BY ROSE CREASMAN WELCOME
What started as a plan from a local watering hole to add a rooftop deck has turned into a polarizing debate among neighbors over urban living, neighborly conduct and the authority of local governing bodies.
In February, Takoma Station Tavern, located at 6916 4th St. NW in Takoma D.C., announced plans to add a rooftop bar that would hold 30 patrons. The tavern’s liquor license was up for its regular three-year renewal, and longtime owners David Boyd and Melvin Floreza saw an opportunity to expand their business with a rooftop deck set back from 4th Street.
But when the owners went to discuss their plans with local ANC chair Ron Austin and commissioner Faith Wheeler, a months-long and still-ongoing dispute – including an active protest by the swiftly-formed Takoma Triangle Community Association – over “reasonable” changes to the tavern’s plans began.
Neighbors say there have been noise issues from the bar off and on over the years, but some think the business has tightened up its act in recent years by adding a bouncer and monitoring noise decibels.
Wheeler, whose 4B02 neighborhood includes the Tavern, says residents have complained about noise, public drunkenness and other late-night annoyances for years, though she agrees that things have improved recently. She thinks the outdoor bar should close down by 10 p.m. on weekdays and nix any plans for TVs or music, amplified or not.
Photo by Bill Brown.
David Butler, attorney for the Takoma Station Tavern and its owners, says the owners are within their rights to plan an open-air bar area that operates until 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 2 a.m. on the weekends. Those hours are still being negotiated, and the owners are trying to be sensitive to residents’ concerns throughout the process, he says.
In more than 30 years of business, Butler adds, this is the first time the tavern has received a formal protest to its application for a liquor license renewal.
Among those in favor of the tavern’s expansion is ANC chair Austin, a powerful ally who helped move through a settlement agreement in June that resolved some concerns between the ANC and Takoma Station Tavern. But Wheeler argues that the agreement, which Austin drafted, doesn’t go far enough in addressing her residents’ concerns.
Photo by Bill Brown.
“The rooftop is a good idea, but an idea is one thing,” said Wheeler, who held three neighborhood meetings this spring to allow residents of 4B02 to discuss the rooftop deck’s potential impact and voice any concerns to the tavern’s owners. “I supported the idea only if it was not bothering the neighbors. That was my condition from the beginning.”
ANCs can’t prevent a business from doing something, Austin points out, but they hold significant influence in the process: The Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration, or ABRA, must by law respond to the recommendations and testimonies of an ANC in reviewing businesses’ applications.
It must also take into account the formal protest of a community association.
Alleyway behind Takoma Station is opposite a mixed residential/office area. Photo by Bill Brown.
Enter Dodie Butler, a 27-year Takoma resident who lives directly behind the tavern and is also dissatisfied with the ANC’s settlement agreement.
“The one way for people who opposed the license to have a say was to form a community association,” Dodie Butler said.
So the day after ANC4B approved Austin’s settlement agreement, she moved to form the Takoma Triangle Community Association – a group of residents representing the triangle of blocks around the Takoma business district, and the tavern – and protest the rooftop bar separately.
That move angered Austin, who saw the organization as challenging the ANC’s authority and wrote a letter to ABRA in July denouncing the group as “illegitimate.”
Sign posted outside Takoma Station. Photo by Bill Brown.
“I thought it was kind of disrespectful, that they were trying to circumvent the process,” Austin said. “If Takoma Station Tavern gets out of line, and we can tie that back to the person who runs the place, I’ll be the first one in line to hold them accountable. But let the system that was designed to handle this run the way it’s designed to run, and let the ball fall where it does.”
Dodie Butler says her only crime was to read ABRA’s regulations: In order to have recognized standing in a protest, you must be an ANC, or a community association, or a group of at least five residents, she said. And when she realized that the ANC’s power trumped that of a group of residents, she formed Takoma Triangle.
The next step is the process is a status hearing on Sept. 10, followed by a protest meeting in October, says Dodie Butler.
Wheeler sees the conflict as hyperlocal, and one that directly affects her neighborhood’s residents, who aren’t happy with the changes outlined in Austin’s settlement agreement.
“Basically, the chair is usurping a very local discussion concerning the needs of the community,” she said.
Takoma Station Tavern’s neighbors appear just as sharply divided as their elected leaders on the matter.
David Hamilton, a native Washingtonian and retired urban designer, has been living at the corner of Aspen Street and 5th for nearly 50 years. He says that there’s been “an ebb and flow” of noise and smoke issues from the tavern, but not enough for him to oppose the idea of an outdoor bar.
“I would say every eight to 10 years there’s been a noise problem, but I view that as living in an urban environment,” Hamilton said. He thinks the tavern’s new rooftop deck will help continue the synergy he sees flowing from the Takoma metro station to nearby businesses. Washington is going through a metamorphosis right now, he says, and it makes sense that the owners are trying to keep up.
Photo by Bill Brown.
“Telling them to shut down at 10 p.m. just makes no sense when you look at other businesses throughout the city,” Hamilton said. “The whole push in Washington right now is for establishments that are open later.”
The owners’ attorney echoes that sentiment, saying Boyd and Floreza are simply trying to stay competitive – and have received lots of positive feedback from locals who look forward to a rooftop bar.
“The city is changing, business is changing, and rooftops have proven to be a popular amenity for similar venues,” David Butler said. The owners have given out their cell phone numbers to residents, he added, inviting them to call if there are any problems.
But not everyone can agree on whether the owners have sufficiently addressed residents’ concerns over the years. Charles Gorham moved into the Cedar Crossing condo complex three years ago, and says his fellow condo residents have regularly had problems with noise from the tavern. He says he’s called the owners on multiple occasions, but either his calls weren’t returned or the noise level wouldn’t change.
Condo development nearby. Photo by Bill Brown.
“I’m not opposed to rooftop bars in general, but the way this has played out shows the ANC and the tavern owners don’t care about the residents,” said Gorham, who chairs his condo’s homeowners’ association.
For Wheeler and Butler, it all comes down to hours of operation, and whether those are compatible with the tavern’s proximity to peoples’ bedrooms.
“This is not fun and games,” Wheeler said. “These [residents] don’t work digging ditches. They work in responsible and sometimes quite high-level jobs. You need a good night’s sleep. The idea that that’s not important is completely unacceptable.”