CB3 Debates Max Fish’s Predicament, SLA Committee Dysfunction
As the clock ticked towards 2am May 18th, the bleary eyed members of Community Board 3’s SLA Committee finally took up one of the most intriguing applications on that night’s agenda… Item #31: Ocean Club (MHUT, Corp.), 195 Chrystie Street (application for full bar).
Turns out the applicant was Ulli Rimkus, the owner of legendary Ludlow Street bar, Max Fish (178 Ludlow). In search of a way out of a financial pickle (caused by skyrocketing property taxes and high rent), she told committee members about a plan to move to Chrystie Street (the name, “Ocean Club” was apparently invented to avoid attracting too much attention to the situation).
Given Max Fish’s status as a Lower East Side institution, committee members were sympathetic. But nonetheless, they voted to deny the application, stating:
…there are 9 large scale licensed premises within this one block, three of which – with full… liquor licenses – would be adjacent to this previously unlicensed location. This community board has worked to attempt to resolve ongoing complaints about two of these businesses (Freemans and The Box)… Residents continue to complain about the huge (influx)… of people who come to this block at night to patronize these (establishments) and about the traffic congestion, lines of cars and horn honking that have resulted in taxis and limousines depositing and picking up patrons in front of these businesses.
The debate resumed last night at CB3’s full board meeting, as committee member (and bar owner) Ariel Palitz said she was disappointed CB3 could not have found a way to support a business with such a long history in the neighborhood. She said there’s a “lynch mob mentality” on the board when it comes to nightlife.
Another committee member and bar owner, David McWater, agreed, saying CB3 had “demonized our opinions.” Years ago, McWater said, he suggested zoning changes that would have allowed new liquor licenses in corner locations but not on side streets. “No one would listen because I’m a bar owner, and now we have 400 bars in (Community District 3),” he complained.
McWater also called on CB3 to stop hearing applications for sidewalk cafe licenses. This month the SLA Committee decided to reject a request from Westville (173 Avenue A) to add sidewalk seating. McWater asserted the city (the Department of Comsumer Affairs) routinely ignores the community board’s opinion anyway, so spending time debating each sidewalk application, is a waste of time. “We should suck it up and tell the public the truth, and tell them what we can and cannot do,” he said. McWater also complained about the lengthy SLA Committee meetings, which routinely last seven or eight hours.
CB3 Chair Dominic Pisciotta responded that there have been some cases in which the board has successfully stopped sidewalk cafe applications. But more important, he argued, “we are accountable, we represent the community and we have a responsibility to offer our opinion.” CB3’s district manager, Susan Stetzer, acknowledged the city seldom agrees to reject sidewalk licenses altogether. But, she added, there have been occasions in which they’ve required businesses to adhere to certain restrictions requested by community boards.
Responding to McWater’s criticism of lengthy meetings, Pisciotta conceded it’s an issue that needs to be addressed. But he also used the opportunity to admonish committee members about the need to “behave better” during meetings. “What I’ve read in the blogs is very disappointing,” Pisciotta said.
After the meeting, Pisciotta told me it’s clear to him CB3 needs to evaluate the SLA Committee’s policies and procedures — and to specifically lay out the criteria for approving/denying liquor license applications. Re-evaluation is needed, he suggested, for many reasons, but especially because the new regime at the State Liquor Authority has instituted a variety of new procedures in the past year.
Residents and bar owners reoutinely complain about inconsistent decisions from the board. In the past, SLA Committee Chair Alexandra Militano has said the perception of erratic rulings is due, in part, to the sharply divergent views on the committee. The panel includes members who are determined to curtail the number of bars in the neighborhood, as well as other members equally determined to fight for new and established bar owners. It’s a dynamic that frequently leads to protracted arguments and varying interpretations about SLA and community board policies.
One other note: in spite of its decision regarding Max Fish, CB3 is helping the bar deal with its financial problems. Stetzer said the city’s office of Small Business Services may be able to provide legal services to assist Max Fish in dealing with its landlord.