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Mayor Muriel Bowser introduced legislation Tuesday designed to rev the District’s economic engine and make up for pandemic-related losses through enhanced alcohol sales opportunities overseen by the Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration. The most notable proposal included in the 40-page Reopen Washington DC Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Amendment Act of 2021 would create a “commercial lifestyle center license” that allows patrons to mill about with drinks from nearby bars and restaurants within clearly defined boundaries.
“What this legislation really does is set guidelines for what we think the ‘new normal’ should be,” Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio tells City Paper. “A lot of people think of the ‘new normal’ as something negative. When we talk about recovery, we want to make D.C. more dynamic than it was before the pandemic.”
From temporary and permanent closures to lost jobs, the pandemic has hit the hospitality industry hard. This creates a problem for the city: Not only do bars, restaurants, clubs, hotels, and entertainment venues hire a significant number of Washingtonians, they also typically generate a significant proportion of D.C. ‘s sales tax revenue and attract tourists.
“We really needed to establish a new lifeline for the hospitality industry,” Falcicchio says. “The sales they lost over the course of the pandemic, they’ll never get back. We need new ways for businesses to find revenue so they can employ more people.”
Throughout the pandemic, the city passed several pieces of emergency legislation that cleared the way for temporary revenue-earning opportunities like streateries and to-go alcohol sales. Some provisions will remain in place when D.C. lifts its public health emergency. The mayor’s new alcohol act, by comparison, is permanent legislation. The Council will debate it, then vote on it twice after listening to feedback from the community.
The final version of the Reopen Washington DC Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Amendment Act could look much different than the one introduced this week. Expect input and scrutiny surrounding equity and inclusion, noise, pests, and crowd control.
“We always think we send perfect legislation, but we want the Council to put its imprint on it,” Falcicchio says. “We think that will make it stronger. We welcome their input and community feedback.”
Falcicchio cautions those rejoicing on Twitter that the District is about to have its own French Quarter. While he calls the commercial lifestyle center license “bold,” he says residents should temper their enthusiasm a bit as the city looks to strike a good balance with each impacted community.
According to the act, a commercial lifestyle center is a mixed use or commercial development that has a sampling of retail, residential, dining, entertainment, office buildings, or hotels located in a physically integrated outdoor setting that is pedestrian friendly and governed by a commercial owners’ association that manages common areas. The license permits restaurants, bars, clubs, and the like to sell alcohol for consumption within a designated area that encompasses spaces like “plazas, seating areas, walkways, and other thoroughfares.” Parking lots are excluded.
There are copious proposed rules dictating how these zones operate. You can’t drink booze that wasn’t purchased from a business located within the commercial lifestyle center, and drinks must be served in non-glass cups displaying the name or logo of one of the participating bars and restaurants. There must be clear signage denoting the boundaries of the licensed zone. Permitted hours for alcohol consumption would be from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. on weekdays and from 7:00 a.m. to midnight on weekends.
While a representative from ABRA tells City Paper the commercial owner’s association that holds the license would be responsible for hiring security and enforcing the rules, ABRA inspectors would conduct regulatory inspections to confirm compliance.
Commercial centers in neighboring jurisdictions, including The Village at Shirlington, already have similar policies in place. Falcicchio says ABRA personnel examined what other cities had enacted when drawing up the regulations included in the mayor’s act.
The Wharf, the Georgetown waterfront, and CityCenterDC are three possible areas that might qualify for a license. Nightlife titan Ian Hilton owns a bar, The Brighton, at The Wharf. He calls the move “pretty bold, but not entirely unexpected” based on the more lenient alcohol permissions that have come about during the pandemic to help struggling businesses.
“I appreciate that someone is continually thinking about how we can rescue these folks that have been up shit’s creek for a year,” Hilton says. “You look at The Wharf and think you should be able to walk around the boardwalk with a drink in your hand.”
He and others have questions about whether a group of owners, say in Blagden Alley or on U Street NW, can come together and apply for a commercial lifestyle center license. “They potentially could,” Falcicchio says, noting that Advisory Neighborhood Commissions will always have a say in the matter. “The issue is I think ABRA wants to make sure things like security and insurance are addressed. Who would take on liability and coordination among the businesses? This will be part of the conversation in the legislative process.”
If commercial lifestyle center licenses are limited to wealthy, developer-driven parcels like CityCenterDC and The Wharf, Hilton and others suggest that not enough people will benefit. “I’m always worried there will be have and have nots as there have been with every other initiative they’ve tried to do over the past year,” he says. Restaurants and bars with access to outdoor seating areas, for example, were already at an advantage and were able to apply for winterization grants. “It’s all about the inequity. We’ll see how we legislate this to keep us from having dead zones and hopping zones,” Hilton says.
Miranda Woods, a D.C. native with a degree in architecture, doesn’t think the city has its priorities straight. “I’m disappointed to see the mayor put the thoughts and wants of restaurants and bars and their patrons in front of people who are being neglected in the middle of the pandemic,” she says. “Look how creative she’s getting for restaurants and bars, but she can’t do things like figure out how to make library resources more available to people or how to get more people housed that are homeless.”
