Barracks Row Restaurateur and Retailers Oppose Moratorium
by Larry Janezich and Anna Riehle
At last night’s ANC’s Retail Mix Taskforce Hearing on improving the Barracks Row retail mix, Eastern Market corridor business operators stated their opposition to a liquor license moratorium.
The Taskforce began functioning in the tense atmosphere created by ANC6b’s institution of what some call a de facto liquor license moratorium for Barracks Row. The issue, though not on the table for the Taskforce, is one that continues to come before them, since proponents of the moratorium promote that issue as a remedy for the decline of mixed retail on the street. Moratorium supporters heard little to confirm that view last night.
The Taskforce heard first from Xavier Cevera, owner of Molly Malone’s, Lola’s, and the Chesapeake Room He also plans on opening a new restaurant – Pacificos – in the space now occupied by Capital Video
Cervera told the Taskforce that support for a moratorium comes from residents adjacent to Barracks Row. Though some restaurateurs on Barracks Row want a moratorium, not all do. It can, he said, be a stigma even for retail wanting to come in. Restaurants which opened most recently are doing well because they put enough money into their structure. Some older restaurants which don’t have money to renovate and haven’t kept up with food quality are struggling.
He faulted the ANC for being caught in a moratorium dilemma of its own making by rationalizing that since they opposed one license, they have to oppose all, and that leads to losing good people.
One of the issues driving the moratorium is the impact of parking on residential streets. Spaces in the under-the freeway-parking lot are underutilized, partly because people don’t feel safe. Four restaurants on the street support valet parking, and that has helped restaurants and could help retail.
Cervera soft-pedaled the idea that modified voluntary operating agreements could solve the concerns of residents, noting that people going to their cars late at night will be loud. There will be additional foot traffic, rodents, and noise – this is a commercial corridor. He said that there is not really a boiler plate voluntary agreement that will solve all the problems.
Few ideas emerged about the kind of retail which would thrive on the street, although a bakery, a cupcake shop, and a hardware store were mentioned. Cervera noted that neither the buildings nor their facades on Barracks Row were made for retailers. Many existing storefronts were originally houses and it costs a lot of money to renovate buildings not built for commercial. Establishing an enterprise zone and tax breaks would help, as would giving landlords money towards modifying facades.
The Taskforce then heard from two retailers operating on the corridor, Kathleen Clayton, Labyrinth Games (on Pennsylvania Avenue) and Manuel Cortez, Groovy DC (on 8th Street).
Cortez said that a liquor license moratorium would be contrary to progress and that more retail was unlikely to happen until landlords receive some incentive or tax credit for renting to retail. Landlords are hoping for a restaurant and that’s why rents have gone up so much. Retail won’t open until it can afford to. He said he would like to see some sort of business loan made available to retail.
Problems for retail include a lack of promotion of the corridor as a destination, the kind of foot traffic Barracks Row attracts, trash on the street, too many homeless people, and the Metro bus stop. There is foot traffic, but bar and restaurant patrons or those who come to Marine Barracks events are often on their way somewhere else or don’t want to carry a bag. It doesn’t help staying open later.
Ms. Clayton, who recently opened a retail store on Pennsylvania, noted that she found a cool reception on Barracks Row when she inquired about opening there. “No one would talk to me.…” She opened on Pennsylvania Avenue and is “paying outrageous rent” and would love a tax incentive. She also urged greater cooperation among both businesses and business organizations, noting the only Capitol Hill business organization that showed any interest in her endeavor was CHAMPS.
She had no trouble finding financing for her business and noted that the Washington Investment Fund helps businesses find money. She agreed with Cortez that lack of promotion is a problem. She doesn’t think there should be a moratorium.
Changes conducive to retail include tax incentives, more signs, more Barracks Row events, Second Saturdays, and a parking garage. One of her concerns is groups of unruly teenagers who have committed acts of petty vandalism in her store.
A third Taskforce hearing on January 17 will feature landlords, realtors, and representatives of business groups. The invitation list for this hearing is not yet complete. The meeting will be held at Brent Elementary School, from 6:30pm to 8:00pm.