By Albert Amateau
State Liquor Authority Chairperson Dennis Rosen heard contrasting complaints from scores of Lower Manhattan residents as well as bar owners last Thursday at a three-hour nightlife forum convened by state Senator Daniel Squadron.
Residents talked about the proliferation of bars, their saturation of neighborhoods, and the noise, mess and antisocial behavior of bar and lounge patrons who must go out on the sidewalk to smoke.
Lower East Side, Tribeca, East Village, Soho and Greenwich Village residents from Community Board Districts 1, 2 and 3 called for stricter license enforcement and demanded that the S.L.A. take more seriously its discretion to deny licenses to locations within 500 feet of three other licensed establishments.
Meanwhile, nightlife operators spoke about their protracted wait for licenses — as long as a year or more. Some bar owners insisted that neighbors made harassing and baseless 311 complaints.
One operator of an East Village venue said he lived above his business with his wife and two children and had to put up with whatever his neighbors had to endure.
“It’s the city,” he said. “You have to get used to it.” Residential partisans responded with expected hoots of outrage.
Rosen — former assistant state attorney general, who became head of the S.L.A. in September — told the crowd that he was committed to reforming the agency that issues liquor licenses and enforces the Alcoholic Beverage Control Laws. He introduced Michael Jones, S.L.A. deputy C.E.O. for New York City, who was an assistant district attorney for many years and worked closely with police.
Rosen said the agency had a backlog of 3,000 license applications in October, which was reduced 40 percent by the beginning of this month.
“By [next] October, we’ll be current and rid of the backlog,” he said. But he also pledged to improve reviews of existing licenses and the agency’s response to community complaints of violations.
“I want to make it clear that no applicant will get a license who shouldn’t get one, and our reviews will be as strict or stricter than ever,” Rosen said. “Enforcement is a serious issue. There is no contradiction between reforming license application reviews and effective enforcement,” he said.
“I know the agency is broke; we intend to fix it,” he said at the Feb. 4 forum.
Rosen said the agency would propose measures to the state Legislature to improve the way the S.L.A. functions. One legislative recommendation would call for a definition of “community impact” in assessing an application. Another would define “focus of police attention” with a specific number of police actions at a location within a specific period.
But Rosen insisted that the provision that requires the agency to respond when three or more licenses exist within 500 feet of a proposed location is strictly discretionary.
“We have to consider a variety of factors, including community input, which we take very seriously,” he said. The agency, for example, is not empowered to issue a blanket moratorium on licenses in an area. “There is no rule of thumb that says when an area is saturated,” Rosen noted. “We have to take it case by case. It comes down to the neighborhood; 42nd St. is different from Carmine St.”
Responding to one resident who brought up past S.L.A. corruption scandals, Rosen said, “I will not preside over a corrupt agency.” He noted that, as an assistant state attorney general, he prosecuted corruption cases including those involving the S.L.A. and liquor interests. In addition to Michael Jones, the former prosecutor, the agency has a forensic accountant to make sure it remains honest and free of corruption, Rosen said.
Elected officials, including City Councilmembers Rosie Mendez and Margaret Chin, Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Brian Kavanagh and representatives of Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, were among the more than 100 people who attended the forum.
“We have a problem with proliferation,” said Mendez. “We need diversity in the business on our streets — but what owner of a store that depends on daytime foot traffic would come to a block that only has night foot traffic because of all the bars?” she asked.
Seventy-two residents from E. Fifth, E. Seventh and E. Ninth Sts., as well as from Murray St. in Tribeca and Carmine St. in Greenwich Village, spoke up to protest conditions and propose remedies.
There were demands that local police precincts put cabaret and bar enforcement units in the streets where nightlife venues draw thousands of visitors.
Aaron Sosnick, of the East Village Community Coalition, protested what he called “automatic approval of licenses and renewals.” Sosnick charged the S.L.A. makes “a mockery of the 500-foot rule” by licensing premises in neighborhoods saturated by bars.
Loretta Thomas, a Tribeca resident, said there were 10 bars in a three-block radius of Murray St., five of them operating with licenses transferred from previous owners without hearings.
Susan Stetzer, district manager of Community Board 3, covering the East Village and Lower East Side, explained later that a liquor license that was issued to a corporation for a location could be transferred without a hearing to someone who buys the corporation.
“The license belongs to the corporation,” she said. “It doesn’t happen often but it does happen.”
“All we do now is fight liquor licenses,” said Stuart Zamsky, of the E. Fifth St. Block Association. “We have the most bars in our zip code. It’s a zoo,” Zamsky said.
Rosen replied, noting that the agency had just denied an application by an E. Fifth St. applicant — who holds a wine-and-beer license — for a full liquor license.
Robin Goldberg, a Little Italy resident, urged that 500-foot hearings should be held for wine-and-beer licenses as well as full liquor licenses. She also protested that bars hold liquor licenses in buildings that do not even have certificates of occupancy.
“We want our quality of life,” demanded Judith Zabarowski, a longtime resident of E. Ninth St., adding, “Within a five-block radius, we have 57 liquor licenses.”
A resident of Elizabeth St. for 30 years told the forum that the owner of a 2,000-square-foot venue at 267 Elizabeth St. applied for and was denied a license last month but has applied again for March.
“We opposed them at the hearing, but they keep applying and we have to go again. Can’t you put a limit on the number of times someone can apply for the same place?” she asked.
“We don’t have the power to deny them the right to apply,” Rosen replied.
Marna Lawrence, a Mulberry St. resident, and Ariel Palitz, owner of Sutra, a lounge at First Ave. and First St., called on the city to hold another forum for nightlife operators and city agencies to come up with “best practices” guidelines for bars and clubs in the East Village. About five years ago, Quinn sponsored a best practices forum for club operators in the West Village in response to several instances of license abuse and violence.
Claudia Flanagan, a 30-year resident of E. 10th St., suggested that the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs should stop issuing sidewalk cafe permits for locations where bars dominate the neighborhood.