Dueling Letters to Neighbors Highlight Public Relations Battle Prior to ABRA Status Hearing on Hill Center

Hill Center

Dueling Letters to Neighbors Highlight Public Relations Battle Prior to ABRA Status Hearing on Hill Center

by Larry Janezich

In an effort to shore up community relations, Nicky Cymrot, President of the Hill Center Foundation, sent a letter to immediate neighbors of the newly refurbished Hill Center.  In it, Cymrot made note of the efforts on the part of the Center to establish good relations with surrounding residents and explained that the later hours on the Voluntary Agreement already approved by ANC 6B allowed the Center to clean-up after events.

Organizers of the 156 individuals who signed the petition protesting the liquor license to ABRA cited that the ANC agreement made additional allowances for clean-up beyond the closing hours cited by Cymrot in her letter.  They continued to insist that the Hill Center sign a license that conformed to the liquor-service hours described on the Hill Center’s website.

Both letters are copied below.  A comparison of ending hours for Hill Center as stated in the Center’s alcohol license application, ANC Voluntary Agreement, Hill Center Website, and the neighbors request was published previously by emmcablog, on July 29.

Neighborhood protestors have also recently called on residents to not patronize or volunteer for the Hill Center and ask friends and neighbors not to patronize it until the Hill Center negotiates a new voluntary agreement with its neighbors.  At least one resident has asked for her donation to the Center to be returned.  Both parties are scheduled to meet for a status hearing on August 10; if the dispute has not been successfully mediated, then a protest hearing is scheduled for October 5th.  Without a resolution, no liquor license can be issued in the interim.

August 3, 2011

Dear Neighbors:

As you know, Hill Center is scheduled to open this fall. This is an exciting time. Years of hard work and dedication by many neighborhood volunteers has turned a derelict and neglected old building into a beautifully restored asset for the entire community.

Some of you have expressed concern about the operation of Hill Center and the impact it might have on your neighborhood. From the very first proposal to the city outlining the idea of Hill

Center some nine years ago, we have kept the interests of our immediate neighbors in mind. Like you, we are residents of Capitol Hill and value, just as you do, the quality of life we enjoy in our neighborhoods. With construction nearly completed, we are looking forward to opening Hill Center and remain fully committed to being good neighbors and conducting our operations accordingly.

We are listening to the concerns of neighbors and take them seriously. Please know that we are addressing these concerns whenever possible, and that we pledge to maintain an ongoing dialogue and an open-door policy to deal with matters as they arise:

• When our application to the Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) for a license came before the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), we addressed concerns you raised about operating hours, shortened them, considerably in some instances, and crafted a Voluntary Agreement (VA) that was approved unanimously by the ANC.

• We convened the first of a series of ‘community listening sessions’ with Diana Ingraham, Hill Center’s Executive Director, who has pledged to be available to neighbors. We will continue those sessions.

• After a group of neighbors filed a protest against Hill Center’s liquor license, we joined their representatives at the mediation table to discuss changes they wanted to the VA. The mediator told the neighborhood group that most of the items they were requesting were not issues that could be included in the agreement—that ABRA had no jurisdiction over them.

We at Hill Center, however, will do our best to take into consideration those concerns as we develop our operational procedures.

There remains a point of confusion about Hill Center’s hours of operation. Our intention is to limit the hours of programs and gatherings inside the building to 11 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday, and midnight on Friday and Saturday. Since these hours do not include time for clean up, the hours on the ANC Voluntary Agreement extend the operating hours to allow us to do so. The use of the garden for scheduled gatherings will be limited to 9 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday and 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. We will also thoroughly screen all caterers and use only those who maintain the sensitivity to our neighbors that we will demand. Hill Center staff will be on hand at all times to enforce these requirements.

At this point, Hill Center has almost completed the full rehabilitation of the historic Old Naval Hospital, and we hope you will agree that the result is very beautiful. We want our neighbors to be among the first to take advantage of the exciting educational, cultural, and civic programs that Hill Center has to offer. We ask that you give us the benefit of the doubt and extend your good will as we all begin this new time. We will continue to do all we can to make sure that Hill Center remains an asset to the neighborhood and to the community.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us at info@hillcenterdc.org.

