255 East Houston St., March 2016.
City Council member Rosie Mendez is encouraging locals to show up next week at a City Council hearing on a proposed zoning change along a two-and-a-half block stretch of East Houston Street. Mendez, the Manhattan Borough President and Community Board 3 are all opposed the change, which is being pushed by property owner Samy Mahfar.
Mahfar is planning a 13-story residential building with ground floor commercial space at 255 East Houston St. (near Suffolk Street). He’s preparing to demolish a building that once housed a low-income daycare center, which was displaced in 2010 after construction on a neighboring lot damaged the property.
A community facility is the only use allowed under current zoning. But Mahfar says attempts to find a tenant have been unsuccessful. So he wants to map a C2-5 commercial overlay in the R8 district (the change would impact parcels he controls, plus 18 other lots on the south side of the street). This alteration would allow a restaurant to occupy the commercial space.
The community board approved a resolution in May opposing the change. It stated that Mahfar has, “a well- documented history of illegal construction and construction harassment” in other buildings throughout the Lower East Side. The board also told the City Planning Commission, “The daycare (center) was forced to be vacated due to the open violations and the applicant’s failure to address them.” Most significantly, CB3 argued that the neighborhood lacks adequate community facilities and has lost a number of daycare and nursing facilities in recent years (Rivington House, for example).
The planning commission, however, approved the application July 13 (see below). Here’s part of the city’s rationale as explained by the planning board:
There is an existing C2-5 commercial overlay on the north side of East Houston Street between First Avenue and Avenue B, and the proposed action will create consistency in the permitted commercial uses along each side of East Houston Street, which includes a wide range commercial uses from retail shopping, grocery stores, and restaurants. Together, these commercial amenities provide much needed services to Lower East Side residents. The Commission believes that the proposed C2-5 commercial overlay on the blocks and lots on the south side of East Houston Street between the east side of Norfolk Street and the centerline of the block between Clinton Street and Attorney Street is in context with the surrounding zoning and reflective of existing uses.
The matter will be taken up by the Council’s zoning and franchises committee next Tuesday morning at 9:30 (in the committee room at City Hall). In a newsletter published yesterday, Mendez’s office wrote, “Council Woman Mendez does not support zoning changes at this time and would like to encourage the Community Board and constituents to testify at the City Council’s hearing on the application.”
During an earlier public hearing, CB3’s chairperson and Mahfar were quizzed by planning commissioners about the application. Mahfar, of course, disagrees with the community board’s assertion that he was responsible for displacing the daycare. You can watch the videotape of the June 8 meeting here. [The East Houston Street discussion begins at approximately 15:45).
Lowline rendering; courtesy of Raad Studio/James Ramsey.
Almost five years after they went public with a headline-grabbing plan to create the world’s first underground park in an abandoned trolley station on the Lower East Side, founders of the Lowline have cleared a major hurdle. As we first reported Wednesday night, city officials have given their conditional approval for the ambitious project.
Representatives of the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) announced the decision at a meeting of Community Board 3. The Lowline responded to a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) put out by the city late last year for the old Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal. No other applications were received. In the next year, the Lowline is required to raise $10 million, submit schematic plans for the 60,000 square foot space and, as a press release put it, “implement a robust community engagement plan.”
In an interview, Lowline Executive Director Dan Barasch said, “It was an extraordinary day for us. It feels wonderful that the city is an enthusiastic supporter of the project. We’ve enjoyed extraordinary support across the community. Now we have a real vote of confidence from the city.”
Alica Glen, deputy mayor for housing and economic development, said in a statement, “The Lowline represents an incredible fusion of technology and public space. For eighty years, this underground space has sat idle. Now we’re putting it to use for the people of the Lower East Side and for all New Yorkers to enjoy. We can’t wait to see this experiment unfold.”
Charlie Gans, an executive vice president, took the lead for the EDC at the community board, describing the Lowline as an innovative public gathering and cultural space. “We have decided to conditionally designate the Lowline,” said Gans. Over the next year, he explained, there will be quarterly meetings of a new Community Engagement Committee and 5-10 public design charrettes. The historic trolley space, inactive since 1948, is owned by the City of New York and leased to the MTA. If the Lowline organization meets the agreed upon commitments, Gans said, “the acquisition process” will begin next fall. Shovels could be in the ground by late 2018.