While enrolled at Miami University in Ohio, Woods participated in an architecture program that allows its students to live in the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati. Students work with community leaders who Woods says are grappling with issues stemming from gentrification.
“We were living right in the middle of this main strip I would liken to H Street NE in D.C.,” Woods says. She was frustrated that bar and restaurants patrons would spill out onto the street making it difficult to get around. “People can’t really get through with their dogs let alone a stroller or a wheelchair. The people using these spaces didn’t have to face the disadvantages of living there.”
Woods also didn’t like that longtime residents of the neighborhood couldn’t set chairs out in front of their doors and have a beer without facing consequences despite the fact that a few yards away “the gentrifying class that had the money for a $15 drink could enjoy it outside right in their face.” After describing the juxtaposition, Woods asks, “Who is patronizing these businesses and who is in the background expected to fall in line?”
Why can’t the city just pass more liberal open container laws? That way someone who wants to buy a bottle of wine at a corner store, say in Mount Pleasant, and drink it in Malcolm X Park will be treated the same as someone wandering around The Wharf or CityCenterDC with an Aperol spritz. In response, Falcicchio says the commercial lifestyle zones are private property. “This isn’t walking from Mount Pleasant to Columbia Heights with an open container,” he says. “It would be a set area with security in place and insurance.”
Overall Woods supports creating more outside seating for restaurants, especially during the pandemic, but questions if every business owner has the same chance to take advantage of the opportunities that arise. She wonders if there are Black-owned businesses in places likely to become commercial lifestyle zones. “With a mayor who claims to be for her people and create equity for her people, her policies and the way she’s gotten creative have all benefited white transplants with money, not people who have been here and who’ve had businesses here forever,” she says.
Falcicchio points out that one area that will be considered for a commercial lifestyle center license is the area surrounding St. Elizabeths East campus in Congress Heights. The city is involved in creating a “mixed-use town square-type concept” called Parcel 15. “It’s going to include retail, a full-service hotel, and other amenities that will be between the Metro station and the sports arena,” he says. “That’s a great place to have this opportunity.”
Another component of Bowser’s alcohol act involves communities east of the Anacostia River. The city has long struggled to incentivize grocers to plant roots in Ward 7 and 8, where there are only three full-service grocery stores.
The act proposes creating a new “25% grocery store class A retailer’s license.” These grocery stores must devote a minimum of 8,000 square feet to selling fresh produce, meat and fish, dairy products, canned goods, frozen food, and non-alcoholic beverages, and can only make 25 percent of their gross annual sales off alcohol. The license is unique because it allows for the sale of beer, wine, and liquor. According to ABRA, only a few full-service grocery stores, including the remodeled Safeway on Capitol Hill, hold the type of license that allows for the sale of liquor.
If a grocer applies for the new license in Ward 7 or Ward 8 and receives a certificate of occupancy issued after the first of this year, they will be allowed to open a store with the same special license in any of the other six wards of the city provided they’ve operated for a minimum of six months east of the river.
“We know that businesses or supermarkets, when they look to expand, one of the first things they look at is whether they can sell beer, wine, and spirits,” Falcicchio says. “It means that they can go into a market that we know they’ve expressed some hesitancy moving into and have this tool to make their businesses more viable.”
City Paper has requested comment from DC Hunger Solutions about the portion of the mayor’s act that covers incentivizing grocers to open in Wards 7 and 8 using liquor sales as a carrot. This story will be updated if we hear back.
The lengthy legislation also proposes lifting the tavern license moratorium in Georgetown. They’ve been capped at six since 1994. (Nightclubs are still prohibited.) It also permits doggie bags for spirits. Restaurants and hotels would be able to seal up unfinished bottles of liquor for patrons to take home, as they are currently able to do with wine. There’s also a proposal for a new license covering third-party delivery of alcohol.
Most notably, streateries could be here to stay. The act allows for establishments with existing streateries to keep them going for free through 2021. Starting in 2022 and 2023, business owners will have to pay a $100 annual fee. Streateries would be able to operate between May 1 and Oct. 25. “We’re open to discussion and input from the community and the industry, but people have taken a liking to streateries,” Falcicchio says.
In fact, the Office of Planning rolled out a survey earlier this week that asks D.C. residents to weigh in on newfangled outdoor dining options. City Paper plans to dig into the results once they become available next month.
“Most of what the mayor has proposed and much of what we’re seeing in the U.S. has been in existence elsewhere forever and they’ve been fine,” says Andre McCain, who founded HalfSmoke in Shaw. “We’re using this as an opportunity to play catch up to create better communities and support businesses.” He calls experiments like streateries a big success. “The question now is how do we make it better and more effective and really use it as a mechanism to support underserved communities and spur development. This could be one of the great silver linings that comes out of a very dark period that we’ll be able to look back on and appreciate the pandemic for some positive things as well.”
Read the entirety of the Reopen Washington DC Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Amendment Act of 2021 here.