Strike Two

Effort to reopen Southeast DC clubs hits another snag

The ongoing saga that began roughly a year ago with the closing of D.C.’s gay nude-dancing — and drinking — venues in order to transform that section of the Southeast waterfront from an adult-oriented collection of nighttime haunts into a family-friendly tourist destination anchored by a Washington Nationals baseball stadium, took another turn April 19, as the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board voted 4-2 to deny transfer of the license from one of those venues to a new location at 2046 West Virginia Ave. NE.

The license in question, used by the gay Edge-Wet club in Southeast, was to be transferred to a new Northeast venue that would offer nude female dancers and cater to a straight clientele. Despite that distinction, the recent vote, which hinged on a zoning technicality, does not bode well for gay nude venues reopening.

”My reaction is that we’ve heard a lot of lip service from a lot of people for a long time about enabling a lot of these businesses to relocate,” says gay nightlife promoter Mark Lee. ”They have an extremely limited number of places where they can move.”

The zoning technicality, and the ABC Board’s interpretation, holds that a nude-dancing venue holding a liquor license for a particular sub-zone — CM-1, for example — may move only to a sub-zone of the same designation. Attorneys working for the Edge-Wet transfer argued that that distinction was irrational, and that licenses should be transferable within similarly marked zones, disregarding the sub-zone. That means a license in a CM-1 zone should be able to transfer to another CM zone, regardless of its additional sub-zoning.

In short, it’s the difference between a license having a very limited number of possible relocation sites, versus having an extremely limited number of sites. Along with the zoning restriction, business owners are also subject to neighborhood protests of nude venues moving in, rules about where liquor-licenses can operate relative to schools and other public institutions, and other factors. All in all, it’s a bureaucratic quagmire that will likely require City Council action if any of these businesses are to reopen.

It’s a quagmire that has the ABC Board’s sympathy, despite the vote to deny transfer.

”The board, in its entirety, stated that it is sympathetic to the transfer of nightclub licenses held by the owners and businesses who have been displaced by … construction of the baseball stadium,” read the board’s release announcing the vote. It added that the Council, specifically Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) who chairs the committee that oversees the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, has been aware of this zoning limitation since June 6, 2006, when the ABC Board asked the Council to review existing regulations.

Graham says that he’s currently appraising the mood of other Council members in regard to related legislation he introduced in February: The One-Time Relocation of Licencees Displaced by the Ballpark Amendment Act of 2007. The bill, as written, would have allowed the ABC Board to approve the Edge-Wet transfer.

”I have legislation I’m prepared to move,” Graham says of the bill, which is sitting in his Committee on Public Works and the Environment. ”We have to do an appraisal of just what kind of support there is. And, I have to be candid, there are some obstacles.”

Lee, for one, seems to believe the ”obstacles” are primarily lack of leadership: ”We’ll find out if Councilmember Graham, his colleagues, the mayor, are going to be true to their word. Every day that goes by, the opportunity for success for these businesses diminishes. … I think what people are afraid of is despite all the lip service, by their actions it looks like they’re more interested in having these licenses disappear de facto, by default.”

Graham and Lee seem to agree, however, that no matter what happens, these displaced businesses deserve better than what they have gotten so far. Says Graham: ”They were put out of their location. They were perfectly happy where they were located. Their customers were happy. They definitely have a case to be made. The question is whether we have the votes or not.”

But don’t expect action in the immediate future, says Graham, as the Council is currently working on budget issues.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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