Thursday, July 29, 2010

Big Bear Cafe Mauled By Angry ANC Members

Every hipster's favorite independent coffee house seems to be tangled up in a web of bureaucratic tape as it attempts to expand its business; and nagging NIMBY'ers don't seem to be aiding their cause. The Bloomingdale-based Big Bear Cafe's recent attempts at getting a proper liquor license, along with its appeal to the local ANC for their support in such endeavors, have been heavily covered by local blogs. But for fans of Big Bear Cafe the news being reported hasn't exactly been peachy. Last week ANC 5C lettered a harshly worded official report voicing the commission's strong and unanimous opposition to Big Bear Cafe's liquor license application. The letter accused Big Bear of, among other things, "operating illegally" (without proper zoning documentation) since 2007. It seems these allegations were a bit sensationalist in nature, and generally inaccurate. Owner Stuart Davenport and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) confirmed that the premise has grandfathered permission to operate as a commercial entity, having existed as a zoning exception for over a century.

But as Davenport and Big Bear look to expand their operations, they've petitioned the Zoning Commission for a map adjustment that would grant their property C-2-A status (currently zoned as 4 - A residential), thereby allowing more leeway in the business's efforts to increase capacity numbers, to freely expand onto the sidewalks and public space, to hold musical events, poetry readings, and the like, and to sell beer and wine to customers. Zoning officials were not much more sympathetic than the rabble rousing ANC commissioners. On Monday Zoning agreed to set down a public hearing of the applicant's case, but did so with stonewalled faces, and seemingly obdurate concerns. One panel member expressed his reservations about what might happen if the potentially C-2-A-zoned property changes hands in the future. "Theoretically it could be torn down and rebuilt ten feet higher," he worried. "We've seen that happen, where a skinny apartment building is constructed in the midst of several row houses, and it just doesn't fit - it doesn't work." Board member May, proved he too had been watching the local blog forum drama unfold when he timidly said: “There are some legitimate concerns in the neighborhood about the use of this property. The existing use seems to be a very comfortable fit…but gee, a liquor license there, or a sidewalk cafe? I’m not sure.”

Foregoing the normal prerequisite ANC support, the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) heard Big Bear Cafe's request for a liquor license early on the morning of the 26th. If approved Big Bear would be able to please customers who might want a little whiskey in their coffee. Liquor could be served until 1AM outside and 2AM inside on Friday and Saturday. On weeknights, patrons could enjoy their cocktails until ten in the evening. No ruling on the case will be made for 60 to 90 days, as ABRA must allow time for a subsequent "status hearing" and potentially a "protest hearing" if complications and objections cannot be solved through party mediation. It seems that any chance of making it safely through the ABRA application process is heavily reliant on Big Bear's ability to quell the local ANC's fears of their neighborhood quickly deteriorating into the mass hysteria of a late night in Adams Morgan. The time frame also allows for the applicant to negotiate the zoning map amendment process prior to its reappearance before ABRA. Another Commission hearing has yet to be scheduled, and won't happen for at least another 40 days.

These melodramatic happenings don't just make for juicy blog content, they also have serious implications. One question that arises from the flames: how can such a popular business that has faithfully served the community for several years - in an area that has a dismally minuscule number of retail and restaurant options - be so angrily opposed by residents? Big Bear Cafe was even granted the Mayor's 2009 Environment Excellence award. Granted, that sounds like a meaningless certificate a third grade teacher would give to make sure all her students felt appreciated, but still! Another logical question is: why is the ANC bestowed the authority to raise such a hissy fit? It seems the large majority of the community is in support of the business's plans (600 signed a petition in support of the liquor license application), but the ANC has given a symbolic megaphone to a minority of elected curmudgeons in opposition. When an organizations only real power is to say no to things, it's apparent that they are more likely to conjure the zeitgeist of prohibition-era attitudes in order to play devil's advocate. How can residents expect property values to improve if amenities like restaurants, bars, and markets are not readily incorporated into the community? For awhile at least, patrons of Big Bear Cafe will have to settle for a caffeine induced buzz, or go elsewhere.

Washington D.C. Real Estate Development News


Anonymous said...

I realize this isn't exactly an "insightful" comment, since its more of the nitpicky variety, but the Big Bear filed the zoning map amendment petition with the DC Zoning Commission, who will decide it, not the BZA. They are different.

