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Nightclub ‘hired’ MPD, gets special attention

(Published April 22, 2002)

By JOHN DeVAULT

Staff Writer

Last week nightclub owner Marc Barnes gave an account of Sydney Jackson’s death that jibed with others’ reports on every point but one: where Jackson died.

Jackson was working for Barnes early on the morning of March 3 when he was accidentally electrocuted while running the valet parking operation at Dream, Barnes’ huge new dance club off New York Avenue NE.

According to William Gist, Jackson’s partner in the Great Expectations parking operation they ran on a handshake deal with Barnes, Jackson was moving a tall portable bank of flood lights at the end of the night’s work at about 4:30 a.m., when the lights apparently touched an overhanging high tension wire, killing Jackson.

Gist, who was not working at Dream that night, said there were no witnesses to the accident. But he said the Great Expectations employee who came upon the unconscious Jackson, and called emergency personnel to the scene, told him the accident occurred in an emptied "VIP" parking lot that Great Expectations stored equipment in after hours.

Initial D.C. Fire Department reports also placed the accident in the parking lot.

But in a phone interview last week, Barnes located the site of the accident differently: he said Jackson’s fatal mishap occurred on the roadway of Okie Street NE, the street on which both Dream and the parking lot are located.

Told that Gist had reported that the accident happened within the "VIP" parking lot, not in the street, Barnes at first agreed. "Oh yes, that’s right," he said. Then he changed his mind again. "No, it happened out on Okie Street," he said.

The discrepancy in stories may mean little. But whether Jackson died in the parking lot or on the street may have some importance, because the land that Dream uses for its parking operation belongs to the city – and city officials said last week that the operation is illegal.

Some critics note that Barnes seems to get away with a lot. Barnes is running a lucrative, unlicensed parking business from city land with no lease – which means that the city collects no rent or taxes from the operation. It’s an illegal business that has involved the accidental death of one worker – yet D.C. officials have not closed down Barnes’ operation or fined him for conducting it, and last week they opened discussions with him on a possible future lease.

Residents who live near Dream also complain that late-night noise from the club as well as traffic and parking congestion have disrupted their neighborhood. And many say that the increased police presence that came with the club’s opening last fall has involved Metropolitan Police Department officers in a special deal with the nightclub’s owner that seems to benefit Dream and its parking operation more than neighborhood residents.

Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) spokeswoman Gina Douglas said the nightclub has no license to run a parking operation. "They don’t have a license, and they need one," she said last week.

Barnes said last week that Dream has a signed agreement with the city’s Office of Property Management (OPM) to use the lot for valet parking.

But OPM Director Tim Diamond said last week that he is "not aware that we have any written lease agreement with Dream. There is no signed agreement now."

Diamond said he learned only at the end of March that Dream was running a parking operation on the land, which includes the long-vacant Crummell School. He also said he had not learned of Jackson’s death until early April.

Diamond said his agency first talked with Barnes about possibly leasing the property last week. "We’ve requested that they not (park on the property) until the leasing issue is resolved," he said.

On Friday, April 19, after Diamond’s statement to The Common Denominator, Dream was continuing to charge customers to park on the city-owned Crummell School property.

For some in Ivy City, the long run-down light industrial and residential neighborhood where Barnes opened Dream late last year, life with the flashy new neighbor in their midst has brought mixed blessings.

On the one hand, community leaders are quick to point out that they’re pleased with the cleaned-up, better-lighted streets that accompany Dream’s presence.

"They’ve done a tremendous job of cleaning up the trash on Okie Street," said ANC 5B Chairman Rhonda Chappelle.

And the club has brought the area some unaccustomed glamor: Michael Jordan is reportedly a big fan of the new four-story dance palace, with a top floor reserved solely for VIPs. Mayor Anthony A. Williams dropped by on opening night. Ward 5 Councilman Vincent Orange held a lavish birthday party and fund-raiser at the club on April 11.

But there are complaints, too.

Regina James, another ANC 5B commissioner, said her neighbors are complaining about "music that loud, that early in the morning" coming from the club. "You can hear the music where I live, and I’m quite a distance away," she said.

And, she said she has gotten calls from neighbors of the club complaining about added traffic in the neighborhood and a lack of parking spaces since the club opened.

"People are calling in and asking why streets are blocked off," she said.

And some note Barnes’ tendency to bend – and often break – the rules.

Last fall, DCRA inspectors halted construction work on Dream itself when inspectors discovered Barnes didn’t have the proper work permits. When asked about the incident last week, Barnes said he didn’t remember it.

On April 5, DCRA issued a stop-work order against Dream for installing electric lights in the same parking area where Jackson’s electrocution occurred. An agency official said the order was not related to Jackson’s accident.

The land on which Dream is running its valet parking operation is the site of the long-unused Alexander Crummell School, an early all-black D.C. public school. Neighborhood leaders are currently seeking historic preservation status for the 1912 structure. A Historic Preservation Review Board hearing is scheduled for May 23.

Earlier this year, without permits, Barnes made substantial changes to the Crummell School property to facilitate Dream’s valet parking operation. Barnes installed a curb-cut and driveway on the land and built a sizeable wooden kiosk at the lot’s entrance to house the parking business.

He also built an 8-foot-high wooden fence around the lot’s perimeter. Inside the fence, patrons pay $10 or $15 for valet parking. (Parking rates seem to vary by the night, if not the hour.) Outside, in the "VIP" lot lying between the fence and Okie Street, where parked cars are in plain view of the club’s entrance and police patrols, patrons pay $30 to park.

