Liquor License Tyrants

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An earlier iteration of this blog was frequently written from Big Bear Cafe in Bloomingdale, and I still visit now and again and am friendly with the owner and some of the staff. So I’ve been interested in their efforts to secure a full restaurant license which would allow them to, among other things, serve beer. The initial hearing doesn’t seem to have gone so well according to Lydia DePillis:

“They’re probably in line to come talk to the commission, ready to make this a whole new world,” said ANC chairwoman Anita Bonds. “Because that’s what this is about.”

“One small entity begets another small entity begets another small entity,” said Edward Jones, a neighbor who has lived at 1st and R Street since 1994. “And then we end up with the same issues that make you a U Street or an Adams Morgan.”

Commissioner Barrie Daneker, who said that he had never been inside Big Bear, objected categorically to the restaurant’s ambitions on the basis of neighborhood character. “I do not want to see Big Bear open until 1 a.m.,” he said. “If you’re a restaurant, nobody’s eating at 1 a.m. in Washington. This is not New York.”

Commissioner Marshall Phillips, Sr. gave an impressive speech about the neighborhood’s history with drunks and crime caused by liquor stores, raising the specter of Catholic University undergraduate-type misbehavior and warning that criminal elements would take advantage of tipsy rubes.

In my mind, the underlying issue here is that DC is stuck on a “specter of Adams-Morgan” equilibrium. One reason two particular corridors in the city are so crowded with bar patrons is that it’s extremely difficult to open new bars. Conversely, one reason it’s so difficult to open up new bars is that people fear that new bars will turn their neighborhoods into the new Adams-Morgan. Realistically, if things were relaxes citywide we wouldn’t suddenly have a dozen Adams-Morgans — there are only so many people around — what would happen is that Adams-Morgan itself would calm down.

From a policy point of view, the main issue is that we’ve set up a governance system where we have these micro-elected officials on the local ANC boards who essentially have no power except to say “no” to stuff. That naturally leads to a mentality where thinking is dominated by downside risks and everyone errs on the side of saying “no.” I think the answer might be to increase the fees associated with liquor licenses, and then put the extra funds at the disposal of the ANC itself to fund community endeavors. That way members might see some more upside to letting things open. Of course another alternative is for the sort of young people who are likely to be supportive of bars and restaurants to get more engaged with local issues and put pressure on elected officials. In general, people pay too little attention to local politics even though in practice it often does more to shape one’s quality of life than these national issues.