Thank you,

Nicky Cymrot, President

Old Naval Hospital Foundation

August 3, 2011

Response from Representatives of the Group of 156 Near Neighbors to the Letter from Ms. Cymrot on behalf of the Hill Center

The Hill Center’s letter from Ms Cymrot to neighbors dated August 3, 2011, states that there is “confusion about Hill Center’s hours of operation” and that their “intention is to limit the hours of programs and gatherings inside the building to 11 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday, and midnight on Friday and Saturday”.

If this statement is true, then why does the Hill Center (continue to) insist on continuing to hold to the ANC6B official licensing agreement showing alcohol service inside the building as late as 1 am Sunday through Thursday and 2 AM Friday and Saturday?  The ANC6B Voluntary Agreement also has Hours of Operation (clean up, etc.) listed as going on until 2 AM on weekdays and 3 AM on weekends.

If the Hill Center is not going to serve alcohol after 11 PM, why refuse to agree to do exactly that and to make the public commitment to place these restrictions on their license? Instead, neighbors are asked to “trust” them and told that “they are our neighbors too”.  (None of the board members, however, live in the nearby neighborhood.) Meanwhile, the Hill Center’s attorney, Paul Pascal, is telling the neighbors that the Hill Center will under no circumstances enter into an agreement with anyone (other than the ANC) about anything.

If there is any “confusion” about the hours of operation, that confusion is attributable to the Hill Center’s refusal to even discuss the numbers of visitors and closing hours with designated representatives for a group of 156 neighbors who signed petitions protesting the license. Those neighbors’ representatives are not confused about what is meant by closing at 1 AM and 2 AM. Those hours are not the same as 11 PM. The Hill Center rejected making the 11 PM closing official without allowing for any discussion or negotiation.  Those are the facts.

The concerned neighbors are almost 100 percent supportive of the Hill Center and its mission. However, the Hill Center’s initial demand that they stay open for alcohol service until 3 AM came as a shock and disappointment to many neighbors, and especially to those who had been supportive in the past. The change negotiated by ANC 6B to reduce alcohol service closing time by one hour to 1 AM Sunday through Thursday and 2 AM Friday and Saturday was considered, by the 156 neighborhood petitioners directly affected by a late night operation, to be inadequate. An agreement with those neighbors that specifies 11 PM closing hours would dispel any “confusion” that exists and restore some level of the good will toward the Hill Center.

Pope Barrow

Barbara Eck

Jill I. Lawrence


Filed under Uncategorized

12 responses to “Dueling Letters to Neighbors Highlight Public Relations Battle Prior to ABRA Status Hearing on Hill Center

  1. akim

    Hear, hear neighbors! Incidentally, I live within spitting distance of the Hill Center and received no letter from Cymrot.

  2. is it true?

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t most full-service caterers in DC hold full-service liquor licenses? It’s my understanding that this means if you use one of these caterers, even at a property that has no liquor license at all, they are subject to basic DC liquor license laws, which include the 2am closing time on weekdays and 3am on weekends, with no restrictions at all about valet parking, noise, security details, indoor vs. outdoor, etc., and require zero public input for a one-day use of said license.

    If that’s the case, and I were an immediate neighbor of such a property, I’d be THRILLED to have a VA that restricts those things at all with an owner that insists users abide by said VA in order to hold events in that space. It would seem the path of far less resistance by the Hill Center would be to allow people who rent the space to use a caterer with such an unrestricted license with whatever reckless abandon they may choose to or simply not serve alcohol at all. Either way, there is no fight, no legal bills, and you still make plenty of cash renting the space (who doesn’t cater an event they rent a hall for, anyway??) and you can rent to anyone, for any reason, 24 hours a day if you like, using the caterer’s license as collateral that they stop serving at the same time as any nightclub with no personal responsibility to enforce it.