Photo: Courtesy The Lowline
Back in November, members of CB3 complained to the Economic Development Corp. about the lack of local consultation before the city officially issued the RFEI. As a result, officials extended the deadline for applications by a month. At the time, they said the community board would not have a role in the selection process, but that there would be many opportunities for feedback from local residents. On Wednesday evening, Gans called the city’s decision just “the first step in a long process” and said, “We’re going to be making sure that the Lowline is engaging with the community in a real way. That’s why this designation is conditional.”
For some community board members, these assurances fell far short of their expectations. Damaris Reyes, executive director of the housing advocacy organization, GOLES, is an outspoken critic of both the city’s handling of the former trolley space as well as of the Lowline proposal itself. Referring to last winter’s discussions between CB3 and the Economic Development Corp., she said Wednesday evening, “I feel so dissatisfied and so disappointed that you did not respect this community board enough to come to us the right way.”
Realistically, she argued, no developer could have pulled together a compelling proposal in the short amount of time between the publication of the RFEI and the submission deadline. “The Lowline,” she said, “has had an unfair advantage of working on this and putting together all the details, the renderings, for several years now.” Reyes added, “I just want to say that I’m really disappointed in the way that EDC is now coming here to tell us there was one applicant, that they’re designating the Lowline as the applicant, not recognizing that perhaps you need to go back to the drawing board and rethink this, because there could be a million and one uses for that space, and that you disregarded what we said, the challenges that we are facing in our community.”
In 2012, Community Board 3 voted 44-0 in support of the Lowline project. Many board members continue to be enthusiastic backers of the underground park vision. Others have their doubts, including MyPhuong Chung, chairperson of the land use committee. While acknowledging the city’s efforts to give applicants an additional month to submit proposals, Chung told city officials, “we didn’t have any input in the decisions that were made,” and noted that gentrification has only become a bigger issue on the Lower East Side since the board endorsed the Lowline four-years ago. Referring to pressures on the community, she said, “these are real issues and, moving forward, we need to address them. Please know that we’re serious about this.”
Other land use committee members questioned whether the Lowline would be a drain on public funds that could be used for other purposes, whether the space would be frequently closed to the public for private events and whether, as public member Harriet Cohen put it, would be overtaken by “hot dog stands and concerts.”
The Lowline Lab in the Essex Street Market. Photo courtesy of The Lowline.
Committee member Dominic Berg was board chairperson when the Lowline went public in 2011. He was supportive of the project then, and continues to believe in it to this day. He suggested that other developers interested in the space could have started to work on ideas years ago. “This is a project that has been very, very well publicized for a long time,” said Berg. “The Lowline has been methodically working with the community… reaching out to all of the community leaders, trying to make sure that they are listening to the community and clearly trying to do what’s right for the community.”
Another longtime supporter, Councilmember Maragret Chin, urged people concerned about the project to become involved. She sponsored the first meeting of the Community Engagement Committee last month, along with Daisy Paez, tenant president of the Grand Street Guild apartments. She called the Lowline’s use of sunlight channeling technology for the park and the organization’s youth programming “amazing.” Chin told board members, “We can all have input… It’s really what we make of it. So I really encourage all of you to work with us and to work with EDC.”
Lowline co-founders James Ramsey and Dan Barasch. File photo.
When it was finally his turn to talk, the Lowline’s Dan Barasch said, “Our approach has always been, very consistently, that we simply want to take the space and turn it into a beautiful public gathering space that is used for the entire community, designed in close partnership with the community.” He encouraged anyone who’s interested to take part in the next community engagement meeting (it’s happening July 25.) Barasch said the committee, “will talk about real things — hours of operation, whether or not there’s retail, whether or not there’s programming happening in the space.” None of these things, he said, are “etched in stone.”
EDC officials have said they felt some urgency to develop the underground space now in order to capitalize on Essex Crossing, the large-scale residential and retail project now under construction in the immediate area. The developers are bullish on the Lowline, which they believe will draw locals and tourists alike to Essex Crossing’s shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. During this week’s meeting, Tim Laughlin of the Lower East Side Partnership said he’s convinced the subterranean park will also provide a boost to the neighborhood’s existing independent businesses. “I have long thought that the Lowline, as a project, would be a driver for small merchants,” said Laughlin. He cited the Lowline Lab, a prototype that opened in the Essex Street Market last October. The weekend-only community space has attracted 70,000 visitors. A food festival held in February drew a large crowd and led to big sales increases for Essex market vendors, Laughlin said.
