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Mayor backs off support for NE club

City officials, agencies sped process for politically popular nightspot

(Published May 20, 2002)

By JOHN DeVAULT

Staff Writer

As complaints about parking abuses and other alleged illegalities by the new super-nightclub Dream continue to mount, D.C. officials are backing off from their previously firm support for the popular Northeast Washington club and its owner, Marc Barnes.

"This use of the street as a parking area – it’s not going to happen," Tony Bullock, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, said last week. "It needs to stop."

Bullock said he was referring to complaints that Dream, which the Williams administration has championed as an engine for economic growth in the Ivy City neighborhood, has been using public streets around the club for lucrative valet parking, while disrupting parking and traffic flow for local residents. The Common Denominator reported on the complaints in its April 22 issue.

Barnes also was fined recently for running an unlicensed valet parking operation from a city-owned lot across the street from Dream – land for which city officials say Barnes also lacks a lease. Barnes was fined for running that operation with no license, after receiving an earlier $2,500 fine for making unpermitted improvements to the property to facilitate his parking business.

"There have been violations that need to be addressed," Bullock said. "This club has to be a good neighbor."

Barnes asserted last month that he has a lease agreement with the city for the land. The city’s Office of Property Management, which manages the land, has said he does not.

While taking a tough stance against the nightclub’s parking violations, Bullock also sought to put distance between Mayor Williams and a memo last fall from his planning director, Andrew Altman. The memo urged the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) to give Dream a special parking exemption that appears to have helped cause many of the current neighborhood problems.

Dated last Nov. 6, Altman’s memo recommended that because Dream lacked enough on-site parking spaces to meet city requirements for the 2,300-person club, the club should be allowed to use 125 public parking spaces on three adjacent city streets to meet its requirements. (The club also proposed leasing two nearby private parking lots to meet the minimum number of spaces demanded by city code.)

The club’s use of those three public streets – Okie Street NE, on which the club fronts, and Kendall and Fenwick streets – has drawn criticism from neighboring residents.

City officials’ recent criticism of Barnes’ nightclub reverses a pattern of strong Williams administration support that predates Dream’s opening last November.

In a letter Williams wrote on July 16, 2001 – before construction on the club started – the mayor expressed his hope that Dream would power development along the New York Avenue corridor in much the same way that Barnes’ previous club, Republic Gardens, helped spur growth of the U Street NW commercial district.

"I support and commend your efforts in establishing your new venture," the mayor wrote. "We are confident that your new endeavor will have the same effect on the Okie Street neighborhood."

Barnes submitted Williams’ letter to the BZA last November as part of his application to gain relief from parking requirements.

BZA Chairman Geoffrey Griffis last week cited the mayor’s letter as evidence of strong city support for Dream, which he said was a factor in the board granting Barnes the special arrangement.

When Dream opened its doors last fall, Williams was there for the inaugural bash and helped publicize the club by including his attendance at its grand opening on his public schedule.

William Dorsey, an agent for Barnes who said he guided all Dream building permit applications through the city bureaucracy, said the city’s support for Barnes included repeated calls from city officials to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, urging DCRA staff to move quickly on Dream’s permit requests during construction.

"Everybody (at DCRA) heard there were calls from the mayor’s office," said Dorsey, who said he regularly heard about the calls from DCRA employees.

"Marc Barnes knows a lot of people in this city," he said.

Dorsey said most of the calls came on two occasions, after DCRA inspectors halted construction work on Dream because the project lacked the proper building permits.

"Inspectors at DCRA were under a lot of pressure from above to approve those permits," he said.

Denzil Noble, a DCRA official in charge of inspecting and approving Dream’s plans, neither confirmed nor denied that his office received such calls from other city officials. But he said improper pressure was not applied and that DCRA officials treated Dream’s applications by the book.

"Plans need to meet whatever the code is, and theirs did," he said.

Bullock disputed the notion, prevalent in the neighborhood, that Barnes has favored status with the Williams administration.

"The idea that this guy’s got some kind of special mojo with the city – that’s not the case," the mayor’s spokesman said. "We don’t work that way in the Williams administration. We treat everybody the same."

But the administration has softened its support for Barnes only as Barnes’ operations in Ivy City have increasingly attracted public criticism – and as some advisory neighborhood commissioners have raised questions about special treatment for Barnes.

When the club is open, the two blocks of Okie Street NE nearest the club are closed to through traffic by a special on-duty Metropolitan Police Department detail hired and paid for by Dream. Only cars heading to one of Dream’s valet parking lots, which charge from $10 to $35, are allowed access. Kendall and Fenwick streets sometimes are also partially blocked off by police order when the club is open – and parking attendants, not MPD officers, generally man the barricades on the three streets.

Gary Ferrell, an advisory neighborhood commissioner and a manager at nearby Capital Auto Auction (which has tussled with Dream over land use in Ivy City), said that on a recent Friday night Dream’s parking attendants who were manning police barricades stopped him from driving down Okie Street.

"I asked them why, and they didn’t tell me to ask the police," who were nearby, he said. "They said, ‘Go ask Marc Barnes.’"

Ferrell and others also accuse Barnes of charging motorists valet parking rates to park their vehicles on Okie, Kendall and Fenwick streets in public parking spaces. On a recent Friday night, a Dream parking attendant standing on Fenwick Street told a Common Denominator reporter that she could park for $15 in Barnes’ unlicensed lot – or for $10 in a public space on Fenwick.

Bullock sharply denied that Altman’s Nov. 6 memo, recommending Dream’s use of public parking on the three streets, reflected Williams administration policy.

"I strongly disagree that a planning office recommendation to the BZA is any kind of evidence of mayoral involvement," said Bullock. "The Office of Planning is supposed to give technical assistance to the zoning board, and that’s what they did."

Altman, a mayoral appointee, was not available for comment last week.

Office of Planning Deputy Director Ellen McCarthy said last week that the agency might reverse itself on the policy Altman urged in the memo. She said officials from her office recently discussed a "motion of reconsideration" with Ivy City residents to ask the BZA to revisit Dream’s special parking arrangement.

She said her agency would support residents if they file such a motion. So far, she said, no resident has formally made the request.

"The options are that the city could then fine (Dream), or rescind the agreement and completely reconsider it," she said.

McCarthy also denied that language in Altman’s memo is dismissive of the proposed agreement’s impact on Ivy City residents.

After noting that Ivy City is "included in the city’s major industrial spine" – Dream is housed in former warehouse space off New York Avenue NE and other light industrial sites are nearby – the memo describes the neighborhood’s housing: "The majority of these structures are deteriorating and are considered to be in poor to fair condition. … (The city’s Ward 5 housing plan) identifies Ivy City as an area where there exists a need to rehabilitate and improve the housing."

Altman’s memo does not mention people. The economically depressed Ivy City area has 771 registered voters, an adult population of more than 1,000 residents and many families with children, according to a number of city resources.

But McCarthy said the memo’s language shouldn’t be read as minimizing the need to take neighborhood residents into account.

"It’s really the opposite," she said. "The intent is to highlight the fact that this is a neighborhood that’s especially in need of further development and investment."

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator