CB3 Panel Rejects Soho House Plan; Battle Continues Next Week

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Soho House attorney Donald Bernstein (dress shirt, tie) stands alongside CEO Nick Jones and Pierre Dourneau, who’s overseeing the LES project.

Here’s our full wrap-up from Monday night’s contentious Community Board 3 hearing concerning a liquor license for Soho House, which hopes to open a new private members’ club at 139 Ludlow St. As previously reported, the committee decided to oppose the application before the State Liquor Authority, following a two hour debate.

Donald Bernstein, Soho House’s attorney, reviewed the plan for the new facility within a former funeral home just above Rivington Street. The building would have a capacity of 400, including a roof deck and bars on three levels. The new location, he said, would serve around 90 existing Soho House members in the neighborhood, as well as new members on the East Side. He argued that the business had been a “good operator” in the Meatpacking District, currently the club’s only Manhattan location.

Bernstein said 14 open houses were held on Ludlow Street in the last couple of months to gather feedback from residents and 180 signatures were collected in support of the application. Speaking of a community space Soho House is offering to build at 139 Ludlow, he referenced ongoing talks with the Educational Alliance about creating art studios in the basement. In response to concerns from local residents, Bernstein said the outdoor space would close by midnight, and there would be no music or smoking allowed outside.

There are more than 50 liquor licenses within 500 feet of 139 Ludlow Street. Any time there are more than three existing permits, an applicant must appear before the State Liquor Authority to demonstrate the “public benefit” of granting an additional license. Bernstein said Soho House would, in fact, help the community, since the facility would be open during the day, creating foot traffic for struggling businesses on the block. He also argued that the community space being offered is a significant benefit to the neighborhood. Nick Jones, Soho House CEO, also addressed the committee, saying, “we ask the community of the Lower East Side to welcome us… what we offer is a home away from home, an extension of your living rooms and kitchens.”

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Among those speaking on behalf of the proposal was Bob Zuckerman, the executive director of the LES Business Improvement District. Zuckerman said he understands and appreciates the concerns many residents have expressed about noise and crowds due to bars and clubs, but believes Soho House would help bring new customers to small businesses in the neighborhood. “As head of the BID I want the kinds of creative people (who are Soho House members) to come here… I believe it would be a major asset to the LES.”

Michael Chernow, a Soho House member and co-owner of the Meatball Shop, said he already uses the West Side club to conduct business during the day. “This is not a sports bar, it’s not a night club,” Chernow added. As a business owner who supports many community-oriented projects, Chernow said he would be the first to oppose the project if he believed the club would be a burden to the neighborhood. Another supporter called Ludlow a “dying street” creatively, and suggested Soho House could be a catalyst for new artistic endeavors on the once-culturally vibrant strip. Ray Lee, the former head of CB2’s liquor licensing committee, vouched for Soho House, saying “they can be trusted.” In Chelsea, he asserted, “they did everything they said they were going to do.”Monica Young, another club member, told the committee she welcomed the new outpost on the LES, particularly since Ludlow Street had become a “trashy”, “rat infested” nightmare. Young argued the presence of a quality business could only help the block.

An equal number of Soho House opponents got their say Monday night. Marvin Avilez said, “the Lower East Side is not Las Vegas, it’s not Bourbon Street,” but in spite of its status as a real residential neighborhood, the block has been allowed to become an all-night party zone, he said. The new venue would only make matters worse, Avilez explained, adding automobile congestion and pollution to the street. “We are crying and pleading for assistance,” he said. Diem Boyd, the founder of the LES Dwellers (a resident advocacy group), compared the Soho House application to another proposal at 106 Rivington St., right around the corner, which the State Liquor Authority rejected. SLA Chairman Dennis Rosen called the immediate area one of the most “saturated areas in the city, probably in the world.” Boyd noted that the Soho House venue would be twice as large as the 106 Rivington space.

Soho activist Sean Sweeney, who has a long history of clashes with bars in his neighborhood, said he’d been offered a free membership to the Meatpacking District Club (a story for another day). Sweeney, a CB2 member, said the place was intolerably loud by 9 o’clock in the evening and he rejected the contention from Soho House that most of its members represent the “creative class.” Elaine Young, who lives across from Soho House in the Meatpacking District, said she’s been forced to call the cops on numerous occasions due to late night noise.

A Ludlow Street resident of 35 years said there’s no need for yet another establishment with a liquor license on the block. Soho House, he suggested, should sell the building (it owns 139 Ludlow) to a grocery store like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Emily Armstrong, a filmmaker and longtime Orchard Street resident, said she didn’t buy the argument that Soho House would provide a sorely needed venue for film screenings and other arts events. “There are lots of affordable venues in this neighborhood,” she said. Armstrong also asserted that the club is certainly not for “struggling artists” but for those who have “already made it.”

A resident of 143 Ludlow St., a children’s tv designer, said seven out of eight tenants in his building (located right next door to the proposed club) oppose the application. He said the roof deck would be just four feet from his bedroom. “The tenants are very worried that (Soho House) will contribute to the (already intolerable) noise,” the man said. Sara Romanoski, a leader of the Dwellers group, said she has been unable to sleep at night for two months because so much traffic is moving on Ludlow. She also noted that there are already three active construction sites on the block, including the 23-story Ludlow Hotel, which is scheduled to open in the fall. Referring to the argument that Soho House could help revive local service businesses, Romanoski said, “we should not be trading liquor licenses for daytime retail.”

Following the public testimony, committee members weighed in. CB3’s David Conn brought up the board’s decision to deny the application for 106 Rivington, a project from longtime local residents who happen to be Latino. Saying the decisions of the committee needed to be consistent, Conn added, “the 106 Rivington application was actually more modest (in terms of he size of the venue and the operating hours) than this one.” Another member, Carol Kostik, disagreed, saying Soho House is a unique proposal in that it’s not open to the general public. “The nature of the business is different,” she suggested. CB3’s David McWater said he did not believe the SLA would care one way or another whether the applicants are local . He predicted the Liquor Authority would approve the permit because Soho House owns the building and is a powerful, multi-national corporation. Alex Militano, the committee chairperson, said there’s no doubt the club will contribute to Ludlow Street’s overcrowding and noise issues. She pointed out that the block is very narrow, perhaps no more than 27 feet. “This might have been a great idea 10 years ago,” she asserted, “but it’s not a great idea now.”

Nick Jones, Soho House’s founder, said he was willing to reduce the occupancy of the building to 250 and he was amenable to closing the roof before midnight. These concessions were not enough for most members. In the end, five members voted against the permit, four voted in favor and one member abstained. The battle will resume next week when the full community board decides whether to adopt the committee’s recommendation. Soho House has hired an influential lobbying firm, Capalino & Company, to help push the proposal through CB3 and the SLA. Donald Bernstein, Soho House’s attorney, also represented the applicants who were denied earlier this year at 106 Rivington Street. Bernstein will now have another chance to persuade the Liquor Authority that this particular area of the Lower East Side can absorb at least one more liquor permit.