Community boards' stinginess with liquor licenses angers restaurateurs and delights quiet-loving residents. Should you care? If you live downtown, yeah.
Thu Oct 9 2008
Illustration by Jacob Thomas
When T.J. Siegal went before Community Board 3’s liquor-licensing committee to make his case for the East Village coffeeshop the Mercury Dime, he came prepared. As he should have. This tough crowd has earned a notorious reputation for denying permits to top entrepreneurs—or at least making their lives hell. Death and Company’s owner David Kaplan was forced to operate on a temporary license after CB 3 raised various complaints against the establishment last year, which were ultimately cleared by the State Liquor Authority. And in the case of Momofuku Ko, CB 3 temporarily shut the restaurant down in February—before it even opened—following chef-owner David Chang’s bid before the board to get a full liquor license…without the necessary paperwork.
Speaking before the committee, Siegal produced a petition signed by 528 people in support of his bid to turn the café, which he owns with Sasha Petraske, into a wine bar. He pointed to Petraske’s impeccable record as a responsible bar owner, and to his own experience growing up in city neighborhoods “ruined” by bars and clubs. “We do not attract the crazies, or send drunk people out into the streets,” he assured the committee. “There will be no lines, no smoking out front and no cell phones.” Despite Siegal’s impassioned presentation, the board voted to deny a license to the café, which occupies a stretch of East 5th Street that lies within 500 feet of 20 other licensed venues. “This isn’t a question of character,” one of the board members told Siegal. “We do not have the quality of life on the street that we once had.”
It was only a decade or so ago that the presence of restaurants and bars in neighborhoods like the East Village and Lower East Side defined a new quality of life there. Now, to hear the arguments relating to places like the Mercury Dime, those same establishments are degrading neighborhood conditions. The fears usually amount to sidewalks littered with noisy smokers, loitering cabs and loud cell-phone conversations at 4am. Scenarios like Siegal’s illustrate the struggles taking place in neighborhoods throughout New York City: Residents want to protect their homes; restaurants and bars are looking for a place to make theirs.
To borrow a line from Civics 101, community boards are local government units that represent the needs and interests of the community, and provide a forum for residents to air their concerns. While Alexandra Militano, Community Board 3’s SLA/DCA committee chair—it covers the Lower East Side, East Village, and part of Chinatown—clarifies that her committee’s eventual judgment on any liquor-license matter is only an advisory opinion that goes to the State Liquor Authority (which may ultimately ignore that opinion), she believes that it’s in people’s best interests to make their voices heard. “We can only do a good job if people are coming and commenting and allowing us to understand what their opinions are,” she says. “They can explain the unique characteristics of their street,” and how something like a bar full of NYU students playing beer pong may affect their lives.
The past few weeks have seen a number of high-profile cases come before various boards that highlight their influence on businesses’ livelihoods—and the inconsistency inherent in the process. Tribeca’s CB 1 was in the news in March, when it first denied, then later voted to approve, a license for David Bouley’s new Japanese restaurant, Brushstrokes, after Bouley described himself as the target of a “witch hunt” by one board member. In addition to the Mercury Dime’s failed bid, the application for a liquor-license renewal from Chrystie Street burlesque club the Box was denied, also by CB 3, after its neighbors showed up to protest what one called “a two-year nightmare” of endless noise. And following the failed efforts of various entrepreneurs to open establishments in the long-vacant 19 Kenmare space in Soho, the owners of Travertine, an Italian restaurant, were granted a license by CB 2—despite the vocal opposition of residents bemoaning skyrocketing rents and threats of nighttime noise.
Often, complaints extend beyond the obvious. At a recent CB 2 meeting, for example, denizens of West 8th Street turned up to protest plans to open a gastropub on the ground floor of an apartment building, saying that the infusion of new restaurants on the street—long known as the city’s shoe district—is raising both noise levels and rents, while decreasing daytime foot traffic. “Retail is dead on West 8th Street,” one woman stated, adding that her neighbors have more use for a good optometrist than another eatery.
On the flip side, board meetings can be crucial for restaurant and bar owners who hope to win over the community: Jason Hennings, whose early liquor-license troubles nearly closed his restaurant, the E.U., is now beloved by Community Board 3, which last month granted him a license for the E.U.’s sidewalk space and praised him for doing “the complete right thing for three years,” despite initial opposition from his 4th Street neighbors.
Plenty of people argue that community board meetings are ultimately ineffectual—the State Liquor Authority has final say on who gets a license—but they can provide more information than any real-estate broker about a neighborhood. All you have to do is show up.