Public Drinking Proposal Could Boost D.C. Restaurant Sales, But Some Have Concerns Over Enforcement, Timing
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser last week proposed legislation that would allow bar and restaurant customers to drink alcohol in public spaces at large, mixed-use developments like The Wharf, CityCenterDC and Washington Harbour.
Restaurateurs and property owners at these developments tell Bisnow they largely support the proposal and think it could provide a much-needed boost to activity and sales, but they have some concerns over how effectively its rules would be enforced.
"As we continue to focus on boosting the District’s economy, this legislation will move us in the right direction by removing hurdles for businesses and providing new ways to bring in revenue,” Bowser said in a statement announcing the proposal.
Given the legislative and permitting processes that must take place before one of these public drinking zones could open, some experts question whether the rollout would come soon enough to provide much-needed help to the restaurant industry.
The proposal was part of the Reopen Washington DC Alcohol Act, a bill Bowser introduced on Jan. 26 that includes several changes to the city's alcoholic beverage regulations. It also extended the "streateries" program and other policies put in place during the pandemic, and it created a new license to help attract full-service grocers to Wards 7 and 8.
The public drinking provision, dubbed the Commercial Lifestyle License, would allow patrons who buy alcoholic beverages at bars and restaurants to walk around and drink them in public within pre-defined boundaries. It specifies that the areas under consideration would be mixed-use commercial developments with pedestrian-friendly outdoor settings that are owned or managed by a single entity.
The first such property that came to mind for many D.C. residents was The Wharf. Jennifer Currie, director of public programming and events at The Wharf, said her phone started "blowing up" after the mayor's announcement, with people asking if the waterfront development would soon resemble Bourbon Street.
Currie said this proposal would not turn D.C. into New Orleans, as the public drinking zones would be limited and have tighter regulations. She said the team at The Wharf is "excited" by the proposal and well-equipped to manage it responsibly.
"We feel pretty confident this is something we could put into place," Currie said. "We already manage all of our site-wide activations, we already coordinate between retailers for things like tents and heaters. This seems like a pretty natural next step."
She said the way The Wharf is set up, with the river as a natural boundary next to Wharf Street, a pedestrian-friendly boulevard lined with restaurants, makes it an ideal candidate for this proposal.
"If I were a person coming to The Wharf, it'd be nice to know I could get a meal and a glass of wine and sit and enjoy it outdoors," she said. "Because we have outdoor seating and outdoor spaces, it essentially gives our restaurants additional capacity, which is a good thing."
Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6D Chair Edward Daniels, whose ANC includes The Wharf and The Yards, said the group hasn't yet voted on the proposal, but personally he supports it because it could help the neighborhood's small businesses.
"The Wharf is one of those commercial areas where I think it could work," Daniels said. "It's just a matter of properly enforcing it and making sure everyone's following the rules."
Daniels said he saw many people breaking the rules last year after D.C. loosened alcohol restrictions to allow restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages to takeout customers. The move didn't allow people to drink in public places, but Daniels said Yards Park was filled with people drinking on warm days, including some who brought their own beverages.
"You're always going to have bad players that are going to bend the rules or not abide by the rules, which is going to make the policy more troublesome for the rest of the residents who want to support the businesses," Daniels said.
A spokesperson for Brookfield Properties, the owner of The Yards, said it will review the program and consult with tenants before making a decision about whether to apply for a public drinking permit.
Restaurateur Gregory Casten, who owns Tony and Joe's and Nick's Riverside Grill at Georgetown's Washington Harbour, also said he saw people drinking in public areas after buying beverages to-go last year.
Casten said he is on the fence about the mayor's public drinking proposal. He said he thinks it could help drive activity to Georgetown, but he worries about the public areas at Washington Harbour becoming so raucous that it bothers people sitting on his restaurants' large patios.
"If I've got somebody eating dinner sitting at a table overlooking the river, and now because you can sit there and drink there's 60 people having a drink, you're no longer sitting next to the river, you're sitting next to a bunch of people that are drinking and standing around," Casten said.
He also said he worries that the policy could backfire and hurt restaurants if people are able to sneak in their own drinks, or if food truck-style vendors show up offering drinks for public consumption.
"The intent is to enhance restaurants to be able to maximize sales potential, and I think at the Harbour, you might not have that. You might have the opposite where it digs into the sales potential," he said. "It all is very scary to a guy with a long-term lease with a lot of money that he has to pay."
MRP Realty, which manages Washington Harbour on behalf of an Israeli investor, said it is still discussing the proposal with the owner and can't comment on plans to implement it at the Georgetown property.
"Everybody’s trying to figure out what could it mean," MRP principal Matt Robinson said of the proposal. "The food and beverage industry has been pretty creative in finding solutions to try to make things work and hang in there, and this gives them more tools to do that."
Veritas Law Firm principal Andrew Kline, an attorney who represents restaurants and property owners and has advised the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said some jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia have passed similar proposals and haven't had any major problems.
“There is an opportunity here, it certainly comes with responsibility, and I don’t have much doubt that those that apply for and are issued these licenses can exercise the privileges responsibly,” Kline said. “You’re going to have to establish a perimeter, enforce the boundaries of the perimeter and have staff make sure the requirements are complied with.”
"We have limited seating outside," Brandwein said. "When the weather's good, it's fully occupied. So it's sort of a quandary of, 'What do you do when you don't have any outdoor seating but people want to have a drink, and they don't want to go inside either?' It'd be a good way to address that."
The ability of the public drinking proposal to benefit restaurants that are struggling with sales during the coronavirus pandemic depends on how quickly it is rolled out.
The bill still must pass the D.C. Council, and then it must be reviewed by Congress, which has the ability to prevent D.C. laws from being enacted. After that, there would likely be a permitting process involving public input that property owners would have to navigate before they could allow public alcohol consumption.
Kline said these necessary processes mean D.C. likely won't see a public drinking zone until some time next year.
"It's going to take some time. It's not something that would happen overnight," Kline said. "For the most part, these are not quick processes when you're talking about licensing of alcoholic beverage locations."
The mayor's office declined to comment on the timeline with which it hopes to see the proposal rolled out.
Brandwein said she hopes the D.C. government can expedite the process to bring much-needed help to restaurants like Centrolina.
"One of the things that has been hard about COVID from a restaurant's standpoint is needing things now and the timelines for getting things implemented," Brandwein said. "There has been a lag time between what we need and when we get it, and it's really hard. We need things to move a bit faster."
She said she would like to see D.C. move quickly on a temporary measure to roll out the public drinking proposal in select locations so it can evaluate its effectiveness and then make changes if any issues arise.
Casten also said he thinks the District should begin preliminary trials of the proposal this year, but he thinks it should take its time before implementing a permanent public drinking policy.
"They should go slowly and take a few spots and study it," Casten said. "I think prudence with this particular kind of change is probably merited."
Currie said she would like the District to move the process forward so restaurants could benefit from the proposal this summer.
"While we don't know exactly how soon we could see this in motion, we do hope it will be in time for the warm weather as it could be a real benefit to those areas eligible to participate," Currie said.
Daniels said he thinks the Bowser administration could move the process forward in time to allow public drinking zones to open by this summer.
"Once D.C. sees our [COVID-19 case] numbers drop significantly, I really think that the mayor's office will strive to push this out as quickly as possible," Daniels said. "I think this would be rolled out pretty quickly to give people that want to get out a different option of going out and doing it safely."