Georgetown Current

Dixie Liquor Seeking to Reopen in March

February 1, 2017

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

A storied Georgetown liquor store that has clashed with the community numerous times through various incarnations over the years is making a comeback.

Dixie Liquor, located at 3429 M St. NW near the foot of the Key Bridge, will reopen in roughly mid-to-late March under the ownership of Jason Lim and his wife Soo Hyun Lim, who also own The Market at Columbia Plaza near George Washington University.

Residents who have caught wind of the news expressed preliminary concerns at a meeting Monday night, though Jason Lim said in an interview that he’s prepared to work productively with the community.

The store, founded in 1934 by the Miller family, has long been a draw for nearby Georgetown University students, with disputes cropping up over the years over the leniency of the store’s policies for checking identification. In 2005, the alcohol administration suspended the store’s liquor license for 30 days for selling kegs without proper registration.

The store has undergone several ownership changes, and The Georgetowner reported last year that Dixie Liquor’s most recent iteration closed in July. Last fall, the store’s previous owners placed its liquor license in “safekeeping,” in which they retain the license despite not applying it to an operating business. That license will remain in safekeeping until at least March 31, 2017.

In December, the Lims applied to transfer a liquor license to the shuttered M Street shop from Best DC Supermarket on U Street NW, which closed last April. The whole purchase, including inventory, cost $500,000, Lim said. Their application says that the new store could be open from 9 a.m. to midnight seven days a week, but Lim told The Current that he’s currently planning to stay open until 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends.

Customers familiar with the old store can expect some interior changes as well, Lim said — new furnishings, an expanded selection and more consistent service. Lim, who lives in Fairfax, Va., said he’s heard that previous owners would open late, close early and leave in the middle of the day while the store was open, but he plans to be more reliable.

Community members haven’t yet dealt directly with the new owners, but they see cause for concern. At Monday’s meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith), Cookie Cruse of the Citizens Association of Georgetown said she wants the opportunity to review the store’s plans, given its troubled history. She’s concerned about the proposed hours, which could have the store open later than it was previously, as well as its approaches to selling kegs and serving alcohol to Georgetown University students.

“This is the type of thing that needs to be vetted by the community,” she said.

Fellow Citizens Association member John Lever and another resident supported Cruse’s trepidations.

“I’m not saying that the new folks are going to do anything illicit or wrong in any way,” Lever said. “But an abundance of caution is necessary.”

ANC 2E had opted not to take a position on the liquor license because members found no record of an existing or previous settlement agreement with the establishment. Lim, meanwhile, told The Current he has experience preventing underage drinking near George Washington University.

Lim said he wants to “have a good relationship with the customers, treat them like family.” The store appealed to him and his wife because of its prime location, he said.

“It was an empty space. We just thought Dixie Liquor has a long history,” Lim said. “We thought we should just take over it and see how it goes.”

He and his wife had conversations with the Millers prior to signing the lease, and he found them “very supportive and helpful.”

Aside from community conflicts, the store boasts a history of high-profile guests, none more famous than John F. Kennedy. A page on the Georgetown Business Improvement District website includes a statement from previous Dixie Liquor owners, who said they’re proud of the store’s heritage as “the oldest liquor store in D.C.”

An initial hearing on the requested transfer of Best DC’s old liquor license to Dixie is scheduled for Feb. 21 at 10 a.m. if anyone brings forward an objection.

This article appears in the Feb. 1 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Guy Mason Hours Tweaks Don’t Satisfy Critics

January 26, 2017

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

Residents who frequent Guy Mason Recreation Center in Glover Park continue to call for the city to restore the center’s nighttime and Sunday hours, despite resistance from officials citing budgetary and contractual constraints.

The Friends of Guy Mason group and other community members protested in November when the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation announced that the facility at 3600 Calvert St. NW would close an hour earlier on weekdays — 9 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. — and eliminate Sunday hours. Users of the center’s pottery program said the closures would severely limit studio time, given that many of them aren’t free during weekday business hours.

