The Spectacle Blog

Ping pong rally needed

By on 5.3.08 | 4:02PM

As D.C. libertarians rally around the Jefferson 1 -- you can donate here -- consider another local put upon by the small tyrants of the D.C. establishment. His story comes via The Dupont Current, an off-line only freebie.

Jessica Gould reports:

In the end it came down to a debate about right and pong.

On Monday, James Alefantis, co-owner of Comet Ping Pong, presented a public-space application to the North Cleveland Park, Forest Hills and Tenleytown advisory neighborhood commission.


Why has this good citizen petitioned his representatives?
After a year and a half in business, he said, the restaurant at 5037 Connecticut Ave. is ready to expand outside. he requested the commission's support for an application to build a sidewalk cafe complete with tables, chairs, planters and a patio. New fencing on freestanding posts would surround the cafe, he said.

A lovely American story, isn't it? Who doesn't like to see a small businessman succeed? Who could object to such a man creating a nicer setting for customers, stimulating the economy and contributing more to local coffers?
But some commissioners said they were concerned about Alefantis' past sidewalk use. "Up until yesterday, you had a ping pong table in public space. Do you have a permit for that?" asked commissioner Frank Winstead.

Yes, it is absurd that one needs a permit for a ping pong table. I'd be on Mr. Alefantis' side even if he never sought one. But here is what actually happened:
He said he had contacted the district Department of Transportation's public space office and was informed that, since the table could serve as a kind of advertisement for the restaurant, it did not necessarily need a permit.

Okay, so this poor guy did due diligence, consulting some obscure municipal office about a simple ping pong table. You're all set, his government told him.
Some commissioners, however, remained unconvinced. "They told you it was like a sign or a plaque" A ping pong table is not an advertisement," said commissioner Karen Perry.

As it happens, I have seen the ping pong table. I have also considered securing duel citizenship in some small third world nation whose national ping pong team is poor enough that I might sneak my way into the Olympics. In less ambitious moments, I've told my friend Chris Beam that we should play ping pong sometime. So for me the table most certainly served as an advertisement.

How foolish, I now realize -- Chris, let me apologize for my recklessness. Why?

...commissioners said they worry about the perils posed by the ping pong table. "I think this ping pong table in public space is a safety hazard and I want to see it gone," said Winstead.

Commissioner Daniel Klibanhoff said ping pong players might be tempted to follow errant balls into the street.


There was one commissioner who ignored these grave pragmatic concerns.
Perry said it was the principle of the ping pong table that bothered her. "I guess my problem is I can't approve an application for someone who has knowingly violated the law for 18 months," she said.

Furthermore, she said, she objected to the fence with the freestanding posts and would prefer to see planters mark the bounds of the sidewalk cafe.


Before I note what happened, consider that all this nonsense is a pretty major disincentive for a business owner thinking about modest expansion. Going before the city basically gets you a bunch of scrutiny as to whether you've ever violated a bunch of petty rules. So what did happen?
Perry proposed that the commission not object to the cafe, but include a series of caveats in its letter to the Department of Transportation. The commission would alert officials to the presence of the outdoor ping pong table, she said...The commissioners would also note that they did not approve of a rope and stanchions, had concerns about whether an existing ramp to the restaurant complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and questioned the accuracy of the drawings, she said.

Alefantis, apparently broken and resigned to the necessary groveling expected by small tyrants:

"I think they are all good suggestions... also I want to apologize to anyone who was offended by the outdoor ping pong table."

And after all that, a couple of commissioners still voted against allowing this businessman to improve his business!!
The commission passed the motion 3-2 with Klibanoff and Winstead voting against it. Alefantis promised to move the ping pong table inside the restaurant.

I'm sure these commissioners are perfectly nice people, but their attitudes toward the proper role of government -- petty, bullying, imposing lots of unnecessary rules, substituting their personal preferences for the carefully thought out aesthetic preferences of a businessman expanding his livelihood -- are gravely flawed. If you agree why not contact them -- politely and using reasoned arguments -- and tell them so.

Meanwhile, so much for outdoor ping pong on these lovely spring days.

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