Asked about those improvements last week, Barnes ended the telephone conversation with a reporter. "I think it’s best that we not talk anymore," he said, and hung up.

Barnes was fined for making the changes. Department of Public Works spokesman Bill Rice said last week that the agency fined Dream $2,500 earlier this year for the unpermitted changes.

Gordy Zaritsky, vice president of Capital Auto and Truck Auction, a neighbor of Dream, said he is skeptical of assurances from city officials that they were ignorant of Barnes’ operation until recently.

Zaritsky said his company leased the Crummell lot from the city as an overflow parking lot until late last year – when the city suddenly ended the lease. The timing, he noted, coincided with Dream’s arrival on the scene.

"They told us the land wasn’t zoned for us parking there," Zaritsky said. But, he said, "The day after our lease ended, Dream started using it as a parking lot."

"If it’s not zoned for us, why would it be zoned for them?" he asked.

OPM director Diamond acknowledged that he "had heard that Barnes may be interested in buying that property." But he said the agency’s recent talks with Barnes were only about leasing the land for parking.

He affirmed that in spite of Barnes’ current illegal use of the land, the lease talks are continuing.

"It’s not a foregone conclusion" that the city will lease the land to Barnes, he said, but "we’ve begun the level of dialogue."

Another sore point for some in the area is Barnes’ special arrangement with the Metropolitan Police Department, a deal that has led to street closures and extra police deployments of questionable value to Dream’s residential neighbors.

According to Anne Barnes, the wife of Marc Barnes and a partner in Dream, the club pays the city for extra police patrols around the club whenever the club is open.

"We’ve hired six to 10 police officers," Anne Barnes said last week.

Lt. Pamela Burkett-Jones of MPD’s Fifth District confirmed that the city is providing the extra patrols. She said Dream requested the patrols and decides how many police are deployed at the club.

Burkett-Jones declined to say how many officers are assigned to Dream.

"We don’t think the public needs to know that information," she said. "We don’t want to give criminals the idea that officers are being pulled off the street to work down there.

"All officers who work on patrols at Dream are on voluntary overtime status," Burkett-Jones said. "They volunteer for this duty, and they still work all of their regular shifts."

Burkett-Jones confirmed that Dream pays the city for the cost of the patrols. However, Burkett-Jones and Anne Barnes gave different accounts of the payment arrangement. Burkett-Jones said Dream makes payments up-front for the patrols. Barnes said Dream reimburses the city after services are rendered.

Barnes said Dream has paid the city the fees it owes. "It’s a lot," she said.

One consequence of that deployment is that police have partially or completely blocked off several streets near the club to through traffic At least two blocks of Okie Street, on which the club is located, are closed completely while the club is open.

"We didn’t want people cruising by the club," Burkett-Jones said. "And it’s also so if there’s an emergency, we can get emergency vehicles through."

But a fire truck would have had a hard time negotiating Okie Street on a recent Friday night. Club employees standing at street barriers stopped cars from entering, allowing through only cars headed for one of Dream’s valet parking lots.

Large coach buses that the club uses to ferry clubbers from downtown D.C. stood parked in the middle of the street, discharging festive patrons. Club-goers themselves streamed down both lanes of the roadway, treating it as a pedestrian mall. Near the entrance to the club, cars in the club’s "VIP" parking area sat parked with their noses protruding two feet into Okie Street.

Also parked in the middle of the street, flanked on one side by the club’s entrance and on the other by the crowded valet parking lots, were three Metropolitan Police Department squad cars.

But it was difficult to tell if they were part of the special Dream detail.

Two officers, both women, in one of the police cars told a reporter that they were on regular duty. "We’re just driving through on patrol," one officer said from inside the parked car. The officers would not identify themselves.

When asked if he was on duty, another officer sitting in a patrol car parked nearby looked at his watch and said, "Am I on duty? As of one minute ago, I’m off duty." He also declined to identify himself to a reporter.

Meanwhile, the increased police presence seemed to be having little effect on illegal parking in the neighborhood. At some intersections, cars were parked protruding into the lane of traffic on both sides of the street, making it impossible to see oncoming traffic when making a turn. Despite the increase in police presence in the area, no illegally parked cars were getting ticketed.

On Fenwick Street, which was partially closed-off by police, a Dream parking attendant told a visiting driver that he could park for $15 in the Crummell School lot – or for $10 in a public space on Fenwick Street.

But Burkett-Jones said the officers were on duty "for traffic control, citizen safety, and deterring crime.

"They’re not guarding parked cars," she said. "They are there for public safety."

She also denied that Dream is charging customers to park on public streets patrolled by MPD officers.

"Nobody is being charged to park on the street – I’ve checked into that," she said.

Kevin Morrison, a spokesman for MPD Chief Charles Ramsey, said the patrols do not violate Ramsey’s oft-stated policy forbidding officers to work off duty in venues that serve alcohol.

"There are two distinctions you need to make here," Morrison said. "The standing policy prohibits officers’ off-duty employment inside establishments serving liquor. There’s a difference between off-duty and overtime employment, and there’s a difference between doing work inside a club and outside doing crowd control and traffic management."

Morrison pointed out that a similar arrangement is in place between MPD and three nightclubs in the area around the 900 block of F Street NW.

Meanwhile, OPM director Diamond said that lease discussions with Dream on the Crummell School property would continue.

"It would obviously be shortsighted if we jumped in and signed a lease," he said when read a list of Dream’s violations and fines.

"But you can’t be overly prejudiced," Diamond said. "If someone’s paid their fines, then that doesn’t preclude them from (rights in the future)."

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator