Restaurants and the Community – the Bad, the Good, and the Recalcitrant
Being Well Connected Can Help You Get Away With It
by Larry Janezich
When & Pizza opened up last month, it set the standard for best operating practices for restaurants on Barracks Row, and perhaps in the city. As Barracks Row became a dining destination and the number of restaurants and patrons increased, nearby neighbors whose homes back up to the restaurants experienced increasingly noisome quality of life issues and took their complaints about rodents, trash, noise and odors to ANC6B.
ANCs have limited authority – city agencies are required to give their opinions “great weight.” But, with the leadership of the ANC6B Alcohol Beverage Committee chaired by Commissioner Chander Jayaraman, the full ANC began requiring best operating practices as a condition for those receiving a new liquor license in ANC6B. Those requirements are spelled out in a Settlement Agreement between the restaurant and the ANC, acting on behalf of the community. For existing restaurants whose only oversight comes from a sometimes indifferent set of agency inspectors, the ANC used the every-three-year license renewal to encourage adoption of better practices through updated Settlement Agreements.
The new restaurants have accepted the increased costs of best practices as part of the already high cost of doing business on Barracks Row, where some rents in dollars per square foot are among the highest in the city. However, other, restaurants with existing licenses have resisted upgrading the rodent, trash, odor, and noise controls in their Settlement Agreements. Some have lawyered-up to fight the ANC and the neighbor’s efforts.
Take the Spike Mendelsohn’s three restaurants in the 300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, for example.
The Mendelsohns have been at odds with their adjoining neighbors for more than four years over poor trash management and rodent abatement practices. See here: http://bit.ly/1SVuqMU The restaurants have alternately been deaf to complaints – including those backed by ANC Commissioners – and making half-hearted attempts to address the issues. Jayaraman says that the terms of the existing Settlement Agreement with the three restaurants are so lax, that any interpretation allows the establishments to be in compliance. When the liquor license came up for renewal in September, ANC6B voted to protest the renewal of the license in an attempt to pressure Mendelsohn to agree to tougher standards.
Mendelsohn hired attorney Andrew Kline, whose practice includes liquor license renewals, to fight the ANC’s protest. The Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) – which often gives restaurants the benefit of the doubt in disputes with neighbors or the ANC – held a hearing on the matter on October 19.
Attorney Andrew Kline argued that the liquor license has nothing to do with rats or trash and that the ANC is exceeding its authority by linking them to the license. (Jayaraman has stated that he believes operating practices are intimately tied to the serving of alcohol and the issues of rodents, noise, odors and trash are directly related to the number of patrons drawn to these restaurants.)
The ABRA investigator, Earl Jones, Jr., submitted a report of his 15 site visits between June and September. In sum he found no ABRA violations but he did note the presence of rodents on the visits made after dark. Jones stated he was impressed with the cleanliness of the alley, especially compared to some other sites he’d seen. Jayaraman says that the restaurants, having been given a heads up by the inspector that an inspection would occur the following day, took extra care to clean up prior to the visit. (In February, 2015, Mayor Bowser appointed Spike Mendelsohn to Chair the District’s newly created Food Policy Council.)
Jayaraman made the case that the Mendelsohns had not taken adequate measures to address on-going trash management issues and related rodent infestation in and around the rear alley of these three establishments. He questioned the ABRA investigator’s report since so many neighbors and he, himself, had recorded violations of order, defined as good trash management. He urged the ABRA inspector’s report be rejected stating that there is no evidence that the Mendelsohns were living up to their verbal commitment to twice-a-day trash pickups and power washing their trash storage area twice a day.
Jayaraman asked ABRA to attach specific conditions to the license renewal: either 1) limit the hours of operation and sales until the applicant can demonstrate effective trash management practices, or 2) require the applicants to take specific measures to address the trash management issues. ABRA has 60 days to render a decision.
So much for the bad.
On the other hand, take &pizza at on Barracks Row. Restaurateur Michael Lastoria is credited by neighbors for the “best practices that are needed if DC is to ensure healthy, pleasant mixed-used neighborhoods as it continues on its apparent trajectory to becoming a restaurant destination.”
After a rocky start, (See here: http://bit.ly/1S0XANC) Lastoria pulled out all the stops to make his place the gold standard on Barracks Row: a completely sealed, air conditioned, indoor trash storage room containing a trash compactor for recycling, a power washer in the trash room with an exterior hook up for outside power washing, a drain in the trash room floor for interior washing – a pollution control unit to eliminate rodent attracting odors with filters for grease and food particulate and vents to 8th Street.
Now for the recalcitrant. ANC6B seems committed to continue pressuring restaurants regarding the quality of life for neighbors, but are getting some push-back. At last week’s ABC committee meeting, the committee heard that rather than moving ahead to address neighbors’ complaints, some restaurants on Barracks Row and Pennsylvania Avenue are resisting adoption of better practices. Restaurants feeling pressure to clean up their act include Cava, Indo-Pakistani Grill, Ambar, The Brig, and Hank’s on the Hill. At Tuesday night’s monthly meeting, the full ANC6B voted to protest Cava’s license renewal because the restaurant had failed to appear before the ANC in support of its renewal application and had failed to return numerous calls by the ANC commissioner in whose district the restaurant resides.
There will be some readers who will suggest that community activists supporting higher standards stop complaining – that they live in the city and they bought a house backing up on a commercial corridor. But that presumes an engaged city government that efficiently and impartially administers regulations. We have one that does neither.