There were, however, differences of opinion about the Lowline’s potential positive impact on local businesses. Cathy Dang, executive director of the advocacy organization, CAAAV, said she watched a longtime diner on Hester Street struggle after the opening of an art gallery. While the owner was, at first, optimistic about the arrival of a new clientele, he now believes the changes in the area have actually cost him business. Dang said she’s concerned the Lowline will have a similar impact. Laughlin countered that Essex Crossing and the Lowline together will, “drive foot traffic” and “support cultural institutions, support small businesses — both ones that have been here for multiple generations and ones that are new.”
At one point Wednesday night, Damaris Reyes asked Barasch whether his organization had released a community impact study conducted by the Hester Street Collaborative for the Lowline in 2015. The exchange offered a glimpse of the contentious history between certain community activists and the Lowline team over the last few years. During the meeting, Barasch acknowledged that the study had not been published. Reyes contended that opinions of Lowline detractors, such as herself, were initially discounted during the research phase of the project. Barasch said this assertion is untrue.
[This past March, The Lo-Down interviewed Barasch, Reyes, Hester Street Collaborative’s executive director and others about the research study. The initiative, paid for by the J.M. Kaplan Fund, was envisioned as a collaboration with GOLES, CAAAV and the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council. These groups initially agreed to participate in surveying their constituencies. Leaders of all three organizations told us they ultimately decided against taking part due to insufficient funding for robust outreach efforts. Members of the groups did participate in interviews conducted as part of Hester Street Collaborative’s survey. We’ll have more about this community engagement exercise in a future story.]
In the next several months, members of Community Board 3 will be seeking assurances from the Lowline team and from the city that the underground space will, in fact, operate for the benefit of the local community. City officials acknowledged that the former trolley space will eventually go through the city’s land use approval process (ULURP). Hearings before the community board and City Planning Commission will be required, the Borough president will weigh in and the City Council must vote on the final land disposition.
Jamie Rogers making his pitch last night to lead Community Board 3.
Members of Community Board 3 chose a new leader last night. He’s Jamie Rogers, who owns Pushcart Coffee, a small business with locations in Chelsea and Murray Hill. Rogers succeeds Gigi Li as board chairperson. She wasn’t able to run for a fifth one-year term due to CB3’s term limits.
Rogers defeated Enrique Cruz 34-11 after both candidates delivered brief statements and answered questions submitted by members of the all-volunteer board. Alysha Lewis-Coleman was elected first vice chair, defeating Chinatown activist Karlin Chan 42-5. Herman Hewitt was elected second vice chair, while Meghan Joye (secretary), Christian De Leon (assistant secretary) and David Crane (treasurer) also won positions as executive officers.
The election followed an especially contentious public session of the community board. A group known as the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side led a protest against the board’s handling of a community-based Chinatown rezoning initiative. Board leaders were denounced as “sell outs” for failing to — in the eyes of the protesters — forcefully advocate for all aspects of the plan.
In internal conversations leading up to last night’s vote, some board members were critical of CB3’s office, particularly District Manager Susan Stetzer, who they believe has too much influence over meeting agendas and other administrative functions. This issue was not addressed specifically by the candidates but was alluded to in their statements.
Following the vote, Rogers told The Lo-Down he wants to make sure CB3 is, “addressing concerns the board has with how we manage our staff, that we’re addressing concerns with transparency of our leadership, that we’re addressing concerns with appointments to various leadership positions.” CB3, he added, must be a “supportive board to its members” and must work harder to fully represent all aspects of the diverse Lower East Side community. “Tonight,” he said, “was a real indication of the pain and anger and frustration people are feeling that’s directed at the board, but it’s a much larger problem that we as a board need to address.”
While the votes were being counted last night, members of Community Board 3 posed for a “class photo.”
Rogers will have a full plate in the months ahead. In addition to running his business, he’s campaign treasurer for City Council candidate Carlina Rivera (who is Rogers’ wife). He’s also president of CoDA, a local Democratic club. Rogers. formerly a corporate lawyer, was appointed to Community Board 3 in 2012. He lives in the Grand Street cooperatives.
Enrique Cruz founded an organization called ALBOR, the Association of Latino Business Owners and Residents. He’s a lifelong Lower East Side resident and real estate developer. In recent years, he’s advocated for small businesses on Clinton Street, for greater diversity in community board appointments and for a more assertive stance against predatory landlords. He first became engaged with community board politics during a 2013 controversy over a Rivington Street restaurant he and other local businessmen were seeking to open. In the past, Cruz has been an outspoken critic of the board’s staff.