Though the parks department has made some scheduling tweaks, it has otherwise declined to accommodate the concerns. In an email to the friends group on Jan. 12, the agency’s assistant director Mziwandile Masimini turned down a suggestion from the group’s president David Messineo to cut some weekday morning hours in exchange for reopening the center on Sundays. Masimini did indicate, however, that the agency would consider the suggestion going forward.

“While at this time we do not plan on any immediate adoption of this model, we are considering exploring this model for our Agency goals with the vision of improving access and use down the road,” Masimini wrote.

In lieu of restoring Sunday hours, the department has allowed pottery instruction on weeknights to end at 9:30 p.m., half an hour after the rest of the facility closes, agency spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump wrote in an email. When implementing the Sunday cuts, the agency also added 14 hours of open pottery time during the day on weekdays, Crump noted.

Messineo and other group members say that the extra 30 minutes on weekdays doesn’t compensate for lost Sundays; staff members frequently push attendees to spend this final half-hour cleaning up before closing; and the 14 additional studio hours aren’t useful for people who work during the week.

Beyond the decision to align Guy Mason with all other city recreation centers, which are closed on Sundays, the parks agency has said too few residents used Guy Mason on Sundays to financially justify keeping it open.

Messineo disputes this claim. He says when the rec center was renovated in 2011, the agency established restrictions on programming that stayed in place even when the renovation was complete, limiting classes that could have drawn residents. Low turnout on Sundays results from the restrictions, not from low interest, Messineo argues.

“We’re at 100 percent for what you allow to be in the center at that time,” Messineo said. “We felt like we were set up to fail.”

Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh told The Current that she’d consider budgetary action to ensure that facilities like Guy Mason are open at times the community can use them. Though she doesn’t think the parks department is likely to change its mind on Sundays at Guy Mason, she hopes to work with the agency and the community on a solution that suits everyone’s needs.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. If you build it, they will come,” Cheh said of periods of inactivity at the center. “If there’s nothing going on there to attract the people to come, they’re not just going to sit there among the rooms.”

To combat what some see as a programming shortage, Masimini suggested in his email that the friends group enter into a partnership with the agency that would allow fundraising for “specially requested programs beyond the DPR offerings.” The agency also has a new program that allows private instructors to obtain permits for classes at recreation centers, Masimini said.

Messineo told The Current he appreciates those offers but doesn’t think they go far enough.

“Bringing back arts programs would require our group to initiate, locate the instructors, assist with the contracts, etc.,” Messineo wrote in an email. “All of that begs to ask what is DPR doing if we are doing the work for them?”

Parks department representatives have also attributed the new hours to a collective bargaining agreement that requires its employees to get two consecutive days off per week, difficult to achieve with a schedule that includes Sundays. Messineo said his team and several lawyers have scrutinized the agreement and failed to find such a provision. Crump wrote in an email that the agreement is not one of the “fundamental issues” that led to removing Sunday hours.

Agency director Keith Anderson plans to meet with Cheh and the community next month, according to Crump. Messineo hopes to send a message that the community is ready to take advantage of Guy Mason if given the opportunity, he said.

“In one capacity or another capacity, we’re going to keep on this because we think it’s the right thing,” he said.

This article appears in the Jan. 25 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Mayor Delays Hardy Lease Negotiation

January 19, 2017

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

The Lab School of Washington won’t get a lease extension at the old Hardy School property before the public has had a chance to weigh in, Mayor Muriel Bowser said last week.

The D.C. Council hastily passed emergency legislation last month that authorized the mayor to begin negotiations on extending the Lab School’s lease for 20 to 25 years. The private school for students with special needs has been operating out of the building at 1550 Foxhall Road NW since 2008.

At-large D.C. Council member David Grosso, who introduced the legislation, said he wanted to ensure that Lab could begin $2.5 million of capital improvements to the site, which has experienced increasing issues with heating, air conditioning and sanitation in recent years. Lab School officials said that their current lease term, which runs only until 2023, is too short for them to carry out costly renovations. But some community stakeholders say overcrowding in Ward 3 schools means that the city should seriously consider restoring the old Hardy to public education use.

