The Kennedy Center at dusk
The Kennedy Center at dusk. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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UPDATE: Sept. 30, 5:50 p.m.

The HEIST X Kennedy Center pop-up lounge that sold out in 15 minutes is off. Opening night was set for this Saturday, Oct 3. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts provided the following statement to City Paper:

“The Kennedy Center has determined the opening of the HEIST pop-up, an outdoor rental event, will not take place this weekend (October 3) to allow for further evaluation and to ensure such gatherings meet our building’s health and safety standards as well as respect the city’s latest reopening guidelines. The Center’s recent and successful return to hosting live performance at reduced capacity required months of rigorous planning. Likewise, we hold outside parties renting our spaces to the same high level of scrutiny and precautionary planning, and more time is needed to fully assess these plans.”

Earlier this week, City Paper reported on how the timing of the launch of the nightclub atop the cultural institution caused confusion and frustration within D.C.’s hospitality industry. Through a combination of VIP cabanas and VIP tables, the HEIST X Kennedy Center pop-up lounge could accommodate a total of 360 patrons, without counting service staff, security, and other personnel. 

Early advertisements promised “live performers” and “the hottest DJs in the country.” The press release announcing the event assured attendees there would be “temperature checks for ticketed patrons, artists, and staff.” 

To onlookers, it looked like the HEIST X Kennedy Center pop-up lounge was no different than the six live music venues given the green light to start hosting small concerts as a part of a city pilot program to determine if concerts can be carried out safely. The program allows for a total capacity of 50 people during live entertainment performances, including attendees, staff, musicians, and security. 

Representatives for HEIST and Mayor Muriel Bowser insisted that the pop-up lounge would not have live entertainment. John Falcicchio, who serves as both the mayor’s chief of staff and Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, then explained that HEIST X Kennedy Center is no different than a restaurant operating in Phase 2 of reopening. 

The Kennedy Center provided clarification on this topic this morning:

“The HEIST pop-up was announced Monday by the renter and was misreported as being a participant in the Phase Two Live Entertainment Pilot Program unveiled by Mayor Bowser last week. It is in its role as an arts producer and presenter that the Kennedy Center is included among six area entertainment venues for the city’s pilot program intended to test the safety of live music events.”

Still questions remained. How did HEIST score such a money-making opportunity when all nightclubs are suffering? HEIST backer Vinoda Basnayake is tight with the Bowser administration. He chairs the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture and sat on one of Bowser’s ReOpen DC committees. 

Some, including Christina Henderson—who is running for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council—wondered about transparency. 

City Paper asked Kennedy Center representatives if the venue put out a request for proposals that would have allowed multiple nightclub operators to bid on renting the coveted outdoor space. They did not respond to that question, nor did they address an inquiry about whether HEIST made a minimum tax-deductible contribution to the Kennedy Center’s Corporate Fund or Annual Fund, which is customary for space rentals.

Basnayake, on the other hand, sent City Paper a statement Wednesday evening that addresses how the HEIST X Kennedy Center partnership came about. He explains that while his other hospitality businesses, Morris American Bar and Casta’s Rum Bar, were able to register and open outdoor cafés, the same wasn’t possible for HEIST. Downtown bars, clubs, and restaurants have suffered greatly during the pandemic. 

“We applied for an outdoor streatery permit from the city, but were informed that our sidewalk was not wide enough to support this,” Basnayake writes. “Instead of being discouraged, we started looking around the city for an outdoor space to rent in an attempt to create a pop-up HEIST. While many of these attempts were futile, we were humbled when the Kennedy Center agreed to meet with us. After several months of planning and negotiation we contracted to rent their outdoor rooftop terrace for our HEIST pop-up.”

Basnayake writes that he was happy to be able to rehire nearly all of his pre-COVID staff members for the pop-up and hoped to set the standard for nightlife reopening. He, however, acknowledges the timing of the roll-out was problematic. 

“Unfortunately for us, we announced our reopening days after the city released a new pilot program for live entertainment which included the Kennedy Center,” Basnayake continues. “This understandably caused a great deal of confusion. If we had known that the two announcements, including the Kennedy Center’s separate participation in that program would come almost simultaneously, we would have taken much better care to explain the differences, and why Heist is not operating as a part of, or with any exemption from, the pilot program.”

Finally, Basnayake responds to cries of favoritism. “That could not be further than the truth, and I knew the scrutiny would be even greater for my businesses given my role on the
Commision on Nightlife and Culture,” he writes. “I want to make it very clear that any individual or business had the same opportunity to reach out to the Kennedy Center and propose such a concept, and we hope that many more do so in the future.”

He hopes to bring his pop-up lounge to fruition down the line. “We strongly believe in this concept and will be announcing our reopening date soon.”