180 percent in one year, forcing him to sell (he’s moving the business down to leased space in the 700 block). The building sat on the market for a year and a half, with no inquiries from people interested in retail—the eventual buyer is putting in two restaurants. And he knew he had to sell before any moratorium cut off that possibility. “If the rules change, we’re screwed, frankly,” Bourgault said.
The other danger of messing with alcohol regulations is the adverse effect it could have on the less prosperous reaches of Barracks Row. Only the northernmost blocks, closest to Pennsylvania Avenue, are really thriving—as you walk further south, foot traffic drops off dramatically (the Marine Barracks aren’t much help, at least where commerce is concerned). That troubles landlord Myles Doherty, who has been trying to lease a building on the 700 block for over a year now after the previous occupant, an art gallery, couldn’t even afford the $22 per square foot rent. Doherty says he’s never put a restaurant in that space—they’re more of a headache than retail tenants—but he might have to, since no one else wants to brave the sometimes-desolate location.
Besides, he points out, the restaurants are what led the area’s revitalization in the first place. “They were the goose that laid the golden egg,” he said.
Metzger quickly backpedaled on his blog yesterday, writing that the ANC “NEVER proposed” a moratorium. But moratoria are funny that way: They’re a blunt instrument, even in concept. Lots of other tools exist to manage nightlife without stifling business growth, which on lower 8th Street especially is still fragile.