What does an “overconcentration” of liquor licenses mean, and why does it matter?

Last Thursday, SDCA board member Guy Podgornik made a presentation about his group’s moratorium petition. His presentation included the claim that the legal definition of liquor license overconcentration is 18 licenses within the area of a proposed moratorium zone. This is supposed to imply that  ABRA or the ANCs should approve his group’s petition because of the official-sounding “overconcentration.” Not only is this is untrue, but the term “overconcentration” isn’t directly related to the moratorium review process.

To understand what this term means, and why it matters, one has to look at the DC Code. To propose a moratorium, the Code requires petitioners decide whether to propose a moratorium for a locality, section, or portion of the District. These terms refer the areas within a circle with a radius of 600, 1200, or 1800 feet, respectively. Next, petitioners have to choose an establishment to be the center of their proposed moratorium zone, and then demonstrate that the area they have selected meets certain requirements for the petition to be considered by the ABRA board. To reiterate, these are just some of the basic requirements that must be met before one can argue the merits of a liquor license moratorium. It seems that this is the section of the law that confuses SDCA board members: they have repeatedly claimed that 18 liquor licenses in a portion of the city, the legally required minimum number for ABRA to even accept a moratorium petition for review, is instead the legal definition of  “overconcentration”. They also seem to be under the impression that, having passed this imaginary threshold, ABRA has reason to approve their petition.

According to ABRA, a moratorium petition is only approved if it meets the basic requirements, and the board determines it to be appropriate based on at least two of the following three factors (DC Code § 25-3l3(b)):

1) The effect of the establishment on real property values;

2) The effect of the establishment on peace, order, and quiet, including the noise and litter provisions;

3) The effect of the establishment on residential parking needs and vehicular and pedestrian safety.

Overconcentration is not listed. The term appears in other parts of the DC Code, but the definition of overconcentration itself refers to the three factors already listed: “‘Overconcentration’ means the existence of several licensed establishments that adversely affect a specific locality, section, or portion of the District of Columbia, including consideration of the appropriateness standards under § 25-3l3(b).” It should be noted here that the Code offers no numerical definition of overconcentration, and the term is, once again, unrelated to the moratorium review process.

SDCA board members continue to provide inaccurate information to ANCs about overconcentration even though Elwyn Ferris, Chair of SDCA’s ABRA Committee, explained the actual, correct definition at their February 21st meeting. In fact, the meeting minutes include a verbatim definition from the code, exactly as I provided above. Guy Podgornik, along with other board members, attended this meeting before making his presentation to ANC 2F.

This isn’t the first time that the SDCA has spread misinformation. The SDCA originally claimed in their petition that U Street has the highest concentration of liquor licenses in the District, but I have since pointed out that this is a misconception due to a basic math error on their part. Since then, I haven’t heard that claim made in public, and perhaps this is why they’re using the (also incorrect) “legal definition of overconcentration” argument.

Bad math makes for poor reporting

I was forwarded a copy of an article from the Dupont Current about the proposed liquor license moratorium for a circular area surrounding U Street.

In it, staff writer Alix Pianin uncritically paraphrases lead NIMBY Joan Sterling, “In her research, Sterling found that the U Street area has the highest concentration of alcohol-licensed establishments in the city.” Much of the debate about Ms. Sterling’s proposal has revolved around this assertion, which is the central argument made by her and her small group of allies.

This is the same claim Sterling made in her moratorium petition, filed on behalf of the Residential Action Coalition and the Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance, which she leads:

No other area of the city has so many license crammed into such a small area… Georgetown, Dupont Circle East and West, and Adams Morgan Moratorium Zones, also contain far fewer licenses, singly, or combined when calculated on the size of the Zone, than the proposed Historic 14th and U Street Corridor Moratorium Zone.

In another part of the petition, she claims:

This area has the greatest concentration of alcohol licensed establishments in the city and in fact is significantly higher than any other current Moratorium Zone.

Luckily for us, she provides the following information about the zones and we can evaluate the accuracy of the central claim of the entire petition based on her own numbers:

Location (Moratorium Radius) Total Number of Liquor Licenses
Adams Morgan (1400′) 85
Dupont East (600′) 19
Dupont West (600′) 33
Georgetown (1800′) 94
Glover Park (1200′) 21
U Street (1800′) 107

At first glance, these numbers might make the concentration of liquor licenses in the different zones look comparable. A gullible person might think that U Street does, indeed, have the highest concentration of liquor licenses. But once you recall some basic math the error becomes obvious: the formula for the area of a circle is radius squared, multiplied by Pi. The area of the proposed U Street moratorium (with an 1800′ radius) isn’t three times larger than the Dupont moratorium zones (with 600′ radii), it is actually nine times larger.

Using her numbers, the U Street zone has concentration of 1.05 liquor licenses per 100,000 square feet. Adams Morgan has 1.38 (31% higher concentration), Dupont East has 1.68 (60% higher concentration), and Dupont West has 2.92 (a whopping 178% higher concentration).

Ms. Sterling’s assertion that the proposed U Street moratorium area has the highest concentration of liquor licenses in the District is not only inaccurate, but obviously so, and by an enormous margin.

If we’re going to have a reasonable discussion about liquor licenses and development in DC then we need to start from true premises. This debate isn’t about whether or not the DC government should put some limits on the neighborhood in DC with the “highest concentration of liquor licenses.”

This is really about whether or not a small group of disgruntled residents is going to be able to stop a growing neighborhood based simply on their own, inaccurate perceptions of U Street.