Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Joe Englert, DC nightlife impresario, dies | Lessons about nightlife-based revitalization

Various media report that Joe Englert, a leading operator of taverns and nightspots ("Joe Englert: The Life of the Party," Washingtonian Magazine, "Joe Englert: Toast of the Town," Washington Business Journal), died from complications after surgery.

-- "Joe Englert’s quirky bars revitalized D.C. nightlife — and a neighborhood, too," Washington Post
-- "How Joe Englert Changed the DC Bar Scene," Washingtonian
-- "Joe Englert, H Street's bar king, dies," Washington Business Journal

Joe Englert, Dr. Granville Moore's, belgian -- soft opening
Joe at the soft opening of Granville Moore's, 2006.

I got to know Joe when he decided to reproduce H Street NE into a nightlife district, in response to the city-produced revitalization plan for the district in 2003, and the then underway rehabilitation of the Atlas Theater into the Atlas Performing Arts Center and alongside the already opened H Street Playhouse (now operating in Anacostia as the Anacostia Playhouse).

I had already been a Sunday brunch patron at Capitol Lounge for many years before, although generally I wasn't much for the bar scene.

At the same time, I had been known for opposition to an overconcentration of liquor stores on the corridor as a contributor to disorder.  So people were surprised that I had no problem with his plans to open multiple establishments "selling liquor" on H Street.

I countered that there is a difference between managed sales and consumption of liquor within restaurants and bars and sales of singles, often to be consumed in deleterious ways in public places ("Restaurants and liquor licenses--How much is too much on H Street?," 2005).

Here's what I learned by observing his operations.

Nightlife: a district with multiple establishments versus a single place to go | Critical mass

Long before I met Joe Englert, a friend who night-hops far more than I did made a great point that I will never forget.

He said that when you go out, you really go to a district, not a place, because you don't want to be stuck in place that isn't fun, isn't happening. When there are a bunch of places nearby in a district--like Adams-Morgan or Dupont Circle--you aren't stuck. You can just "bar hop" over to the next place. The night out isn't ruined, just reorganized.

-- "Night time as a daypart and a design product," 2017

I didn't learn that guiding principle from Joe, but it was the underpinning of his foray onto H Street.

He realized he could buy a bunch of buildings at scale, relatively cheaply at the time, as an early mover, and create "critical mass" and a destination.  Joe did a bunch of projects around the city, but he focused on more "critical mass" efforts on Capitol Hill along Pennsylvania Avenue SE and on H Street NE.

-- "Creating the "new new" thing: commercial district revitalization," 2006

Group singing on the Atlas stage, H Street Festival, September 20th, 2014High culture isn't enough to revitalize a commercial district or to create an arts district

The same is true for a district more generally.  By definition a district has to have more than one thing to do.

One or two culture related institutions or organizations aren't usually enough to spark revitalization on their own.

People need to be able to do stuff in the area before and after attending an event or otherwise visiting a cultural establishment.

As Project for Public Spaces point out in their "Power of 10" approach to placemaking, you need multiple places to go and things to do to make a place great.
Creating Great Places/Destinations

Without places to eat or drink, and to be able to pick and choose how to organize and consume your experience -- a store to browse in before eating, a place to eat before a show at the Atlas, a concert, or a performance somewhere else, and a bar or two to have drinks after, wanting to stretch the night out as long as possible -- you don't have the multiplier effect on local business from arts performances.

If people don't spend any time and money outside of the destination arts facility, there isn't much ancillary revitalization benefit.

A good example is Arena Stage in Southwest, which didn't spark much in the way of additional community improvement beyond its place as a destination and arts facility.

To produce revitalization (1) you have to create a district (2) with a balanced mix of retail and attractions ("Daypart and age-group planning in mixed use (commercial) districts," 2009).

A plan isn't enough: you need visionary entrepreneurs who know what they're doing:  Plans are big picture, they don't magically bring functioning businesses to empty storefronts

The H Street revitalization plan was important in that it outlined an approach to improving the corridor in a systematic way and it communicated to potential developers, property owners, and business proprietors that the city was committed to the improvement of the corridor.

Cover, h street revival plan, washington DCAt the same time, the plan had some flaws, not fully recognizing that the section closest to Union Station had much greater opportunities than they predicted--now it's home to two supermarkets including a Whole Foods and an awesome bookstore, Solid State Books, which in turn helps draw people into and along the corridor.

Anyway, plans are all well and good, but without businesses to go in and open up and operate, you have nothing.

I argue that Joe's early entrance into H Street accelerated the improvement of the corridor by 5 to 8 years. 

It wasn't just that he opened places, he knew how to do it, he had a reputation for success that preceded him ("Plans to Set the Bar High on H Street," Washington Post, 2006).  So people were willing to experiment and visit H Street at night, even when it could still be unsafe.

He brought energy and vitality to the corridor long before Whole Foods showed any interest and before the people who created Solid State Books even had the idea to do so.  In short he laid the foundation, on top of the foundation of the revitalization plan framework.

Planning a corridor block to block

You can also think of planning the mix, "Power of 10" and Layering ("The layering effect: how the building blocks of an integrated public realm set the stage for community building and Silver Spring, Maryland as an example") as a block to block phenomenon too.
Identifying Placemaking Opportunities

Joe's establishments on the 1200, 1300, and 1400 blocks helped move people in between and along the blocks (plus in the L'Enfant Plan, the 1200 block is a double block and the 1300 block is a triple block, so this was equal to a six block distance, which is pretty long).

Joe Englert's biggest lesson: creating a system to "reproduce" restaurants at scale

You might think that Richard's Rules for Restaurant-Based Revitalization are based on Joe Englert's operations, but they aren't.  But they share some principles.