During last night’s board meeting, Cruz said CB3 leadership needs to more proactively reach out to members, making sure that everyone plays a role in shaping board policies. “We can be more inclusive, we can be more cohesive,” he said. Referring to the protests earlier in the evening, he added, “I think our community board is a good one. Some of the things that were said, while I understand the frustrations of some of the residents who were here today, I do know the hard work that all 50 members, who do this as a volunteer position, they do it with their hearts and they come here to try to make a difference.”
Council member Rosie Mendez and representatives of other elected officials honored Gigi Li last night for her service to CB3.
Enrique Cruz (left), Jamie Rogers.
Tomorrow evening, the 50 members of Community Board 3 will be choosing a new chairperson and other executive officers. After four years, Gigi Li is stepping down due to new term limits imposed by the board (she’s a candidate for Sheldon Silver’s former assembly seat).
There are two candidates for chairperson: Enrique Cruz and Jamie Rogers. Anne Johnson was also in the mix, but decided to withdraw her name from consideration. While members from the community at-large don’t get a vote, the outcome of the election will definitely be relevant to the greater Lower East Side. With this in mind, we’re providing space here for statements from the two contenders.
My name is Jamie Rogers, and I am running for Chair of Community Board 3. I’ve served on the Board for four years and during that time served as Assistant Secretary and on our Economic Development and Transportation Committees.
I joined the Board for the same reason I live in our community: I cherish the diversity and history of the neighborhood and the passion and creativity with which we fight to preserve it. As Community Board members, our principal mission is to take the voices of our neighbors and transform those voices into thoughtful resolutions. Those resolutions influence, guide and motivate our elected officials and agencies to help protect what makes our neighborhood unique.
I am a small business owner of community coffee shops and lawyer. I know firsthand the challenges of building a sustainable business that pays a living wage and meets the demands of ever-escalating commercial rents.
In addition to my time on CB3, I served as a Team Leader for Americorps, where I worked with non-profits and city agencies all around the country. Through that experience, I learned ways in which diverse communities work together to combat inequality.
As Chair, I will ensure that our board is a supportive, welcoming and dynamic body that fights for the community we all love.
I will run board meetings fairly and efficiently, allocating members’ valuable time to hearing community input, understanding the issues we face, respectfully voicing opinions of members and formulating strategy for action.
I will manage board resources and staff professionally, help all community members work with our staff to accomplish the community’s goals and provide constructive feedback to staff so they have the tools they need to do their best work for our board.
I will make leadership opportunities available and accessible to all members, make every leadership appointment a transparent process and support board members at all levels to give them the training, feedback and access to resources they need to succeed.
I will put infrastructure in place to increase our recruitment and outreach efforts in the community to ensure that every member of our community has a clear path for participation and understands board procedures.
Most importantly, I will work with each member to build and sustain a community board we are proud to be a part of and our neighbors are proud to be represented by.
In conclusion, I will work tirelessly to lead and serve the board. I am running for chair because I value the hard work and time we all put into representing this diverse community, and I want to do everything I can to transform our hard work into meaningful community benefits for everyone.
I look forward to working with everyone in the community to building a better board and a stronger resilient home.
Tomorrow there will be another Full Board meeting of our Community Board 3. Every last Tuesday of the month, Community Board 3 meets to discuss the issues and matters that affect our community. These meetings are open to all of the public and are important ways for the community board to hear from the community.
Community Boards are local representative bodies and there are 59 community boards throughout the city of NY. Each Community Board has up to 50 unsalaried members. The Borough President appoints the members of which half of them are nominated by the community’s Council Members. The Community Board members are mostly selected from community members who have applied and are active and involved in the community.
While Community Boards work in an advisory capacity, they deal with a wide range of issues including, land use and zoning, community’s needs assessment for city budget use, municipal facilities in the community, licensing, permits, and many more issues concerning our community.
My name is Enrique Cruz and I’m a Community Board 3 member and I’m running for the position of Chair. I’m a native of the Lower East Side, having been born here in the early 70s and a part of this community all my life I felt it was important to be a part of my community board as well.
At tomorrow’s Full Board meeting, the members of the Community Board will have an election to vote for all officers of the board. I chose to run for Chair of the Board so that I together with all of the members of the board can work on making our Community Board a better one.