    The neighbors here seem to want to put up a battle that, if this catering liquor license issue is in fact true, will be FAR more damaging to lose than to win. “Winning” here is convincing the Hill Center this fight isn’t worth it and they can probably make more with no restrictions on a caterer’s license. “Losing” really means you “win” if the VA says that it supercedes any caterers license. Isn’t it better for everyone to come off their high horse here and agree on something rational that while nobody likes, everyone can live with? After all, if noise, public urination, boisterous behavior, etc is really a problem, call the police. Nobody books a wedding or a party somewhere that the online reviews said a handful of guests (or worse the bride and groom) got carted off in a paddy-wagon….

  3. Jasmina

    I shall continue to boycott restaurants on 8th Street including the Center in a future.
    My sympathies to the neighbors. I know already how it is to fight for parking space (no parking police around), and being waken up at 3am by drunk patrons of Lola, Box etc…

  4. Michele

    I live one block from the Hill Center and did not receive the Cymrot letter – it appears that the Center does not know or understand liquor license policies and is clearly off to a bad start when it comes to community relations

  5. I read an update on the Center’s site which stated that there would be an opening this summer. What happened? Will this place open at all?

  6. Hillwoman

    “Is it true?” has it all wrong. Caterers, even those with liquor licenses, cannot operate past the hours designated for the facility itself. Nor can the facility refuse to abide by the regular parking, noise control, and public space limitations, even if there is no voluntary agreement.
    Voluntary agreements are intended to deal with problems that can be anticipated ahead of time, and avoid the necessity of involving the police when the facility does not properly control the effects on the public that result from its profitable rentals. Liquor licenses can be lost altogether when establishments are visited too often by the police. That is what is at stake for the Hill Center, and why it needs to take a more reasonable position when dealing with the neighborhood.

  7. jbkim

    I have a question for Nicky Cymrot as well as the full board of the Hill Center Foundation, to helop me understand your reasoning and logic about the descrepancy bet5ween the “advertised” hours on the Hill Center web site and the “official” hours written in the ABRA application. In Cymrot’s letter, she writes, ” Since these hours do not include time for clean up, the hours on the ANC Voluntary Agreement extend the operating hours to allow us to do so. The use of the garden for scheduled gatherings will be limited to 9 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday and 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. ”

    Let me apply this logic to another domain, say taking out a loan or a mortgage. When you have one set of open and closing times on the official paperwork and another set of open and closing times on the web site and yet another set of open and closing times in the Voluntary Agreement with the ANC6B—- this is the same as:
    The finance or mortgage company (verbally) saying the loan is at 5%, their web site saying your loan will be at 3 %, and the official loan or mortgage papers the mortgage company is asking you to sign, says the interest rate is at 10% (because in the event you are late in making a payment, the interest is at 10%.

    Question: Will you/do you sign official mortgage papers for an interest rateof 10% when the finance company verbally tells you they plan to give you an interest rate of 5%, despite the fact that they advertised 3% on their web site?
    As you know the official signed documents are the only legally enforceable terms of the contract.

  8. Megan

    The Hill Center is going to be a wonderful addition to our community. I am baffled why a few people are looking for problems that are unlikely to occur. What is the real motivation of these complainers? Consider the actual capacity of the place (not huge) and the money, time and attention that has gone into the restoration that turned an eyesore into a green gem. Are they really likely to rent it out to irresponsible boozers who will trash it and the neighborhood? Methinks some neighbors have been eating sour grapes for lunch. There is no issue here!

  9. Jasmina

    @Megan – Quote:”Are they really likely to rent it out to irresponsible boozers who will trash it and the neighborhood?”
    We can all wait for the first gun showdown and then?
    We’ve let developers and night clubs (because those are not restaurants or ‘tavernas’) owners invade this lovely neighborhood and we are going to end up as a new Adams Morgan.

  10. Megan

    If you were talking about casino owners from New Jersey you might have a point. But this project has been developed over the past 7 or so years entirely by Capitol Hill residents — your neighbors. They live here too!

  11. First a disclosure – I was so impressed with the Hill Center that my husband and I made a small donation for the fence. I live about eight blocks away, near the Capitol, so I am a distant neighbor. After nine years of patient, responsible and adult planning and outreach the Hill Center is nearly complete. The Center will give solidity to the neighborhood, not diminish it or lead to trashing a la Adams Morgan. We all should be celebrating the Center as part of the continued revival of the Hill and thanking Nicky for her hard work.