Richard's Rules are about creating restaurants that are approachable and encourage repeat and frequent business on the part of neighborhood residents, as a way to be successful, but also as a way to seed regeneration.

George Washington @ Capitol LoungeJoe did that, opening places all around the city, many of which still operate today, even if some are  no longer associated with him,   To do that you need a system.  And that's what he created.

While it's the same kind of process as what more corporate "neighborhood restaurant groups" do, like Clydes, Neighborhood Restaurant Group (originally Virginia-focused but they shifted to DC), Great American Restaurants, Black Restaurant Group, he did it without the assistance of MBAs and consultants ("Everywhere at Once: Chef Geoff Tracy's Data-Driven Empire," Washingtonian), "Black Restaurant Group is a top restaurant company," Restaurant Hospitality, "John Laytham, who helped Clyde's restaurants prosper, dies," Washington Post) and his places were much more ground up and not "corporate."

His system was bringing together in one place all the components of developing taverns and nightlife establishments as realizable, functioning businesses.

And while the places have a down to earth vibe, they are well run (e.g., a comment on the Washington Post article made the point that the buildings had great security doors to protect the money). He had an independent firm regularly audit liquor inventory, to stay on top of possible inside pilferage (a la the tv show "Bar Rescue") etc.

An individual/small group trying to open a place, having to develop this capacity all on their own, dealing with the complications of licensing and regulations and inspections, is at a serious disadvantage.

1.  Owning the buildings if possible (that way he controlled what happened there and reduced the risk if an establishment failed)

2.  Developing unique concepts (or neighborhood taverns with a twist)

I was talking with him once in his office behind Capitol Lounge.  I think of myself as reasonably creative, certainly a lot more creative than most people.  After leaving, I felt that there was a quantum scale of difference in the creativity between us.  He was awesome.  On a whole other level.

3.  Developing and identifying talented operators.  He ran some establishments, but mostly he relied on others.  He liked to come up with or facilitate concepts and put the parts together.  But to do that you need people, so when opportunities presented themselves, he was in a position to act.  He was always open to people with ideas, and people who worked for him or in the industry.

4.  Financing.  As an established operator, he had financing at the ready from investors who already made money from his other establishments, new investors, and banks when it came to mortgages.

5.  Vendor relationships.  As an established operator, vendors would cut slack to new establishments under his wing, easing credit and payment requirements, providing inventory credits and other inducements, etc., making it a bit easier to start out and get going when there wasn't lots of money coming in.

6.  Construction expertise.  He developed relationships with contractors with expertise in the types of properties he liked to operate in, so they worked on his buildings, and less expensively.

7.  Relationship with licensing authorities.  He had at least one person on his staff who was dedicated to dealing with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Department of Health, and the alcohol regulation agency on licensing and inspection matters.

For opening new places, this helps a lot in terms of reducing the time and expense of getting your certificate of occupancy by many months.

8.  Relationship with taxing authorities.  He also had at least one person on staff who dealt with tax matters.

9.  Accounting and operational systems and guidance.  (Although note to one off independents, there are resources out there, like POS systems companies, the technical assistance group Restaurant Owner, etc.)

But concepts don't always work and they need to be constantly refreshed anyway

One thing though about concepts is that people get bored and move on.  You always have to be on top of your game.  Patrons have alternatives

They constantly need to be refreshed, in order to keep people coming back.  Even cool places run out of steam ("As Clarendon Ballroom closes, it's the end of an era for Arlington nightlife," Washington Post), "Georgetown's J. Paul's is closing after four decades," WTOP).

Many of the places that Joe created on H Street no longer exist, while places more centered within their neighborhoods and with more evergreen approaches, last longer, like the Capitol Lounge, which has been open for more than 25 years.

This is a corollary of Richard's Rules, maybe it's better to do something a little more basic, a little less creative, visionary, and unusual.  Or if you are, have a lot more potential patrons to draw on.

One of the problems of the DC market, especially in Greater Capitol Hill, is that it is hyper competitive with multiple districts in close proximity.

For H Street, there are six districts within a couple miles of each other (Capitol Hill, Navy Yard/Capitol Waterfront, Wharf/Southwest Waterfront, Union Market, H Street, Downtown) plus Georgetown, 14th Street/U Street, and Adams Morgan and to some extent Dupont Circle not too far further.

Destination districts too can also get tired

You always have to be on top of your game.  Patrons have alternatives.  And that's also true for destination "districts" as opposed to individual establishments, which is why commercial district revitalization planning is a never ending process ("What Happened to Baltimore's Harborplace?, Bloomberg; "The failed concept of Harborplace," Community Architect Daily).

Argonaut patio, H Street NEThe Argonaut in better times, with an outside patio on the Maryland Avenue side of the building.

Not all the operators have it together

And despite the constant eye on identifying and harvesting talent, not everyone has it together.  The best meal I ever had at Granville Moore's was the first night.  Soon after, the opening chef was forced out.  For me, despite all the hype, the place was never the same.

The Argonaut, the first Englert establishment on the corridor, which he eventually sold off, had problems between the operators and shuttered a few years later.  It's been vacant for more than four years, diminishing the prospects for success of the corridor at a key gateway location.

Always be looking for opportunities 

Like Cracker Barrel, he was always looking for cool objects and ephemera that he could use to create concepts or otherwise adorn his restaurants.  The same was true of talent and investors.  He was always paying attention.

And I always hated his attempt at rebranding the east end of H Street, the area around the Atlas as "The Atlas District".  I didn't like that he didn't think H Street was strong enough to build branding and around it.

I don't think it has been successful overtime.  E.g., the twitter feed's most recent message is from 2011.

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