If elected, I will commit to making it a priority that all of the board members are included in setting the board’s agenda. Every board member brings with them their own distinct perspective and experiences which should be utilized to widen and strengthen the board’s view of the issues facing our community. It will be a priority to work with the committee chairs that are appointed to ensure that the committees are open, transparent and inclusive of their members and the community.
Secondly, I will commit to working on creative and efficient ways of accessing the information that our members need to make the most informed decisions possible. If our board is not able to access the proper, relevant and thorough information it needs, it will not be in a position to make an informed decision. I will make it a priority that the board and district office work to gather the best and most relevant information possible so that our board can make more informed decisions.
Lastly, while our board receives issues and items that our thrust at us and we must react to them. I will commit on working to make our board more pro-active as a body. It is one of my priorities that we work on issues that we can see on the horizon and instead of waiting to react we instead deal with them mindfully and holistically.
I’ve witnessed for decades what our community has gone through and continues to experience. Whether it is the systemic displacement of our rent regulated neighbors, the exodus of our small neighborhood businesses that are unable to afford the rising rents, the lack of quality education for our children, the health institutions closing or “downsizing”, the massive developments being erected on numerous sites, the proliferation of nightlife establishments or the lack of services to our aging community; we have a lot of work ahead.
I look forward to facing these challenges together as a community and through the hard work of our Community Board. It is important that our Board continues to strengthen itself through the work of its members and the participation of our community.
32 Mulberry St.
Something possessed us to stop by Community Board 3’s liquor permit hearing last night (we will never learn). Here’s what happened during the three hours we were there.
The applicants of a Japanese restaurant in the the old Le Baron night club space on Mulberry Street were forced to withdraw their application. Jake Smith, a former television producer, is partnering with Kazuo Yoshida of the highly regarded Williamsburg sushi spot, 1 or 8.
Smith said he wanted to open a high-quality izakaya, including a small omakase bar and a more accessible (affordable) dining room. The place would be open until 4 a.m., catering to restaurant industry types. But Chinatown neighbors, including community board member Karlin Chan, lobbied against the application. They have bad memories of the now shuttered Le Baron, which they say brought noise, black cars and many disrespectful interlopers to Mulberry Street.
Gianni Cionchi (who works for a well-known Manhattan restaurant group) spoke in favor of the concept, but did more harm than good. Apparently trying to counter fears that the restaurant would morph into another club, Cionchi said the new venture would bring “an elevated dining experience” to Chinatown. It wouldn’t be catering to a “low-income clientele,” he added, alluding to the historic demographic makeup of the neighborhood. These comments did not sit well with Community Board 3 Chairperson Gigi Li, a Chinatown resident. “There are about 10 things you just said that were extremely offensive,” she told Cionchi (he later apologized for the statements).
Li said she was concerned that the applicants failed to do enough community outreach. She also expressed worries about Smith’s co-applicant, Ron Castellano, who was one of the partners of Le Baron. There were questions, as well, about another partner, Max Levai, an owner of the controversial club, Happy Ending. Smith and Castellano said Levai (an art world insider) had agreed to supply art for the new restaurant in exchange for part ownership in the business. Castellano is a well-known figure on the Lower East Side. In addition to his nightlife ventures, he’s responsible for restoring The Forward Building and the Jarmulowsky Bank Building, and for starting the Hester Street Fair. He said the complaints about Le Baron were unwarranted.
In the end, Li persuaded Smith to withdraw his community board application. She encouraged him to become more familiar with the neighborhood and to reach out to more local residents before taking another run at a liquor permit. Committee Chair Alex Militano said the State Liquor Authority would likely be looking into whether a new permit at 32 Mulberry St. would violate the 200 Foot Rule. That provision of state law prohibits full liquor licenses within 200 feet of churches and school buildings. There are at least two churches in close proximity.
In other news last night, the committee approved a permit for Saluggi’s, the new Italian restaurant coming to 399 Grand St. Closing hours will be 1 a.m. weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends. Owner Bill Wall said he would come back to the board at a later date for permission to use a patio located in front of the restaurant.
Also, the large restaurant group that runs Serafina won approval for a branch of the Italian restaurant at 98 Rivington St. Although the applicants sought later hours, the committee agreed to a 2 a.m. closing time on weekends.
