Monday, November 28, 2011

Why do problematic bars not get closed *before* people die?

Very early yesterday morning, Jhonte Coleman of Suitland, Maryland died after being shot on the 1300 block of Connecticut Avenue. He was out on the street following an alteration inside Heritage India, a restaurant that morphs into what the Post describes as a nightclub late at night after dinner patrons have gone home, where he had been a patron that evening. Two other men were also shot, three others were stabbed, and apparently there were other lesser injuries in the melee among those spending the evening there, in this sudden outbreak of violence.

Heritage India is no stranger to problems with their ABRA License. At least three separate cases have been on the ABRA agenda this year on June 22nd (case 11-251-00188), July, 27th (case 11-251-00212), and November 2nd (case 11-CMP-00430). Each of these were "Fact Finding" hearings, which ABRA holds in closed sessions "to plan, discuss, or hear reports concerning ongoing or planned investigations of alleged criminal or civil misconduct or violations of law or regulations". So, in the last six months, ABRA has deemed alleged illegal activity there significant enough to add them to the agenda not once, not twice, but three times. This incident will surely lead to a fourth, which is roughly a new infraction every 38 days.

Update on 11/31: this is actually the sixth violation in a year, according to the Washington Examiner. Other violations have involved robbery at gunpoint, a beating that required hospitalizations, and two sex abuse cases. 

Anybody familiar with the "broken windows" theory of urban planning knows that, in summary, small, unenforced violations of the law lead to bigger violations. So, as these three previous violations did not (that I am aware) result in a fatality, using that theory, it becomes increasingly evident that there was some reasonable expectation that it might escalate to that level. 

The Post article makes an interesting point when they wrote, though, which was that "there was tight security to get in. 'Males and females were patted down'" according to witness (and non-lethal shooting victim) Kevin Bost. This leads the casual observer to recognize that even the club itself felt that violence of some kind was a reasonable expectation, at least on this particular evening, otherwise, why search for weapons?

Case in point, airlines realize there is a reasonable expectation that in the absence of proper security, terrorists would bring bombs and guns on planes. Hence the TSA. In contrast, I have never been to a bar in the District, and I have been to dozens for various professional happy hours and to enjoy a night out with friends, where I was frisked at the door. I wouldn't go into such a place. The sheer fact that frisking is either necessary or advisable tells me that's somewhere I need to run away from, not go into

So, the question is really this: almost every bar that's been affiliated with a fatality in my recent memory had been before the ABRA Board more than once. Certainly, there are many establishments who appear multiple times and still have no body count years later. However, it begs the question - with so many solid liquor licensed establishments in the city, why not put in a "three (or five, or ten) strikes you're out" style law to kill off these repeat offenders? As is, even when ABRA gets an establishment permanently closed, often times a new establishment opens under the same license in the same location, prolonging suffering, and risk, to the surrounding residential community. 

By actually closing down establishments with consistent problems, deaths like Jhonte's might be prevented. Had Heritage India been closed for any of the three pending violations and not been open on Saturday night, they may have selected a safer venue for the 30th birthday party they were attending. Furthermore, by adding in a prohibition that addresses who had an ABRA establishment that was closed in such a way from having another ABRA license for say 10 or 15 years, property owners might feel some sort of compulsion to step in when tenants get in trouble, and possibly evict them to protect their ability to secure a high-rent ABRA tenant and bring in a better actor, which benefits everyone (except the tenant that wouldn't play by the rules). 

Shaw has had ongoing problems with the MOOD Lounge at 1318 9th Street, NW. Currently, there are five pending violations, with the next Show Cause hearing in early December (from a spring 2011 complaint). In an understandable knee-jerk reaction to the incredibly slow process with getting these complaints dealt with, many neighbors now plan to protest any new ABRA establishment in the area on 9th Street, as avoiding a license in the first place seems to be the only efficient way to keep problems from happening, since they take so long to deal with once they occur. 

For the record, if you have a problem with a nearby ABRA establishment, call the ABRA hotline (202-329-6347) and report it and ask an inspector to come out. 


  1. Ask anyone on Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2F, and they will tell you that MOOD Lounge has been the worst of the bad liquor-license actors in the entire history of our service on the commission.

    The license transferred to MOOD in January 2011, and only weeks later, the complaints began pouring in, the worst of which being noise violations. You would know that MOOD had a CT (tavern) license, because it is operating--illegally--as a CN (nightclub).

    Other issues include drunken and disorderly conduct and loitering long after closing hours, fights and assaults, public urination and vomiting, and even one reported case of sexual intercourse on the hood of a car. These incidents happen again and again and again, and the management routinely disregards and fails to respond to the entreaties of nearby residents who lose untold hours of sleep.

    The ANC has tried for months to get the city to sit up and take notice, but it has been incredibly frustrating, and the processes and bureaucracy that are put in place make it far too difficult to deal with even such a blatant scofflaw. One would think that after even a fraction of these kinds of instances that some sort of summary action could be taken against the licensee.

