Level Lounge discussion

The liquor license application for 315 H Street NW we’ve been tracking since May 26th is now being referred to as Levels Tavern Level Lounge. The below writeup attempts to outline all the information I know both from my sources and the discussion with the applicant at the June 2nd ANC 6C ABL committee meeting. The ABL meeting was attended by the committee members (minus Anne Phelps), ANC commissioners Keith Silver and Charley Docter, DNA president Miles Groves, MVT CID Executive Director Bill McLeod and two Madrigal Lofts residents.

Property
The four-story brick structure, located at at 315 H Street NW, is situated between a women’s shelter on the left and Papa Johns to the right. The building has a narrow frontage on H Street but runs deep all the way to the back of the property line to provide 11,000 square feet of space across five levels. In it’s past life this handsome structure with it’s detailed facade was an apartment building called the Jefferson – a name which is still inscribed above the ground level entrance today.

Front of 315 H Street NW

While I could not track down the last year the property has been in active use it predates the last time the deed changed hands. The DC Recorder of Deeds states that the property was sold from the estate of Demetrios Tsintolas to Maryam Fathi on 6/4/2002 for $490,000. The proposed 2010 Assessment for the property is $1,114,110. Recently the property has had a commercial listing on Loopnet without a formal asking price.

A photo I discovered from 2006 showed the building had windows blocked off by masonry and boards. Since that time improvements have been made to the structure – most notably new black windows. The applicant states the building could still be another year from being completely built out as an elevator is added and the interior is gutted and redesigned.

Applicant
The applicant is 31 year old Pouya Yousefi who is the nephew of the property owner. Yousefi, a DC area native presently living outside the district, is a software engineer by vocation graduating with a BS in computer science in 2004 from UMBC before earning his masters from JHU in 2009. His hobby since his early college days is event planning/promotions with his one man company coined dcPYro Productions. Recently he promoted events at the nightclub MCCXXIII (1223 Connecticut Ave) with several affiliated with DC Persians. Mr Yousefi has no previous management/ownership experience of any bar, lounge, or other entertainment venue.

Application
Yousefi is applying for a CT-Tavern liquor license with an entertainment endorsement.

License Class: Retail Class “C” Tavern

NATURE OF OPERATION
New Tavern with Middle Eastern food and pastries. Hookah Bar, DJ, occasional live bands (maximum 3 pieces), singers, dancing but no designated dance floor. Cover Charge. Occupancy Load 299.

HOURS OF OPERATION
Sunday through Thursday 11 am – 2 am
Friday through Saturday, 11 am – 3 am

HOURS OF SALES OF ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES
Sunday through Thursday 11 am – 2 am
Friday through Saturday, 11 am – 3am

HOURS OF OPERATION FOR ENTERTAINMENT
Sunday through Thursday 6 pm – 2 am
Friday through Saturday 6 pm – 3 am

Note that the listed hours would represent the maximum allowed rather than truly indicate the business will operate during all these hours.

Concept
When speaking of the concept Mr Yousefi appeared to convey that certain aspects are still in undecided and that he is applying for the CT-Tavern license to maintain the most flexibility. What did seem locked down is the intent to create a middle eastern lounge using the basement floor for music and ground floor for a lounge with admission based on cover charges. He plans to have no kitchen on-site but rather prepare food off-site which would be delivered to this location. The Hookah bar aspect is an option he wants to keep open to himself but it may be swapped out for a cigar bar or other feature entirely. For the upper floors of the building he mentioned a possibility may be corporate meeting space.

Discussion
Below are paraphrased elements of the discussion with Yousefi after his presentation of the concept. Some of the questions and answers are composites of a more choppy back-and-forth between the applicant, committee and audience.

Q – Why are you pursing a CT-Tavern license rather than a CR-Restaurant license? Why the absence of an on-site kitchen? With 11,000 s.f. it’s difficult to make the argument that you are constrained by space.
A – The CR-Restaurant license requires that food sales must account for 45% of gross receipts. That requirement is a headache that we don’t want to deal with. We want to focus on running the lounge. As for the kitchen, our investors prefer we maximize lounge/bar space and keeping the kitchen offsite does that plus keeps the basement level free which has the best soundproofing for our music.