Finally, the committee gave approval to hotel magnate Ian Schrager for his nightlife multiplex at 215 Chrystie St. The new Public Hotel, built on the former garden of an affordable housing complex, will boast 11 liquor permits. Most of the details were worked out between the Schrager team and community board members last month. But the applicants returned with several alterations in the agreement meant to give them more flexibility.
Alan van Cappelle.
Usually at about this time, the Manhattan Borough President’s Office puts out a master list of annual community board appointments. We haven’t seen this year’s version, but the new appointees have been added to Community Board 3’s website. So here you go:
Alan van Cappelle has been president and CEO of Education Alliance since 2014. Previously, he headed the Empire State Pride Agenda and Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization dedicated to social justice. Van Cappelle lives in the Grand Street cooperatives with his husband and two children.
Christian De Leon is a program coordinator for the YMCA and a former Community Board 3 intern. He’s an urban studies major at CUNY Hunter.
Veronica Leventhal is a Beacon program director at University Settlement, based at East Side Community High School.
Wilda Escarfuller is a writer who graduated from Columbia University with a master’s degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies.
Robin Schatell is director of public programs at the Madison Park Conservancy. She’s also an occasional arts contributor to The Lo-Down. Schatell lives on Grand Street.
Joyce Ravitz is a longtime community activist who previously served on CB3, and is now rejoining the board.
Sameh Jacob is a former owner of Le Souk, a controversial restaurant that was first located on Avenue B, and is now on LaGuardia Place. His name was invoked during a liquor committee meeting earlier this week.
It’s going to be a year of change at Community Board 3. Chairperson Gigi Li is stepping down after leading the board for four years. She’ll be a candidate in the Democratic Primary coming up in September in the 65th Assembly District. The 50 members of CB3 will elect a new chair this summer.
Letter via Community Board 3 liquor license application.
There are a few items of interest on the agenda for Community Board 3’s February liquor permit meeting.
As EV Grieve noted yesterday, James Morrissey of the Late Late on East Houston St. and Gerard McNamee of Webster Hall will pitch plans for a new place called “The Honey Fitz” at 129 St. Mark’s Place (Avenue A). The space would be created by combining Nino’s Pizza (closed since October due to a gas leak) and the former Hop Devil Grill.
The application includes several letters of support from local residents. But notably there are also testimonials from officials in the Ninth Precinct and the fire department’s Engine Company 33.
The letter from Lieut. Patrick Ferguson, who heads special operations at the Ninth Precinct, is dated July 24 of last year. It serves as a general recommendation for McNamee, Webster Hall’s director of operations. “Mr. McNamee,” wrote Ferguson, “is a true professional and runs Webster Hall in a professional manner. He has constantly maintained an excellent working relationship with the Ninth Precinct and with the community for the past eight years.”
In an undated letter, Captain Timothy McGuiness of the FDNY writes, “One business that is operated by a no-nonsense professional is Webster Hall… run by Gerard McNamee… Gerard is respectful and responsible and is eager to help us achieve our goal whether it be anything from a medical call or an investigation of routine alarm.”
It might not be unheard of — but written endorsements of nightlife operators from the local police and fire departments are at least somewhat unusual. Here’s the full application if you’d like to have a look.
49 Monroe St., the site of a new restaurant from the Forgtmenot team.
Community Board 3 voted 27-11 last night to support a liquor permit application for a new restaurant on Monroe Street from the team that owns Forgtmenot and Kiki’s. But beforehand, there was a lengthy and contentious debate about gentrification and nightlife encroachment in one of the last unspoiled sections of Manhattan.
The operators of the popular Division Street spots are planning to open a 2500 sq. ft. Southern European restaurant in a commercial building at 49 Monroe St., across from Coleman Skatepark. Earlier this month, CB3’s SLA Committee recommended approval of the liquor license, while acknowledging opposition from 81 local residents who signed a petition circulated by the Orchard Street Block Association. Members of the panel cited the owners’ reputation on Division Street as responsible operators sensitive to concerns from neighbors.
But last night new opposition surfaced from residents of Knickerbocker Village, the large residential complex located on Monroe Street a block to the west of the new restaurant. Even before the meeting began, we received a press release from a new group called the “Two Bridges Neighborhood Association.” Lead organizer Jenny Yu said in a statement, “The residents of Two Bridges are a tight-knit community and are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that any changes serve for the betterment of our residents, and there continues to be a place where hard working-class New Yorkers have a place to call home and raise their families.”