    The ANC has been working with Councilmember Jack Evans, the MPD, ABRA and DCRA to address this. Thankfully, it is now squarely on the radar of those such as the ABRA director and MPD Chief Lanier. But it should not have taken this long.

    I have long contended that the situation is unacceptable and out of control and, as the post above indicates, it is a matter of when, not if, a killing occurs that is tied to the activities in and around MOOD. Shaw and Logan Circle have made far too much forward progress in the last several years to allow our neighborhoods to slip back down the slope again.

    That being said, blanket opposition to all future licensees won't be a helpful or, frankly, a successful approach. As a matter of course, ANC 2F will "protest" new liquor licenses. I don't like the term "protest" because it implies an adversarial relationship between the licensee and the community from the outset. But a protest is the only way the ANC or neighbors can have standing to ensure a licensee operates in a way that's compatible with nearby residences. (As a rule, we tend not to protest licenses in the downtown business district, unless there are extenuating circumstances such as an operator with a poor track record.)

    Protests and voluntary agreements (another term that I dislike, in that the hurdle for a licensee becomes much higher if they don't take this "voluntary" action) allow us to balance the needs of businesses and residents. But without them, we cede any input that we might have to the ABC Board, which unfortunately sometimes without enough regard for or knowledge of the needs of the community.

    Protests should be undergirded by the law, ABRA regulations, logic and a solid basis for the terms sought in a VA. That doesn't mean we shouldn't seek additional safeguards, such as new laws that make it easier to deal with bad actors. But if protests are arbitrary or seen as based upon whims, the ABC Board will begin to tune us out, and the problem might actually get worse--the law of unintended consequences, if you will.

    --Matt Raymond
    Commissioner, ANC 2F-04

  2. There are two programs that were originated by the Responsible Hospitality Institute based out of CA, that a wide range of groups have been attempting to get established in DC for nearly a decade. They are:

    1. Hospitality Business Orientation
    2. Early Assistance Team

    The first would have assisted businesses like Shaw's Tavern, by educating and assisting them in the process and responsibilities of opening and ABC licensed establishment in DC. I have seen dozens of businesses struggle to get open, draining their funding, which then results in shortcuts right before opening.

    The second is designed to isolate bad operators from the good, by recognizing all the warning signs that were clearly evident here, to pair venues with peers and regulators to identify and address the failures in their operations pro-actively.

    Unfortunately, Councilmember Graham, who has had oversight of ABRA for nearly a decade, continues to see his pet program, "re-imbursable details", as the universal solution. He continues to dedicate the limited ABRA funds that could support these pro-active programs to pay for overtime police.

    Yes, re-imbursable details are part of the tool kit, but the Jan 2007 case of Smarta Broadway on 9th Street, where Talisha Ford was killed despite a re-imbursable detail being in place, clearly illustrated that these programs were needed, but half a decade later, Graham is still focused on just one approach.

  3. The problems created in the neighborhood by the MOOD Lounge are well documented. City citizens who deserve better are suffering greatly (medically through sleep deprivation illnesses and through property damage etc.). The reputations of those whose responsibility it is to work "for the people" have become tarnished.

    I really appreciate the gravitas and thoughtfulness of both previous comments. The idea of agencies working with owners to sort out the good from the bad and the well-intentioned from the self-interested is powerful. It's a shame to see potentially "neighborhood friendly" businesses like Shaw's Tavern closed by a preventable and potentially remedial problem. One would assume that there was a lost opportunity there for negotiation or mediation.

    The MOOD Lounge will long serve as a "worst case example" of what must to be prevented in the future along the 9th Street corridor as it struggles to form its own identity through new businesses and new residents.

    It has become very clear that those who are in a position to effect positive change in this besieged neighborhood are squandering many great and obvious opportunities to not only shine as citizen advocates but also to simply do the job for which they are being paid.

  4. From real property assessment datebase DC:

    Address: 1318 9TH ST NW
    SSL: 0367 0058
    Record Details
    Neighborhood: OLD CITY II Sub-Neighborhood: C
    Use Code: 45 - Store-Restaurant Class 3 Exception: No
    Tax Type: TX - Taxable Tax Class: 002 - Commercial
    Homestead Status: ** Not receiving the Homestead Deduction
    Assessor: SEAN BAKER
    Gross Building Area: Ward: 2
    Land Area: 3,120 Triennial Group: 2
    Owner and Sales Information
    Owner Name: 1318 9TH STREET LLC
    Mailing Address: 1318 9TH ST NW; WASHINGTON DC20001-4208
    Sale Price: $1,450,000
    Recordation Date: 12/29/2005
    Instrument No.: 185788
    Tax Year 2012 Preliminary Assessment Roll
    Current Value (2011) Proposed New Value (2012)
    Land: $780,000 $780,000
    Improvements: $1,231,180 $1,314,150
    Total Value: $2,011,180 $2,094,150
    Taxable Assessment: * $2,011,180 $2,094,150

    As I recall when this was for lease after EFN Lounge closed the rent was $15,000/mo + Triple Net. That's a lot of money. has some information on a foreclosure that didn't happen, and a video of the street festivities.