Debate Heats Up

Lines being drawn in relocation battle of DC nightclubs

For those who could not make it to the May 16 town-hall meeting called by Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), at Bethesda Baptist Church on Capitol Avenue NE, to discuss the Councilmember Jim Graham’s (D-Ward 1) one-time relocation bill for the liquor-licensed businesses displaced by the city’s upcoming baseball stadium, there is still plenty of discussion to be found online.

For example, on the blog ”frozen tropics,” which focuses on Trinidad and other Northeast neighborhoods, the posts are flying.

Types ”Rob”: ”If there really is demand for these businesses, someone will pay NW D.C. rent to open one up. It’s down to whose bidding the politicians will do — that of the strip joints’ owners because of some promise that was made, or that of the citizens.”

Or from ”anonymous”: ”I’d be happy to have one of these clubs on my block. I used to frequent these places before they were rudely booted from Southeast (at the city’s bidding).”

Even the Washington Times has jumped into the fray with a May 22 editorial blasting the possibility that a gateway into the district — the New York Avenue NE corridor — may become a ”red-light district of nude bars,” warning that development in Ward 5, actual or potential, ”would be jeopardized by the importation of nudie bars, hookers, drug dealers and other purveyors of trash and worse.”

That editorial was a central topic at the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA) meeting later Tuesday. The group is planning to submit a rebuttal before the end of the week. The GLAA and the Gertrude Stein Democrats, the city’s GLBT Democratic group, are both backing Graham’s relocation bill, which would lift a sub-zone technicality that makes it difficult — if not impossible, by one interpretation of existing law — for the affected clubs such as Heat and Secrets/Ziegfeld’s to relocate anywhere in the District.

Complicating things is the notion that five such clubs have all set their sights, roughly, on spots that surround the triangle created by New York Avenue, Montana Avenue and Bladensburg Road Northeast. Some have accused Graham of orchestrating the placement of all clubs in Ward 5. Others have worried that adding all the clubs to Ward 5 will threaten development, like Arbor Place, a proposed Abdo Development/Broadway mixed-use ”urban village.” Jim Abdo, out of town this week, was unable to discuss the issue, but did confirm by e-mail that his company is keeping an eye on this debate. As for the Ward 5 locations in mind, Graham has pointed out repeatedly that nothing in his legislation favors any part of the city for these venues.

Kathy Henderson, a Ward 5 resident since 1998 and a former ANC commissioner from that ward, isn’t buying that. ”I’m really disappointed in Councilmember Graham,” Henderson, who raised similar points at the May 16 meeting, tells Metro Weekly. ”Every time there’s a problem in a Ward 1 club, he moves to close them down. … This isn’t an LGBT or homosexual issue at all. It’s an adult-themed issued, and we don’t want [adult clubs] at all, regardless of their patrons.”

Henderson says the clubs ”drained police resources” when in Southeast, and would be ”crime magnets” in Ward 5.

Skip Coburn, who also attended the May 16 meeting, says Henderson’s claims are faulty. Coburn, a Shaw resident, is the chair of the First District’s Advisory Council, a civilian entity that works with D.C. Police. Before they were closed, the clubs in question operated in the First District.

”Most people came, parked and went into the clubs,” he remembers. ”Sometimes somebody got into a fight or there was a [car broken into], but I never viewed it as crime-infested. I would not characterize those clubs as bringing crime into the neighborhood.”

Coburn says the he’s sympathetic to residents, but the issue is one that highlights why the zoning system exists. ”There are people who don’t want jails or half-way houses either in their communities, but that’s why we have zoning regulations.”

Graham’s bill is scheduled for a first reading before the City Council June 5. The text of the bill, B17-0109, is available online on the Council’s Web site, www.dccouncil.washington.dc.us.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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