Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Jack Evans calls for after hours security at clubs - is that going to be enough?

(image credit: City Paper)
The Washington Post reported today that Councilmember Jack Evans was calling for the voluntary off-duty police details at some clubs and bars in Adams Morgan, Georgetown and H Street to become mandatory for all establishments offering "after hours" entertainment, in response to the fatal weekend shootings / stabbings / beatings combo at Heritage India in Dupont. 

Evans is quoted as saying "People cannot leave these establishments at 3 a.m. and be loud and getting into fights. That’s not tolerable behavior". This is completely accurate, as many residents in Shaw can attest through experiences with the MOOD Lounge on 9th Street. In fact, it's likely from his extensive work with the Shaw community to resolve problems with that bar that he understands just how problematic these patrons can be. The question for the entire Council is, why wasn't something like this introduced before somebody died? The Washington Examiner reports five different violent crimes the bar has been cited for in the past year, including at least one with a gun and one with hospitalizations, on top of a number of administrative problems. 

Certainly having more security at these places is a brilliant idea. The only fault I can find with it is that it doesn't quite go far enough - even stronger restrictions are needed to be sure that those who are at establishments operating as nightclubs late at night are safe, that those who live nearby are safe, and that those who break the law are dealt with. But the bigger question isn't handled here - when the Heritage India space was given a liquor license, nobody wanted, or expected, that it would operate as a nightclub, ever. It was supposed to be a restaurant (and from what I've read, it was one during the daytime). Yet the owners utilized poorly-written ABRA legislation to open a dangerous nightclub in the same space, using the same license.

What Evans is proposing is certainly a strong theoretical concept, though it will take some clever maneuvering to catch all the licensed-as-something-else-but-operating-as-a-nightclub fish in this net without also ensnaring places where such security would be ridiculous, like Off the Record, a bar in the Hay Adams hotel downtown that is frequented by Congress or Sonoma Wine Bar on the Hill. If he is able to do that, this might very well be the best piece of legislation passed all year. 

Two issues, however, would have to be addressed. First is that these security details would actually need the teeth to handle a lot of quality of life issues, above and beyond calling for squad cars to respond to the scene. Many of the smaller problems with places like Heritage India require an immediate response - if you see someone urinating on a fence, by the time you even make a phone call to report it he's done and on his way. Swift action based on observation would have to be enabled somehow. Only after extensive, aggressive enforcement of these quality of life issues will we ever see a change in behavior by club-goers. 

The second is more of a challenge, and that's dealing with the fact that there are dozens, if not hundreds of ABRA licensed establishments that are doing exactly what Heritage India did - operate to the absolute maximum extent allowed by the license without stepping over the line and having to file for a license that actually describes the true nature of their business. For places that serve drinks, there's three license types in DC (overly simplified explanations to follow) - a CR, or "restaurant" license, that requires income from the sale of food but allows the sale of liquor, a CT, or "tavern" license, which does not require the sale of food at all and can allow a very small (160 sqft) dance floor, and a CN, or "nightclub" license, which allows pretty much unlimited business activities - dancing, live music, DJ's, cover charges, etc., and of course also doesn't require any revenue from food sales. Other licenses exist for on and off-site beer & wine sales, liquor stores, etc. 

In DC, businesses can get a CT license and then pursue an add-on called an "entertainment endorsement". That pretty much converts the CT license into a de facto nightclub license, and allows a bad owner to morph an otherwise acceptable establishment into something the neighborhood never would have endorsed or allowed. Or, in the cases of good business owners, just allows for some additional flexibility to ensure everyone has a good time and that they can make money hosting a variety of events and crowds. 

What Washington needs is a fourth classification of licensing that splits the CT (tavern) designation into two distinct products and eliminates the entertainment endorsement - one would allows for a "Cheers"-like bar, a friendly neighborhood gathering place, that doesn't require food sales, but that also strictly limits noise from music to a handful of small speakers, with no DJ or dancing permitted, and that requires seating for a large portion of the occupancy limit. The other would allow for some dancing, perhaps louder live music (like a jazz club), and also carry no food requirement. 

Starting off with a mandatory police detail for nightclubs, regardless of how they are permitted through ABRA, is a good move. Making it emergency legislation that goes into effect immediately is an even better move. Passing this legislation as a response to a fatality and then viewing the issue as resolved, however, is not. Both citizens and councilmembers must be wary of the tendency to respond in some way and then forget until the next tragic problem, and should all see the value in closing the Entertainment Endorsement = Nightclub loophole in the ABRA laws, to allow for some real regulations and solutions to these issues. I'm very hopeful this is the first step of many Jack Evans will lead on towards fixing these problems. 


  1. well said. The entertainment endorsement makes obtaining a CN license (and the attendant process) completely unnecessary. get rid of it first and foremost.

  2. I have to say what you are proposing is still more of the same backwards thinking that has gotten us into this mess in the first place. You are trying to regulate use to avoid bad potential operators through legislation, instead of dealing with bad management.

    In a city that has an 18 hour economy, particularly an area like Conn. south of Dupont that does not have the residential impact and has the high downtown rents, should be able to be a multi-use space that is run responsibly. What is Busboys and Poets at 14th & V? It is a bookstore, lounge, restaurant, and performance venue in one license. They qualify as a CR because they meet the food requirement.

    The issue here is that you have multiple incidents because of bad operations that use promoters that have no risk and an all or nothing process of dealing with those issues. Just hiring more police on the street does not address those issues, it deals with the symptoms.

    Is Heritage India meeting it's food requirements? If not, that is another nail in their coffin. However, entertainment does not mean violence and the issue is whether noise is heard outside the venue. I know of many venues that have great atmosphere and entertainment of all types without impacting the neighborhood negatively.