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As You Are Bar is on track for a March launch on Barracks Row. Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B members voted unanimously to approve a settlement agreement Tuesday night. The ANC will not protest the business’s liquor license, which would have resulted in a hearing and delayed the project’s opening date to a point that would be financially devastating for founders Jo McDaniel and Rach Pike. The pair popped Champagne and smiled through tears after last night’s 10-0 vote.
The queer cafe, lounge, and dance floor will be a safe and inclusive space for D.C.’s queer community and its allies to commune and celebrate. McDaniel and Pike are especially interested in creating an atmosphere that’s welcoming to queer youth, who may not have other places where they feel like they can relax and be themselves.
Japer Bowles, the director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, called the meeting “a therapy session and acknowledgment of how amazing our LGBTQ community is!” One after another, Ward 6 residents and other Washingtonians, such as ANC 2B Commissioner Mike Silverstein, voiced their emphatic support for As You Are Bar and what it represents.
“I was maybe 20 years old when Stonewall happened,” Silverstein says, referring to the protests that transpired after police raided a gay club in New York City in 1969. “I was in college and I was transfixed by it and deeply in the closet. I knew if I ever said anything I would probably lose my friends; that my hopes of being a broadcast journalist would be gone; that I would probably be kicked out of my fraternity; and all those other things.”
Silverstein was a news editor and writer at ABC News for more than three decades. “Over my life, I’ve seen other people work to make it possible for me to be myself and I’ve seen things that have happened in my life that I never would have dreamed of. Rach and Jo, you are so beloved by the community and I’m absolutely convinced that your community on Capitol Hill will come to know you and love you the way that the rest of us do. I didn’t know what to expect from this meeting tonight, but I guess my cup runneth over.”
“I’d like to start off by saying I’m not a member of 6B, but I think it’s critical to have all voices from the LGBTQ community,” said a woman who called into the meeting. “I’m a proud veteran and I couldn’t be happier to hear this establishment showing up down the street from our Marine barracks—oorah! Thank you for all of your work on both sides of this—the commissioners and Jo and Rach.”
But the future of As You Are Bar wasn’t always so certain. The last meeting about the liquor license application, held by ANC 6B’s Alcohol Beverage Control Committee on Jan. 6, had a much different tone and lasted three hours. Though the establishment is located in a mixed commercial and residential zone, a significant number of residents live within a couple hundred feet on 8th Street SE and E Street SE. Some neighbors expressed concerns about noise and parking with civility, while others lashed out.
One neighbor, Pope Barrow, declared As You Are Bar would inevitably fail. He’s the same person who penned an email before the Jan. 6 meeting that read, “We will be miserable if it gets licensed, and when the calls to the owners, the police and ABC enforcement authorities begin to flood in, together with fines, the new owners will be miserable as well.”
Backing Barrow and responding to comments in the chat function of the online meeting platform accusing neighbors of being homophobic, Amber Jones said she wished she could send As You Are Bar supporters “back to another neighborhood and get you out of here now.”
“It’s been a hard couple of weeks,” McDaniel said immediately before the commissioners voted Tuesday night. “A lot of our characters were called into question because of who came before us in this space.” Neighbors clashed with the most recent tenant, Black-owned District Soul Food, regularly. “I know you were burned by that,” McDaniel said. “But it’s hard to be told that we’re liars even before anyone knows us. We’re just asking for a chance.”
After the tense Jan. 6 meeting wrapped, weeks of negotiations ensued. McDaniel and Pike made good on their promises to install sound proofing materials and conduct sound tests for neighbors to assess if they could hear music or feel bass vibrations. The window inserts bolstered with asphalt, sound-deadening blinds, triple-layer, floor-to-ceiling velvet drapes, and a bass trap—all installed with the help of a sound engineer—seemed to do the trick. And more measures are incoming.
“I was there for multiple sound testings, each of which has in fact been better than the previous one,” Katherine Szafran relayed, noting that she lives about a block away. “As of last night there was no noise inside my premises.” Alison Brooks lives closer. “I face diagonally across the street from the restaurant,” she says. “I can hear the bass and my living room has a bay window that sticks out over the front yard that’s particularly close to the restaurant. Hopefully in the next sound test I won’t be able to hear it. I have some hope, given how much progress they’ve already made.”
As You Are Bar made some compromises in the spirit of working towards an amenable settlement agreement that will impact their revenue-earning potential. Some questioned whether the owners were being held to stricter standards than other businesses. “I think we had some extra scrutiny because of the location with half of our building facing residential neighbors,” McDaniel tells City Paper Wednesday morning. “Our business model shifts a little because of the concessions we made. If that’s what it took to operate so close to east of the river in the Southeast quadrant, with Metro access so close, it was worth it.”
The hours of operations they initially proposed remain largely intact, with some tweaks related to music. Once it opens, As You Are Bar will be open Sundays through Thursdays from noon to midnight and Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 3 a.m. They committed to only playing recorded music at a conversational volume after 8 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays, even though their entertainment endorsement hours are longer.
The dance floor, which will be open to patrons 18 and older, will only operate Friday and Saturday nights. There will be no live bands, only DJs. As You Are Bar also has a system for emptying out the establishment in phases so not all patrons spill onto 8th Street SE at once. They’re also committed to having multiple safety management employees overseeing closing and monitoring patrons throughout the night and will file a security plan with the city.
Dave Kasten, who identifies as straight and made a passionate plea at the tail end of the Jan. 6 ABC Committee meeting, was back with more praise for As You Are Bar’s ongoing efforts working with the community. McDaniel and Pike have held community meetings dating back to October.
“I’m thankful for all the thought and consideration that the As You Are team has put into minimizing concerns for the neighborhood,” he says. “I can’t imagine any viable business institution will be any better. There are much worse offenders on the Barracks Row block … As someone who worked as a bartender, I know how much financial commitment they’re putting on table with the sheer number of staff they’re hiring.”
Immediately before commissioners voted, ANC 6B Chair Corey Holman acknowledged the robust civic engagement that had transpired surrounding As You Are Bar’s liquor license, even if there were difficult moments.
“There were a lot of voices that aren’t heard often at ANC committee meetings,” Holman said. Members of D.C.’s Deaf community, for example, shared that they too are looking forward to experiencing what As You Are Bar has to offer. Several people commented that it was their first ANC meeting. “I want to appreciate that part of this discussion.”
“There were a lot of tears after all was said and done,” McDaniel says. “Last night was overwhelming. There was so much positivity. Rach and I are so grateful for our supporters and folks who came out and spoke and told their stories.”