Q – How do you see this business fitting into the neighborhood? Our experience is that restaurants that serve lunch and dinner and foster activity all week are a neighborhood amenity while bars/lounges/clubs that focus overwhelmingly on the Thurs/Fri/Sat night crush are often a nuisance.
A – This is not a night club. We expect to be a neighborhood hangout/lounge much like Tryst. We’d love to earn as much business from the neighborhood as possible. We see ourselves being in the neighborhood a long time.
React – Tryst is a business many potential businesses love to nominally compare themselves to when discoursing with the public because of it’s reputation. Fact of the matter is that Tryst has a CR-Restaurant ABC license and so do many other popular lounges around the city such as Chi-Cha Lounge.

Q – There is concern about alley use. Your property does not appear to have any private open space in the rear along the alley. Where will you employees and patrons park?
A – We’ll discuss with our lawyers what we’re entitled to in the alley. Most of our patrons will be from the neighborhood and walk to our establishment. For the few that do drive the surrounding neighborhood has an abundance of street parking in the evenings.
React: The current users of the alley will insist that the voluntary agreement manage the alley use to ensure the public portions of the alley are not habitually infringed upon.

Q – While I hope your establishment is a success with the neighbors I think you’re overstating with the suggestion that most patrons will come from the neighborhood as a means to conveniently sweep any need to discuss parking under the rug. A middle eastern hookah lounge is a niche market that will need to pull potential customers citywide and from elsewhere in-and-around the beltway to achieve your desired occupancy of 299 patrons.
A – My friends don’t drive when they go out to places likes Tryst. As for the concept being a niche – I have over 1300 facebook friends with similar interests to me.
React: I’ve driven to Tryst and told him as much. The surrounding on-street parking in the evening will dry up in the evenings as Buddha Bar, Kushi, and this establishment open up. That’s fine with me. I’ve never been one to believe on-street parking in a mixed-use hi-rise neighborhood belongs to residents. That said, if patrons get so frustrated circling the block that they decide to park in front of a fire hydrant, in alleys or on sidewalks and this becomes a chronic problem then residents can rightfully go apeshit. Let’s be honest about how many car trips this establishment will generate on a weekend night. If it’s going to be a big number then Levels should work an arrangement with one of the nearby surface lots that are empty each evening. (Sure there are long-term development plans for these lots – but no way QDC suddenly begins developing all 5 at once). The facebook friends comment seemed silly to me – maybe that’s a big deal for an event promoter… My point wasn’t that the business was too niche to succeed in the DC area – just too niche to pull in 300 patrons in the immediate walking area.

Status/Next Steps
The ANC 6C ABL committee made a motion to oppose the the application for the CT-Tavern license and encouraged Mr Yousefi to seek a voluntary agreement that would address the concerns of residents. This committee motion is not binding – the full commission will hear from Mr Yousefi on Wednesday June 10th (7pm @ Heritage Foundation/214 Mass Ave NE) and decide whether to support or oppose while considering the committees recommendation. Because this is the last full commission meeting before the July 6th filing date the ANC must take a stand rather than defer the issue.

The Downtown Neighborhood Association will be holding a meeting for residents to discuss this application by Levels Tavern on Thursday June 18th at 7:30pm in the Madrigal Lofts lobby (811 4th Street NW). Mr Yousefi will be invited to this meeting to speak directly with residents – but regardless of whether he attends this meeting is required for residents feedback to have standing with ABRA.

I believe the DNA and ANC will reach out to Yousefi and his lawyers after the June 18th meeting to see if our feedback can be incorporated into a voluntary agreement before the July 6th filing date.

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Comments

  1. 1

    fourthandeye says

    I knew I'd forget something – there was also a healthy dose of skepticism when Yousefi claimed he would run this venue with just 5 employees and contract out security. FWIW – Buddha Bar said they would create over 100 jobs…

  2. 2

    Anonymous says

    What other concerns -outside of this alley concern- of the residents need to be included in the "voluntary" agreement for this business to not be strong armed? If they agree on these alley measures is this a non-issue?

  3. 3

    Cary Silverman says

    I think the owner has a nice concept, but understand some legit issues the surrounding neighborhood may ask for more details and try to address. The post lays out many of those issue well.

    It's probably not fair to compare this venue to Avenue (now renamed), but in terms of size/capacity and type of license, there are similarities).

    1. If the neighborhood wants assurance that this building will not be or become a pure nightclub, Fri, Sat night use, it might suggest the owner to amend to apply for a restaurant rather than tavern license. Otherwise, the owner may say it's not a club, but he's essentially getting a license to operate as a club (for those not familiar with intricacies of DC ABC law, there is such thing as a "nightclub" license, but it primarily is for adult entertainment venues). Sure, he doesn't want the headache of having to have a menu and serve food on a regular basis, but the neighborhood may not want a venue that is shuttered and provides little or no community benefit during the day and causes headaches (literally) at night.

