It started on Monday evening. Or it started 18 months ago, depending on who you ask.
At 6:29 p.m. on Oct. 18, Tom Knott, a former Washington Times reporter and his wife, Amy Bowman, the owners of Adams Morgan's The Black Squirrel, began using the bar's Twitter feed to broadcast a torrent of insults and complaints levied against D.C.'s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. "Latest word from DCRA: Work permit to be issued within next 10 years," reads the first missive, and it only gets more strident from there. Here's just a small portion (yes, there are many more) of the tweets Knott and/or Bowman have sent out since then:
- "DCRA to small-business owners: Up yours."
- "I am starting to think I have seen Haynesworth hanging out at DCRA, which kind of figures. Both are inactive."
- "The Haynesworth-DCRA link is not entirely appropriate. At least you could tell he was breathing. DCRA employs a good number of corpses."
- "Now I know what purgatory is -- it is waiting on a work permit from DCRA."
- "With DCRA, it always is the fault of the architect's drawings. That explains the last 18 months."
- "With DCRA, it never is the fault of the surly nincompoops employed there."
- "Eighteen months, DCRA. Eighteen months."
- "Sorry about the corpse reference, DCRA. It wasn't fair to real corpses. Yours are the pseudo-ones who live on the taxpayer dime."
- "No wonder so many owners conduct their projects in the middle of the night. That is when DCRA is fast asleep."
- "It would be impolite to ask the Black Squirrel what DCRA has cost the company in the last 18 months."
- "That is why I no longer give to those in need. I gave it all to DCRA."
- "Oh, plz. RT @dcra We can't approve incomplete, out of code plans could be potentially dangerous to the public. That's our responsibility."
- "Good day, DCRA comrades. Nice cover-your-backside response. That was lifted from the first page of a bureaucrat's damage-control playbook."
As you might have surmised by now, Knott and Bowman feel that DCRA has taken far too long to issue a building permit for them to start construction on an expansion into the basement of the building they already occupy at 2427 18th St. NW.
"They profess to love the small business man in theory, but in practice, they really do make things really difficult," Knott says of his overall view of the D.C. government via a telephone interview Wednesday. He claims his experience with DCRA over the last 18 months has cost him at least $80,000, "and we haven't even done the buildout." The tweets were both a way of venting, to "poke fun" at a frustrating situation, and to "shed some light" on the current situation for the bar's patrons, who Knott says ask all the time what the hold-up is with the basement expansion.
But after two solid days of staying mostly quiet on the bar's public put-downs, DCRA fired back on Wednesday.
Department spokesperson Mike Rupert published a letter, addressed to Bowman, in which he attempts to politely explain that the bar's complaints are total crap.
Dear Ms. Bowman,
The reason your building plans have not been approved is very simple – they do not comply with the building code. And while you’ve spent the past few days insulting our staff online in the hopes of forcing us to “just give you the permit,” your plans sit in our office, incomplete, out of code and waiting for corrections by your architect and expeditor.
We take fire and life safety issues very seriously. It is our core responsibility. If you want to put 50 or more customers in a small underground basement bar, you’ll need to install sprinklers and an adequate HVAC system. It's our responsibility to not let customers be put in harm's way. We're certain you'd agree that customer safety is of paramount concern.
And when your plans do not identify exactly how many customers will be served in a new basement bar – your architect’s plans currently give three different estimates – we cannot legally approve these plans. It really is that simple.
And while you have called us “dolts” and “corpses” and “nincompoops,” are accusing staff of improprieties, and implied we are being arbitrary about the rules, we are simply following the same International Building Code used in every state in the country. This is the industry's minimum standard.
Who's right? E-mails obtained by TBD between DCRA and the bar's architect, George Gordon, reveal that the primary remaining issue the city is asking for clarification on is the load number, or number of occupants, the bar is planning to be able to serve in the basement, a former hair salon. Because there are three different numbers listed on the various versions of the plans that have been submitted over the past year and a half, and because, as Rupert explains, anything over 50 people requires the installation of sprinklers and a stronger HVAC system, the department hasn't been able to issue a permit. If Gordon can substantiate that the current cooling system is sufficient for 50 people or less, and the plans are amended to reflect that occupancy load across the board, "we can proceed with permit issuance immediately," Acting Division Chief Robbie Sabbakhan wrote to Gordon on Tuesday.
So it would seem that all that's left is pretty small stuff, but that still doesn't address Knott's claims that DCRA has stalled on approving the project for so very long. He compares his experience with that of the massive, brand new Safeway in Georgetown, which was closed, razed and rebuilt over the same period of time that he's been working on merely building out an additional bar in a 1,000 sq. ft. space in his basement.
"These projects get done because they're political," Knott says. "But something like mine, they don't, and I just don't understand."
Rupert counters that The Black Squirrel has previously been issued 10 separate building permits for various aspects of its piecemeal renovations since 2008, and city records reflect that that is the case. Where Knott sees endless delays, Rupert says the specifics of the bar's plans have changed many times over the past couple of years, including switching architects mid-stream. It's also only been 20 days since they submitted their most recently revised plans.
But Knott, who describes he and his wife as being "at wit's end," only sees incompetence and negligence at DCRA. He gives zero credence to the big changes the department has tried to make over the last four years, things like being more responsive via social media or actually enforcing laws that have long been ignored. To Knott, visiting DCRA's shining new headquarters in Southwest D.C. is "like going into some sort of Third World deal," a concept that's hard to agree with if you've ever set foot in the space. There's also the DCRA employee he refers to as "Gus the Socialist," one of a couple of people he claims forced him to meet "in some back room."
"We don't even have a back room," says Rupert, who notes the entire second floor customer service area of the building was designed to be one big, open space. "Where is the back room?"
Still, there's no denying Knott's anger and frustration. In his view, he shouldn't have to still be dealing with questions about sprinklers and HVAC systems not only because he had been under the impression he didn't need to due to the scope and nature of the project, but also because they've been a good neighbor, a classy place that's different from your typical Adams Morgan bar, the kind of local business the city ought to go out of its way to help expand.
"We're not one of these dive bars selling $3 Miller Lites. I mean, we don't even have Miller Lite on our menu," says Knott. The Black Squirrel's menu includes mostly specialty and craft beers.
And he may have a point there. But is name-calling on Twitter really the best way to get a government agency to help you out?
"At this point, in terms of calling them out, no I don't worry about that, because what are they gonna do? Say no, we're not going to give you a permit because you're a moron? They already haven't given us the permit," Knott says.