It was a contentious meeting about a space that is intended to be conflict-free.
On Thursday night, community members spent more than 3 hours discussing As You Are (AYA) Bar, proposed for the site of the former District Soul Food (500 Eighth St. SE).
More than 120 people attended on Jan. 6, the largest attendance Chair Brian Ready said he had seen at a meeting of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B Alcohol Beverage Committee (ABC).
Still, the committee decided to defer a decision about whether to support the license to a meeting of the full ANC, scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 11, hoping to reach a Settlement Agreement (SA) –an agreement between the applicant and the community on terms of operation– before then.
A Welcoming Space
AYA founders Jo McDaniel and Rach “Coach” Pike, formerly of A League of Her Own, say the space is designed to be welcoming for not just the LGBTQ community, but for everyone. “We want people to show up exactly as who they are and how they identify,” Pike said in a prior interview.
The two have already signed the lease. Plans call for the main floor to host a laid-back restaurant/cafe/lounge, with a kitchen open until a proposed 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday close. On the second level, they plan a dance floor for ages 18-plus with a DJ booth for shows operating Friday and Saturday nights as well as community-led events.
Attendees poured in from all over the District as well as the ANC to support AYA at the virtual meeting. But discussion got heated, especially in the chat, with accusations of prejudice, bullying and personal insults.
“I wish I could send you all off to a different neighborhood,” one resident told supporters, responding to a comment in the chat that an elderly resident could solve noise problems by removing hearing aides.
Neighbor concerns with noise and congregation on the street at night were mostly related to two things: AYA’s plans for a dance floor open until 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights, coupled with previous experience with operators on site.
“You’re asking the people that live here and have to deal with it on a daily basis to have a lot of faith in you,” one attendee told Pike and McDaniel.
Pike and McDaniel are already operating As You Are as a virtual queer community center, hosting events for LGBTQIA+ patrons and allies, including speed dating, trivia nights, happy hours, dance parties and events for youth. The two have more than 20 years industry experience; they met working at Adams Morgan A League of Her Own, where McDaniel managed operations and Pike looked after security.
In an interview before the meeting, the two said they plan to take the lessons learned there and implement their complete vision for a space that prioritizes safety and consent and allows for self-expression and connection.
At the ABC meeting, Pike and McDaniel described the work they were doing themselves to mitigate sound, in consultation with sound engineers. Those efforts include three-layer sound deadening inserts in windows along E Street; sound deadening panels on the ceilings and walls of both floors, the stairwell and the wall shared with neighboring business Trattoria Alberto.
Sound-deadening blinds will be installed in the windows along Eighth Street; bass-traps, suspended from the ceilings to catch lower tones; and custom 3-layer ceiling to floor soundproof drapery to be hung along the Eighth and E Street walls as well as along the stairwell, with a particular view to protecting the property at 807 E St. SE.
A Culture of Safety and Consent
Pike emphasized that the culture of AYA bar is one of safety and consent, noting that the LGBTQ community has limited places to safely gather and so takes care of the places they do have. All AYA staff will be trained in the District’s alcohol awareness program, Pike said, not just bartenders as law requires.
The 3 a.m. closing time will allow AYA to do a staggered close Fridays and Saturdays, shutting down music an hour prior to encourage departure and allowing for a trickling exit rather than a flood of patrons. Safety management will be outside to manage departure and noise, and will be trained to monitor any behavior that is non consensual, disrespectful, or threatening, Pike said.
“Our patrons come to establishments run by Jo and I because they want that level of safety,” Pike said. “An assumption that these patrons would come here looking for that and then go out into the surrounding neighborhood and not extend that same level of respect is unfounded and illogical.”
Supporters attested to experience of AYA’s founders, noting that Pike and McDaniel are extremely well-known in the national LGBT community, testifying before Congress and featured in ‘The Lesbian Bar Project’ documentary. Residents from Capitol Hill and from all over the District turned up at the meeting to speak to the need for such a space in the community and in the District, as well as their confidence in the ability of AYA founders to implement their vision.
Hannah Stokes, who lives at Seventh and G Streest SE, acknowledged the concerns around noise and safety, but said she thought that Pike and McDaniel were taking appropriate steps to address them. Noting that she works with queer youth, Stokes that it was critical for younger people to have a place to go to do homework and build community, especially when home might not be a safe space for them.
Identifying himself as a resident of 6B04, the SMD where AYA would be located, Sean said he supported the plans “100 percent. This is exactly what I’m looking for in the space.” He took issue with the skepticism around mitigation efforts, pointing out that AYA was were working with experts. “They’ve put incredible foresight into mitigating sound and security concerns,” he wrote in the chat, “and they’ll be creating a desperately needed queer space for SE and greater DC as a whole.”
Countering the references to unruly behavior by previous patrons, Ward 1 resident Laura Pelner said the LGBTQ community doesn’t view bars as a place to get drunk, but as a space to be themselves and build connections. “We’re different than everybody else that has come into these spaces,” she said. “We want a community and a space that thinks about everybody’s well-being.”
But residents living closest to the building expressed doubt, explicitly citing experiences with previous tenants. One man said he has lived 250 feet away from the building since 1972. “All of the nearby residents are hostile to this, including me, because I don’t want to be waken up by their patrons,” Pope Barrow told commissioners, “and I don’t want to have to put up with the fights and the arguments and the love affairs on the street that go on —we’ve had this, with every other establishment that has been in this location.”
Others said it was the nightclub concept, the dance floor open until 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, that was really at issue. E Street resident Matt Jones said that sound was a major concern, but also said the application was “kind of unprecedented.” There has never been a tavern license on the site, he argued, nor an establishment that caters to patrons 18 and up open until 3 a.m. He wanted to see the details about outdoor security and sound mitigation in the SA.
One thing that the ANC has to consider, said commissioner for the area Kirsten Oldenburg (6B04), is that a tavern license can be sold together with a business. Whatever confidence the community has in the AYA founders, the terms of an SA have to be applicable to another operator who may not operate in the same good faith, she said.
At Thursday’s meeting, representation for AYA declined to push a decision on the license to February to allow time for sound mitigation efforts to be installed and tested. “They’re a small business. Waiting another month to open while paying rent and not making any revenue is unfortunately not an economic reality for them,” said AYA layer Richard Bianco.
In the end, the committee agreed to work with AYA on the SA over the weekend, deferring a vote until the Tuesday, Jan. 11th meeting of the full commission. At that time, ANC 6B will vote on the license, choosing to support with a signed SA, ask the applicant to defer, or to protest the license. The ABC goal is to include specific details about sound mitigation efforts and safety management as well as hours of closure and entertainment on weekends.
In an earlier version of this story, photos taken at As You Are Bar were captioned with the wrong address. AYA Bar is slated for 500 Eighth St. SE. The Hill Rag regrets the error.