Georgetown Current

Gypsy Sally’s in Line for Rare Tavern License in Georgetown

November 20, 2013

By Katie Pearce
Current Staff Writer

A rarely available tavern license is up for grabs in Georgetown, and Gypsy Sally’s is first in line for it.

The closing of Saloun, at 3239 M St., opened up one of only six tavern liquor licenses permitted in the historic neighborhood. The licenses are coveted because they allow for more freedom with alcohol sales than restaurant licenses do.

And particularly since the opportunity hasn’t come around for the last 20 years, “it immediately becomes a valued commodity,” said Tom Birch of the Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission.

A 1994 law restricted the number of tavern licenses in the Georgetown Historic District to six. Further caps on liquor licenses in the neighborhood are established through a moratorium.

The owners of Gypsy Sally’s, a new Americana music venue at 3401 K St., were quick to recognize the narrow window of opportunity for the new license. Karen Ensor, who runs Gypsy Sally’s with her husband David, said she filed the application the same day she heard news of the license from the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration last week.

“I said, ‘Oh my goodness, I want this,’” said Ensor. “I figured out how to do it, got it notarized … and got it to ABRA.”

Ensor said her motivation came from the mountains of paperwork she’s required to deal with for Gypsy Sally’s existing restaurant-class license.

Restaurant licenses require owners to submit proof that 45 percent of their sales come from food, while tavern licenses don’t require a food sales percentage.

“I have to calculate every little lemon and lime and piece of food that’s sold here,” said Ensor. “With a tavern license, you don’t have to do any reporting.”

Smith Point, the restaurant and bar at 1338 M St., was the second applicant for the tavern license, according to Jessie Cornelius, spokesperson for the D.C. alcohol agency. Representatives from Georgetown Events, the larger company that owns Smith Point (as well other D.C. establishments including Surfside, Jetties and the Bullpen at Nationals Park), weren’t available for comment.

The alcohol agency will review applications on a “first-come, first-serve basis,” Cornelius wrote in an email.

The transfer of the Gypsy Sally’s license from restaurant to tavern would require approval from the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

According to Ensor, if Gypsy Sally’s wins that approval it has no plans to change its business model of offering both live music and fresh food. “We serve dinner here and we’ll always serve dinner here,” she said.

Georgetown advisory neighborhood commissioner Bill Starrels indicated that his commission would be likely to support such a license change. “Gypsy Sally’s has proven … to live up to how it’s billed itself as a serious music venue that does serve food,” he said. “It appeals to an older demographic and [makes] an excellent addition to the neighborhood.”

According to Starrels, other establishments that expressed interest in the tavern license included the restaurant and bar George, and Malmaison, the restaurant located below Gypsy Sally’s. (The alcohol agency has named only Gypsy Sally’s and Smith Point as formal applicants.)

The remainder of the tavern licenses in Georgetown are held by Rhino Bar, Chadwick’s, El Centro D.F., Modern and Blue Gin, whose license is in safekeeping. The license formerly belonging to Saloun was canceled in September; that M Street space now belongs to a GANT clothing store.

This article appears in the Nov. 20 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Doubts Loom Over Heating Plant Demolition

November 13, 2013

By Elizabeth Wiener
Current Staff Writer

Though plans to demolish most of the West Heating Plant and build luxury condos in its place hit several hurdles at the Old Georgetown Board last week, the would-be developers insist that the increasingly controversial project will survive a gauntlet of government reviews.

Project representatives from the Levy Group and Georgetown Co. acknowledged that they may need a waiver from a covenant protecting the building to proceed with the amount of demolition currently proposed. But David Maloney, the D.C. state historic preservation officer  who would have to issue such a waiver, told The Current that doing so would be “fundamentally inconsistent” with his office’s obligations under federal law.

And while several Old Georgetown Board members seemed open to the proposal at a hearing last Thursday, they insisted on getting an independent structural engineer’s report to document whether the 1948 building is so unstable it can’t be saved.

“This is a key issue and will continue to haunt us,” said chair David Cox. “It’s just due diligence [to determine] the magnitude of effort required to preserve it.”

