(Updated 9:55 p.m.) Alexandria’s Planning Commission voted to recommend eliminating outdoor music at Hops N’ Shine (3410 Mount Vernon Avenue) and the restaurant owners faced some withering rebukes from Planning Commissioners.
The bar failed to get a recommendation for the outdoor live entertainment or outdoor cooking conditions, two of the major components of the special use permit (SUP) application.
Arlandria bar Hops N’ Shine has accrued a devoted local following for its live music and trivia events, but the bar has also drawn the ire of some neighbors when the noise of those events go beyond the confines of the bar. The staff report noted that there have been “17 valid complaints related to violations of SUP conditions”
Owners of Hops N’ Shine noted during the public discussion that the complaints are being challenged in court and asked that the bar be considered “innocent until proven guilty”. Some of the complaints, they said, were the result of misunderstandings as the restaurant struggled to adapt to the pandemic and a post-pandemic environment.
“We have tried to be a good corporate citizen, to live by the rules and abide by the rules,” said Abe Hadjiesmaeiloo, one of the bar’s owners. “I know we have lots of complaints tonight with major issues. Some of the issues with complaints were a misinterpretation on our part.”
Abe said many of those complaints stemmed from one particular neighbor who told him from the outset they aimed to have the restaurant shut down and regularly harassed both customers and staff at the restaurant. Paymon Hadjiesmaeiloo, Abe’s son, said he was concerned about the precedent that could be created if a group of individuals were able to use the complaint system to shut down a local business.
Some on the Planning Commission weren’t buying it.
“There were several violations that were reported here that you were told that outdoor live trivia shows were problematic for the neighborhood and not repeated, yet they continued even after [that],” said Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek. “We have a record from staff that shows there have been repeated reports of outdoor trivia noise from business after repeated notices of violation and requests to cease the activity. Why did it continue?”
Another owner, C.J. Cross, explained that there was confusion from the city on what was or wasn’t allowed.
“Initially, when we had a complaint about trivia being outside, spoke with the inspector… and he told us we were within what we were able to do with having amplification of trivia outside,” Cross said. “So we were under the belief that we were good to go… Since then, after having conversation with city staff and them saying ‘you know what, that might have been told in the past, but that’s not what we now deem as allowed.’ Since that conversation in fall of last year, we have stopped amplification of trivia outside.”
Matt Rofougaran, another owner of the bar, said the outdoor activities have been generally innocuous.
“We sell custom made grilled cheese sandwiches and beer,” Rofougaran said. “We have toys for kids and a whole coloring book page. We do fundraisers for the community. We’re not a nightclub, we’re not ‘throw massive party’ types. We want acoustic music, someone singing ‘Friends in Low Places’… When we got a violation for outdoor cooking, you know what we had? Little smore kits for kids to make s’mores.”
But neighbors said granting the requests from Hops N’ Shine would reward bad behavior from the restaurant.
“It has been fairly problematic with respect to the amount of noise that travels over their area,” said Steve Harris from the Mount Vernon Court Community Associations. “One question we would have is: while we appreciate the staff recommendations, they did still reward them by expanding their hours from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.”
Other neighbors said Hops N’ Shine has been disruptive for neighbors. One nearby homeowner said they could smell the cigar smoke from Monday cigar nights, hear the trivia hosts on Wednesday nights, and that their children struggle to sleep with the sounds of bar patrons just 15 feet from their bedroom.
Ultimately, the Planning Commission voted to mostly stick with the staff recommendation — approval on paper, but with much of the requested improvements gutted.
Under staff’s recommendation, all windows and doors must remained closed during indoor live entertainment, and outdoor cooking and outdoor live entertainment permissions as denied — though permits can still be obtained for individual events.
Addressing the restaurant owner’s claims that what constituted live outdoor entertainment was unclear, the staff report lists “live music, game/trivia nights, movie nights, classes/workshops/meetings fundraising events and any such similar events.”
“I think, if there has been misinterpretation of the standards and expectations of the city, tonight they stop,” said Planning Commissioner Mindy Lyle. “It should be very clear what our expectations are for a business. Mr. Macek and I have been two of the most supportive for expanding restaurant hours and expanding restaurant opportunities. I remember voting in favor of your expansion last time. I want to say: I think that might have been an incorrect decision.”
Lyle said, despite Hops N’ Shine owners protesting that the complaints were miscommunications or neighbors with a vendetta, the number of violations are still concerning for Planning Commission members.
“[There are] 17 violations, whether they’re proven in court or not,” Lyle said. “Don’t tell me that staff is 100% wrong in issuing them. Staff is very careful in issuing violations and many times they err on caution and don’t jump the gun, because they know there are consequence to those actions.”
Macek said the approval still offers some flexibility to the business, but didn’t mince words regarding the Planning Commission’s frustrations.
“I think there has been egregious behavior by this applicant with respect to the operation of their business,” Macek said. “This is highly unusual that we’d have a business with 17 violations documented… The egregious performance here justifies revoking their right to have outdoor amplified sound.”
While owners of the restaurant said many supporters in the community signed their endorsement of the bar’s plans, Planning Commissioner Melissa McMahon said those voices don’t necessarily weigh as heavily in this matter as neighbors’ do.
“Your best friend doesn’t make your best roommate,” McMahon said. “What I’m hearing tonight is that living compatibility, this restaurant’s living room backs up to a bunch of other people’s living rooms… The hundreds, potentially thousands of people who would write in support of you as a business, as a member of the wider community: legit perspective, but those are the people that love you because they don’t have to live with you… The people you do have to live with, you have to find a way to live side by side.”
The application heads to the City Council for review on Saturday, June 17.