Brooks Butler Hays on Jul 29, 2010, 6:43:00 PM said...

you're right anon, i originally had it correct, seeing as i did sit through the whole live web video of the proceedings, but for some reason i thought a small case like this would be bza and not zc. fixed now.

Anonymous said...

interesting article but who is the ANC? Did I miss that?

Brooks Butler Hays on Jul 29, 2010, 9:49:00 PM said...

The ANC is the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, if you are extra bored and curious, read about them here...

Bloomie Res said...

Hear, hear. It should be noted that the ANC Commissioners who are opposed to the liquor license are all from outside of Bloomingdale. Those that represent the actual neighborhood supports it.

One of the more outspoken ANC members represents Fort Totten. Now someone please explain to me why a representative of Fort Totten should be able to have ANY say whether or not a coffee shop on First and R St NW (Nearly two miles away) should be able to sell liquor?

Most important fact in my mind: there is overwhelming support for this license and zoning change in the neighborhood (hundreds of residents), and only a couple dozen residents who are concerned. And a group of ANC commissioners who are playing politics, trying to make a name for themselves, etc.

And is BBC really going to be turned down a request to rezone because someone could add 10' to the structure? Has anyone looked across the street to the 1970s public housing buildings with the giant fence surrounding it? Is that more in the character with the neighborhood?

Anonymous said...

I think when you get down to the real root of the opposition, it is more about anti-gentrification than concerns over zoning, noise, etc. My neighborhood has one of the biggest critics to any potential development....Shiloh Baptist Church.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, this has been a race to the bottom between both the ANC and local bloggers.

It's kind of weird that Salatti, a nearby ANC, didn't attend given how contentious the meeting was going to be.

Also, w/ regards to non-local ANC comments, there are about half of the ANCS in 5c that are impacted by this. 5c01 (northern TC),5c02(Eckington), and 5c06 in addition to 5c03 (recused/Davenport) and 5c04 (absent/Salatti)

I think more the lesson to be learned regarding liquor licenses:
1. DO NOT have prior involvement in local politics. (too many enemies)
2. Make sure your permitting/application is 100% bullet proof.
3. Pissing contest the internet goes nowhere

Anonymous said...

Wow, the building could be torn down and a new one could go up that is a whole 10 FEET HIGHER. Sweet Jesus, how would the neighborhood ever recover from that?

I swear, only in DC where everyone is so hyper height-sensitive could this ever be an issue.

Anonymous said...

This is so ridiculous - a genuine, responsible, small business is going to go down because bureaucratic processes in DC allow a small group of NIMBYS high jack the agenda?! and this is in a neighborhood that needs actually severely lacks public amenities?

Anonymous said...

actually even the r-4 zoning allows big bear to add an additional floor as a matter of right.

Anonymous said...

anon 2:25
it happens all over the country.

Anonymous said...

Surely the churches must be involved... Think of the babies! How can we let a place responsibly serving $6 glasses of wine and micro-brews exist near our babies!?!? ...never mind the perpetually drunk-skunks around the corner at Big Ben 24/7.

Anonymous said...

"genuine, responsible, small business is going to go down"
Where does it say that in the article?

Why is so much energy invested in Big Bear? Bloomingdale has much bigger issues than whether or not one place can sell booze. This story gets so much ink, City Paper, Blogs, really that serious? People want to claim this is anti gentrification, I do not remember anyone opposing their opening.

Big Bear suck it up do a little more outreach and try again.

Unknown on Aug 2, 2010, 11:57:00 AM said...

I have loved the Big Bear since it opened and I am incensed that a small group of ANC commissioners could do this to the most popular and successful business Bloomingdale has. They DO NOT speak for me. BTW, ANC Commissioner John Salatti was in support of BB but had to be away on business the night of the ANC vote. I say disband the ANCs. They do not represent me.

TheCommiss on Aug 2, 2010, 2:52:00 PM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TheCommiss on Aug 2, 2010, 2:55:00 PM said...

What this article fails to state is that there are concerns over the lack of permitting, the selling of BBC will now be a sit-down full service establishment (which is not true), zoning, etc. It surely isn't an easy issue. Given the mass of misinformation by the applicant, the ANC was forced to oppose the application. Now if BBC gets it’s house in order they are free to bring it back to the ANC for another vote. Furthermore, BBC has stated they withdrew the application which is not the case at all.

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