The project’s own structural engineer described the long-vacant heating plant on 29th Street as essentially a brick shell, “misdesigned,” and so cracked, brittle and water-damaged that “there’s probably no way to fix it,” according to consultant Joel Silverman, who shared the report. “Any reputable structural engineer would say that wall has to come down — it’s not about adding windows, but basic structural safety.”

Further complicating the already complex proposal, the board also suggested that if the huge plant is in bad enough shape to justify demolition, it might make more sense to take the whole building down and come back with a new design.

“If you’re just keeping the front facade, you might as well take it all down,” said board member Stephen Muse.

Cox said the final product might be better “without the burden of the existing building.” Then he added, “If this site was empty, this board would never consider a 90-foot wall” facing the C&O Canal.

But total demolition would create yet another hurdle. Under zoning law, if parts of the plant are preserved, the structure would be considered “grandfathered” and could be rebuilt to its current 110-foot height. If it is razed to the ground, it’s unlikely that city officials would allow anything so big in that patch of Georgetown. And shrinking the project would cut into the profit margin.

Developer Richard Levy notes that his team has spent four years on the project so far, and it expects to overcome hurdles and eventually win approval for the 60- to 70-unit condo project, rebuilt to the same height and footprint as the former federal heating plant.

“In this context we’re long-distance runners, so one little stumble here and a misrepresentation there is not going to stop us,” Levy told The Current last week.

The proposal is in fact winning much praise, particularly because it would put a vacant and forbidding property to use, converting the walled grounds to parkland that will provide connections between Rock Creek Park and the Georgetown waterfront. But to do so, developers must work through a maze of preservation, zoning and financial issues.

Particularly thorny is the covenant which the U.S. General Services Administration attached to the deed when it sold the plant at auction last June. That covenant requires any development to comply with the U.S. secretary of the interior’s standards for treatment of historic properties.

And that means, said Rebecca Miller of the D.C. Preservation League, that any reuse plan can’t have an “adverse effect” on the heating plant, which is listed as a contributing structure in the Georgetown Historic District. All bidders were aware of the covenant, yet the Levy proposal “not even remotely conforms” to this standard, Miller told the board.

Maureen Dwyer, attorney for the Levy team, objected. The deed in fact includes a provision for modifying or waiving the covenant, she said, and there is precedent for doing so when “structural issues arise.” Dwyer added: “My client would not be on this property were it not for a clause that allows for a waiver.”

Yet Maloney, the state preservation officer, seems unlikely to grant one. In an email to The Current, he wrote that waivers for these kinds of federal preservation covenants “are extremely rare, even looking across the country.” Maloney described such a waiver as “fundamentally inconsistent with [his office’s] legal obligations” for the heating plant, as prescribed by the General Services Administration.

The Old Georgetown Board’s staff also raised objections, calling the plant “a monumental remnant of Georgetown’s industrial heritage” and suggesting that the “most responsible historic preservation approach would be to protect the overall integrity of the building, rather than to preserve only a fragment.”

But the board itself viewed the project from a different lens — design, not legalities. “We’re not opposed to contemporary architecture. The proposed building is very beautiful,” said Muse.

“It’s not our call to comment on the legality of demolition,” said Cox.

Board members made one point clear: All three found a proposed pedestrian bridge between the property and the Four Seasons Hotel, which will manage the new condos, unacceptable. A “private bridge over a public park” — the C&O Canal — won’t pass muster, Muse said.

This article appears in the Nov. 13 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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ANC Skeptical of Heating Plan Project

November 6, 2013

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

Plans to demolish much of Georgetown’s West Heating Plant faced opposition Monday, with the area’s advisory neighborhood commission unanimously objecting to key aspects of the proposal.

Commissioners said they could accept the proposed demolition of roughly 70 percent of the 1948 building only with more conclusive evidence that it has deteriorated beyond repair. They also said that if the teardown does take place, a replacement building should not — as proposed — emulate the size and shape of the existing heating plant.

The Levy Group and Georgetown Co. purchased the federal government property at 29th and K streets for $19.5 million in March, with plans to convert it into 60 to 70 Four Seasons-branded luxury condominium units and to create an adjacent public park. But the developers’ structural engineer concluded that the 110-foot-tall building’s imposing bulk concealed underlying weakness — a rusting steel frame, cracked bricks and pervasive moisture.

