Wednesday, November 20, 2013

ANC approves TGI Fridays with soundproofing; but are older people left out of Columbia Heights?

Last week I wrote about the opposition to the TGI Friday's coming to 14th and Monroe from some Monroe Street residents and senior citizens who live above the restaurant's planned location. They complained about music and noise from the restaurant, that it's open too late, and increased trash, rats, and traffic.

The Advisory Neighborhood Commission, the local council that basically approves liquor licenses, heard both people opposed and in favor of the restaurant at their last meeting, then voted to approve their liquor license. However, they added one caveat: the restaurant must install soundproofing.

The TGI Friday's issue raised some bigger questions from the Washington Post, however: are older residents being left out in the new development in the area? The Post speaks to a number of local residents who say a lot of the new bars and restaurants are too dark and too loud while clothing stores only have clothes for younger people -- tight fitting and the like. But before it gets to old man yells at cloud territory, there are some good, personal stories: people with titanium knees having to walk farther (in Cleveland Park due to a service lane parking dispute) and a lady who has sleep apnea worried that it will be hard to sleep if TGI Friday's is open late and has loud music. And there are some choice quotes:
“They keep referring to us as ‘the olds,’ and they forget that we were the generation that stopped the Vietnam War,” she said. “So if they thought that they were going to beat us on this little service lane, forget it. They treat us like such ancient people, and they think we don’t know anything. But we were smoking marijuana illegally long before they were a gleam in their parents’ eye. . . . The city is what it is today because all of us old folks stuck around and made it that way.”
It's a good point, to some extent. There are certainly some things that might annoy older residents, and they have been here a long time and worked help this city. They aren't just grumpy people who hate fun, they have some legitimate concerns. Then again, bigger market forces were the main drivers for this neighborhood's recent development. It's not like Columbia Heights was booming in the 80s and 90s.

Some Twitter users complained that the Post was making this some kind of age war, old versus young, and the blog In My Back Yard, which aims to support new businesses as opposed to the NIMBYs (not in my back yard), has an uncompromising, sarcastic take on it: "NIMBYs concerned tame, corporate, family restaurant will disrupt busy commercial district’s main thoroughfare."

Which is also a good point. TGI Friday's isn't a strip club or one of those huge clubs on New York Avenue. I doubt a Redskins player is going to get stabbed there, like happened at the Park on 14th downtown. In fact, I would be stunned if anyone even moderately famous came to this TGI Friday's, which is not a club at all. TGI Friday's is pretty lame. I bet the vast majority of customers will be couples in their mid-30s and older and maybe some friends and families who are tired from shopping at DCUSA. People don't go to TGI Friday's to party. If they do, they are probably pretty tame partiers.

In My Back Yard goes further, arguing that since the space has been empty for years, the residents of the Samuel Kelsey senior housing above it "have enjoyed all the benefits of living on the commercial district’s main thoroughfare without any of the trade-offs that usually come with a mixed-use building, so I can understand their perspective. But they should also understand that TGI Fridays is about as good of a tenant as they could have hoped for." They argue that it's actually a bad thing for everybody, basically.
"TGI Fridays could also be bad news for the young people the Post is fretting about. It’s exactly the type of bland, suburban restaurant they moved to Columbia Heights to avoid. After a few waves of hip people move to an up-and-coming neighborhood, high-income professionals and families may follow. With the last wave of new residents also comes higher rent and uncool neighbors. Sometime soon, young people may be forced to entirely abandon the neighborhood for hipper pastures in Brookland, Bloomingdale, and H Street NE, only to start the process again. 
The same economic forces and rules that give birth to neighborhoods popular with young people may ultimately cause their demise, at least for the hip crowd."
I had similar worries about just this issue a few years ago, that bigger chains (and expensive condos) were coming in to the neighborhood instead of anything local, small or interesting. You could argue that's happening in a lot of the hipper areas in New York City too -- expensive condos and high end retailers are pricing out the very things that made those areas cool.

Then, thanks in part to some commenters, I relaxed a bit, figuring that 14th Street is for the corny (but often useful) chain stuff, while the rest of the area still had plenty of funky local places: the "Hip Strip" of bars and restaurants on 11th Street and the spots on Georgia Ave and farther up 14th Street. In the very long run, those may be priced out too by bigger chains with broader market segments (see how greasy spoons and record stores in Georgetown have been replaced by froyo and cupcakes), but for now, I'm mostly ok with how things are going. Columbia Heights Coffee closing was a little worrisome though, assuming that competition from the much bigger, pseudo-chain The Coupe led to its demise. I hope it's not the canary in the coal mine.

But back to TGI Friday's: IMBY argues, basically, tough luck: "For the same reason we shouldn’t allow young people to ban families and chain restaurants to preserve their hip enclaves, we shouldn’t let senior citizens control regulatory matters because they don’t want their commercial building to be used as designed."

There are market forces at work here. If there's money to be made in businesses that cater to older people, they will probably open. It's possible that businesses didn't realize this demand existed before, and of course a market system isn't perfect (sometimes things are delayed or not optimal,) but in general the growth here in Columbia Heights is in establishments that cater to young singles and increasingly to young families.

I do hope there are places that also cater to older residents. The Post article makes some good suggestions for balance: maybe restaurants should be brighter and quieter earlier, then louder and darker later on as younger folks show up, for example. But at the same time, if you try to have something for everybody, you get nothing interesting. You get Georgetown or Chinatown at best, the lamest stripmall suburbs at worst.

It's a tricky argument, as the Post article is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we say "sorry, older folks, things have changed," then we become the same entitled and selfish millenials that they and other media outlets complain about. But things are changing. Neighborhoods and cities always change. It's tough to balance that change, to balance services and respect for older residents with both the practical (but boring) things and the new, hip and fun spots that many of us want. I hope we can do it. TGI Friday's doesn't mean we can't.

TGI Friday's is pretty far down the list of things I want to come to the neighborhood, but it's not the end of the world.


  1. A well written aritcle. Anything that opens in this particular location would be a problem, and not having a business there was a problem previously.

    A few years ago that corner (14th and Monroe) was a drug dealer spot and vandalism when neighbors called the cops, then came the furniture store, which the neighbors had a problem with the trucks. If a daycare had moved in instead of TGI Friday, the neighbors would have a problem with the drop-off and pickup of children twice a day. More examples, a Pollo Chicken place creates lots of thick smoke, problem; hipster bar, problems, dog grooming (traffic/pickup dropoff), etc.

    Anything in that location will cause a problem. TGIFriday, as you say in your article is probably one of the least problematic companies. There's a corporate structure and a PR department behind TGIFridays, so if there are real problems, they will be addressed one would hope.

    Now I wish they would have fixed that funky intersection when they had the chance 10 years ago.

  2. Good point about the PR problems for the company. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

  3. Hmm, well thats an interesting situation, and I'm not sure who's side I'm on. It may be a case of -'you can't please everybody'.


Please don't advertise in the comments, and please enter some kind of name when you comment instead of being anonymous.

If the post is more than 28 days old, your comment must be approved first.