    2. Parking. Avenue has relationships with two private parking lots I believe, which it regularly fills even with available street parking. "Levels" is about the same capacity and similar distance from the metro and, at least on weekend nights, I would expect similar traffic if it is successful.

    3. Adequate security is certainly an important issue.

    4. Alley access, as discussed.

    I wonder with respect to the hookah bar idea if the business needs to get a special license and whether the DC nonsmoking law has any restrictions on having a hookah bar inside a larger club (which would need to be nonsmoking). The owner may need to have his lawyers closely check this issue.

  4. 4

    washingtonydc says

    I obviously hope that whatever the concept, it's a successful and responsible addition to the neighborhood.

    With that said, though, I'm disappointed that it'll only offer pre-made food–that limits its appeal to me greatly. I doubt I'd go to a club-like place, but if it were to offer real food, I could see myself enjoying leisurely lunches and dinners there.

  5. 5

    jaylin4dc says

    Living in the hood, i'd want to visit for hookah or great food. I'm hopeful the food will be good, but doubt it if it is delivered. I hope the hookah idea works out (is there a deck on the roof?), but also doubt it because of the new rules and the way Yousefi seems to want to avoid permit issues.

    Is it wrong to not want to go to Levels Tavern based on Yousefi's picture? Popped collars are -not- this neighborhood. Plus, 1,300 people have the same interests as you? Yawn – what a boring lounge. It's like he doesn't know Middle Eastern hookah lounges are niche – it is, and one could play up their expertise and cross cultural benefits.

  6. 6

    dcPYro says

    The name of the venue is Level. The tavern part has been inadvertently associated with our name since we are applying for a tavern license.

    The hours of operation are 7 days a week opening at 11 am. This will not be a niche establishment.

    We will have a full executive kitchen on the premises offering a variety of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes.

    This is not a nightclub and there will be no cover charge.

    I'm in the process of designing a web site prior to the June 18th meeting at Madrigal Lofts in order to convey my vision in a concise manner.

    I am looking forward to working with the community in addressing all their concerns and building a successful business that will be a part of the neighborhood for years to come.

  7. 7

    John Thompson says

    I live a few blocks away and I'm very excited about something fresh, new & hip, neighborhood feel to it. I hope it becomes a laid back loungy place with the casual neighborhood atmosphere that Busboys brought to City Vista!

    Hope you're LGBT friendly too – if so, let me know? I have a couple of outstanding suggestions. :)

  8. 8

    dcPYro says

    John, I am always open to suggestions. I would greatly appreciate your support and attendance this Thursday, June 18th at 7:30 pm at the Madrigal Lofts lobby.

    Talk to you soon.

  9. 9

    DCSingles says

    Myself, I'm excited for Level to open. I hope they decide to keep the hookah bar option- it seems like everyone in DC has hopped on the hookah bandwagon, which would be great for their business. I only work 3 blocks away so it would be nice to have a place to stop by in the evenings for a shisha and a drink.

    As for the location, it's not that bad. It's very close to Chinatown, so those wishing to use metro wouldn't have to walk far to get to Level. I agree that most individuals would be locals who would walk or take a cab. For those who drive parking will be no more complicated that those who frequent any other part of the city at night.

    I think it's great that he has 1300 people with the same interests on Facebook. In this city, you often have to build up your business with who you know. I went to the grand opening of a friend's hookah bar in Adams Morgan and within weeks it became one of the most popular hotspots at night, mostly because it gained a great reputation from those with similar interests (hookah, Middle Eastern food, bellydancing). Networking is a big part of being successful in this business.

    Good luck- I can't wait for the grand opening!

  10. 10

    fourthandeye says

    Just this month I've been to two after work birthday happy hours that had attendees from around the metro area. One was on CT Ave and the other on H St NE. Both were under the threat of rain – and that probably deterred some people into driving… but 75% of the attendees arrived by car.

    A non-trivial share of people do drive to bars. Especially bars that are not in destination entertainment districts were they can easily hop from one bar to the next should they not want to stay at one place all night. That's reality.

    It really should not be difficult to accommodate these cars so I don't understand the need for all this denial. There are many surface parking lots along the adjacent blocks that are empty in the evenings. It will just take planning. As Cary Silverman mentioned Avenue (aka Lux Lounge) is a venue of similar size with agreements with two parking lots.