“It was a very specifically built industrial shell, and while we had high hopes of converting it into an interesting artifact of preservation, we found it’s just not feasible,” engineer Kirk Mettam said at the neighborhood commission meeting.

Under the developers’ plans, which are due for review tomorrow by the Old Georgetown Board, the plant’s 29th Street facade would be retained, and the rest of the building would be reconstructed to match its style, with added windows and floors.

But commissioners said they found Mettam’s conclusion unconvincing. Chair Ron Lewis asked the developers to provide details about why these problems couldn’t be fixed. The commission’s resolution further called for an independent evaluation of the building’s condition, with the developers footing the bill for a report by experts selected by preservation officials.

“Our strong preference … is to preserve a building when we can,” said Lewis. “And so that’s always the starting point here.”

He suggested that the plant’s current condition could still be adequate for some uses, even if the building wouldn’t hold up for condos and retrofitted windows. “There were plenty of other bidders who did intend to preserve the existing fenestration and work with the building on that basis,” Lewis said of past proposals.

To proceed with its plans, the Levy team would need a waiver from the building’s historic covenant, which was intended to preserve the structure from demolition when it was sold by the U.S. government. That idea drew the attention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“The reports make it apparent that the developer’s own proposal for modification, especially adding additional windows, is what will destabilize the walls,” the trust’s Elizabeth Merritt said at the meeting. “The problem is not the structure of the building itself … but the discretionary additions that the developer wants to make.”

Merritt said all bidders knew they were expected to preserve the building, and this change “makes a mockery of the process.”

Maureen Dwyer, attorney for the developers, said the process allows a developer to demonstrate that demolition is legitimate. “We did a lot of homework on the structural issues and felt these were very important concerns and we were ready to go through that process,” she said.

But even if demolition is OKed, a replacement project would need Old Georgetown Board approval because the site is within the neighborhood’s federally protected historic district.

The neighborhood commission’s resolution states that such a replacement would need to be in “harmony and consistency with other properties” in lower Georgetown.

Commissioners also opposed other details of the proposal, including a roof deck, new windows they said would cause nighttime light pollution, and a glass-enclosed private pedestrian bridge between the heating plant and the Four Seasons Hotel on M Street.

Developer Richard Levy said in an interview after the meeting that many opponents of his plan seem to have misunderstood aspects of preservation guidelines and principles. He said it’s possible he will need to make alterations to the project, but that he does expect it to be approved in approximately its current form.

“In this context we’re long-distance runners, so one little stumble here and a misrepresentation there is not going to stop us,” Levy said.

Not all comments at the neighborhood commission meeting were unfavorable. There was unanimous acclaim for the 3.6 acres of parkland designed by Ignacio Bunster, architect of the Georgetown Waterfront Park. This plan would create a landscaped, grassy open space in what is now the heating plant’s empty coal yard, and install walking trails and bridges where the C&O Canal runs into Rock Creek.

Also, while the Citizens Association of Georgetown has joined the neighborhood commission in seeking further review of the heating plant’s structural integrity, the association said housing in particular is a desirable use of the property, and it supported alterations consistent with the existing building.

Some residents were also supportive of the development as a whole. Nancy Taylor Bubes said she has always hated walking past the heating plant at night, calling it “the armpit of Georgetown.”

“To see a group of local people putting forward such a beautiful plan … to see that area lifted up with parks and everything, it’s just so nice,” she said.

And Stephen Crimmins, a resident of the James Place condominium across the street from the plant who said he was speaking for many of his neighbors, urged commissioners to support a plan that would revitalize the location.

What we’ve looked down on is a tank farm and a coal yard and an ugly industrial plant that’s been derelict,” said Crimmins, adding, “If we don’t take this deal, we’re going to have a derelict parcel for another 10 years.”

Commission chair Lewis took issue with criticisms of the existing heating plant’s appearance.

“Historic preservation isn’t really a beauty contest. It’s not about whether what’s there now is or is not more pleasing than something new,” Lewis said. “It’s rather about preserving styles of buildings through the ages.”

This article appears in the Nov. 6 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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