Let them serve alcohol

[Conor Friedersdorf]

Sometimes I read The Dupont Current, a free Washington D.C. newspaper that's rarely talked about, ubiquitous on stoops, and riveting (in a confirms-your-worldview sorta way) if you're the kind of libertarian whose blood boils at the absurd local regulations that hamstring small business owners.

Staff writer Jessica Gould, who formerly inspired my utterly ineffectual tirade on behalf of a local ping pong table, writes this week about the Dupont Circle advisory neighborhood commisioners, who "want to nurture a thriving restaurant row on the stretch of P Street between the circle and 22nd Street."

It's no easy task, they say. High rents and disruptions stemming from a recent streetscape project have made it difficult for small businesses to survive. So, at last Wednesday's meeting, the commissioners voted 7-0 with one abstention to petition the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to modify the West Dupont Circle Moratorium.

My libertarian instincts are rendered powerless by this mess! Should there be a "restaurant row"? It's impossible for these would be economic planners to know. What do local residents think? My guess is that most haven't any opinion -- if asked they'd say something like, "What does the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board do? And what is the West Dupont Circle Moratorium?"

If they read Jessica Gould they'd know:

The moratorium caps the number of liquor licenses in an area that extends 600 feet in all directions from the intersections of 21st and P streets. It has been in place for more than a decade, with renewals in 2000 and 2005. The current moratorium lasts five years... the commission is requesting a midterm amendment to allow two more restaurants the possibility of acquiring beer and wine licenses within the moratorium zone.

Does it seem insane to anyone else that a restaurant hoping to open its doors near what is effectively the downtown of a major metropolitan city -- the nation's capitol, in fact -- is unable to serve wine or beer, never mind liquor, if it happens to be located inside a 1,130,400 square foot area, where liquor can be served, mind you, but only by an arbitrarily limited number of establishments?

Does it seem additionally insane that the business of local government these days in Washington D.C. is for one body of citizen representatives to beg another body of bureaucrats to relax idiotic regulations so that new restaurants can operate profitably?

Predictably the commission isn't asking that anyone be allowed to get a liquor license -- they've written their request "narrowly," Ms. Gould tells us.

In other words, they've tried to pick the businesses they feel are most desserving of liquor licenses. I've no reason to think that the body is corrupt, or that a restauranteur in that neighborhood would do well to kiss up to commissioners in any way possible to get preferential treatment... but I'd sure conclude that I'd better do all that just to be safe were I a restaurant owner.

As local newspapers across the country lay off reporters or fold entirely, these are the kinds of stories that aren't going to get covered anymore -- planning commission stories that are boring as hell to report, written by journalists whose prose are too cluttered by city official speak (Gould is better than most), and that are therefore read by few residents, though the issues at play are core to the economic success of neighborhoods.

So keep on the local planning commission beat, Ms. Gould, and I'll do my best to encourage DC's libertarian establishment to pay attention to your scoops. Of course, once you get enough attention you'll move up to a better publication, a less talented journalist will replace you and all my efforts will have been counterproductive.

I have no short term solution for that problem. The long term solution is convincing people that local government matters, and that it's worth paying more for engaging coverage of their municipality.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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