Bowser declined to sign the legislation, sending it back to the council. In a Jan. 9 letter to Chairman Phil Mendelson, the mayor criticized the council’s procedure in handling the matter. Ordinarily, the executive branch initiates a process to dispose of public property and selects a recipient — in this case, the council indicated its support for the executive branch to negotiate specifically with the Lab School.

“Although I am returning the bill unsigned, my action should not be interpreted as opposition to the disposition of the Hardy School to the Lab School,” Bowser’s letter adds. The mayor said she has directed city agencies to begin discussions with the Lab School on the possibility of an extension; if an agreement is reached, she’ll transmit it to the council. At that point, the council would hold a public hearing on the matter before a final vote — a step critics said the council should have taken before its vote.

Grosso, along with Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh and Ward 2’s Jack Evans, argued last month that the Lab School needs the extended lease as soon as possible to commence its repairs. In an interview Tuesday, Grosso said he thinks delaying the lease extension is “a waste of taxpayer dollars and a waste of our time.” He met with the mayor after she returned the bill last week, and he now believes that the mayor’s decision was motivated by “a political debate that’s happening that is outside of the Hardy School” — an ongoing battle between the council and the mayor over proper delegation of authority.

Grosso said he has tried numerous times since 2013, with no success, to move the Lab School issue forward, including a provision in a 2016 budget bill that could have accelerated lease discussions. He continues to believe that last month’s emergency legislation was necessary to improve the surroundings for Lab School students.

“I believe wholeheartedly that the government takes too long to get stuff done,” Grosso said. “Whenever I can push the envelope to get stuff done that I think is right, I’m going to do that.”

A number of parents at Key Elementary and other Ward 3 residents still believe the old Hardy building ought to be used as public school space to relieve overcrowding in other neighborhood schools. Those critics disputed the hasty legislation and argued that they should have been able to weigh in before the council vote.

Grosso isn’t convinced, though. He believes city agencies have already proved conclusively that the old Hardy building wouldn’t be useful for resolving school issues elsewhere, and that demand for Ward 3’s schools will ease in time. “If we do a good job improving the schools across the city and modernizing schools across the city and increasing the standard of education across the city, there would not be an overcrowding situation over in [Ward 3],” Grosso said.

The proposal to transfer the building to the Lab School first surfaced in 2013. Following a council hearing in October of that year, then-Mayor Vincent Gray withdrew the legislation in December over concerns that a planned redrawing of the city’s school boundaries could reveal a need for the old Hardy building as public school space. Little progress on that determination or the terms of the lease was visible to the public until last month, when the council approved the bill on a vote of 11-2.

Grosso said Tuesday that he believes the public has had ample opportunity to voice opinions. At December’s legislative meeting, Cheh pointed to that 2013 public hearing as an example of adequate community outreach. In a statement last week, though, Cheh told The Current that she’s now looking forward to another public process.

“In a sense, I welcome the Mayor’s action because there was some concern that, even though there was a hearing on this matter a few years ago, people wanted to be heard again,” Cheh wrote. “I will await the Mayor sending over a resolution, at which point we can hold another hearing on this matter and determine how to move forward.”

Mendelson could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

Critics of the council legislation also say that it circumvented the legally mandated procedure for declaring a school building surplus. According to a 2014 government document, the law requires that the deputy mayor for education, Jennifer Niles, give priority to public charter applicants for surplus space, and that she assess goals for the site with community input before sending her recommendation to the council.

Elizabeth Wise, co-president of Key’s PTA, told The Current that she’s hopeful that the mayor’s decision will allow the deputy mayor to effectively complete that process. Wise isn’t certain that the old Hardy building itself would be suitable for a public school, but she thinks it’s worth considering building a new school on the Foxhall Road site.

Wise also thinks the mayor’s approach to the issue far outclasses what she describes as the council’s “dead-of-the-night, hope-no-one-will-notice type action.”

Palisades Citizens Association president Nick Keenan, who has been following the issue since discussions of a Lab School lease extension began and fizzled in 2013, said he’s pleased with the mayor’s decision to involve the public once again. “It’s given me hope that we can come up with some sort of solution that serves everybody’s needs,” he said.

This article appears in the Jan. 18 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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