They came last night armed with 400 signatures and letters. Isabel Reyna Torres, a member of Knickerbocker Village Tenants’ Association, recounted an incident this past November at 49 Monroe St. — a private event in the building — that caused “immense noise and chaos” and ended in a visit by cops from the 5th Precinct. Paul Sierros, co-owner of the new business, noted that he hadn’t even signed a lease until January 1 and had nothing to do with the event Torres highlighted.
A pastor from Chinese Mission Church at 31 Monroe St. spoke against a full liquor permit, saying the area is “a family oriented” neighborhood. Another speaker asked whether it is the community board’s job to “protect businesses trying to exploit the neighborhood” or to protect local residents.
The board also heard from supporters of the Forgtmenot team. Michael Goldman, a Knickerbocker Village resident, said the original restaurant became a home-away-from-home for him shortly after moving to the area four years ago. He said the operators are small business owners, not corporate interlopers, that their “identity is consistent with the neighborhood” and that they do not represent gentrification in any way.
Following public remarks, board members had their say. Cathy Deng, an affordable housing activist, said her organization (CAAAV) has been advocating for tenants being squeezed out of buildings on Monroe Street. When one nightlife establishment comes into an area, she argued, “we start to see other problems,” referring to more restaurants, rent hikes and displacement of residential tenants.
Another board member, Anne Johnson, said she hoped the food would be affordable to the local community, which is predominantly working class and low income. “I have just as many concerns about gentrification” as the residents, Johnson said. Val Jones agreed, asserting that the restaurant is “moving into new territory,” a part of the neighborhood where “we don’t have a lot of bars and don’t want a lot of bars.”
“As a community,” she said, “we should say we support the residents.” Noting that the restaurant is across from a playground, Jones called the liquor permit a question of public health.
But Meghan Joye (co-owner of bars such as Lucky Jack’s and Donnybrook) noted that the State Liquor Authority would almost certainly approve the permit. The 500 Foot Law, which triggers a state hearing, does not apply because there aren’t three or more existing liquor licenses within striking distance of the new establishment. Since the applicant runs two other businesses with impeccable records, she said, and because Sierros already agreed to scale back his hours, the permit is basically “a gimme.” Personally, Joye added, she found it offensive (as a bar owner and mother of young children) to hear people say that a liquor license shouldn’t be approved near a park where children play. Using phrases such as, “exploiting our neighborhood,” she argued, is over the line in talking about “a guy who has proven he is part of this community.”
MyPhuong Chung, who lives a block away from Forgtmenot and Kiki’s, called the owners, “really wonderful neighbors” and said of Sierros, “He has a track record of running his business responsibly.”
Board member Enrique Cruz said he understood the residents’ concerns but urged them “to be sensible.” Sierros previously agreed to close the restaurant at midnight during the week and at 1 a.m. on weekends. Rejecting the proposal, Cruz cautioned would likely lead to longer hours and no operating restrictions, which the community board routinely negotiates with nightlife operators.
In the end, a majority of the board agreed. Sierros said he would close on Thursdays by midnight, rather than 1 a.m. Board members also asked him to agree to shorter hours on the weekends, but Sierros said he’d already made as many concessions as he could make and still run a viable business. The final decision is, of course, up to the State Liquor Authority.
Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal space. Photo: NYC EDC.
Members of Community Board 3’s land use committee last night pressed city officials for a more robust role in deciding the future of the former Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal below Delancey Street.
In November, the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) put out a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) for the site. After the community board complained about a lack of local consultation by the city, the EDC extended the deadline for submissions from Dec. 23 to Feb. 1. Last night, EDC Assistant Vice President Lusheena Warner and Merik Mulcahy, an associate who drafted the document, came to CB3’s land use committee to talk with board members about their concerns.
The forgotten trolley terminal space was not on anyone’s radar until September of 2011 when James Ramsey and Dan Barasch went public with their proposal to create an underground park using sunlight channeling technology (The Lowline). They have spent the past four years lobbying the MTA, which controlled the 60,000 sq. ft. terminal. It was a surprise to everyone two months ago when the city announced that it would be seeking proposals from interested developers. The RFEI asks for “plans involving the long-term lease and activation” of the site with an eye towards enhancing “connections to, and accessibility for, the surrounding community;” meeting community needs; and promoting economic development.
Lowline rendering by James Ramsey.
Last night, land use committee members said they appreciated the extension of time but also called for a lot more outreach in the community. One meeting, they told the officials, is just not enough.
The key question, said board member Damaris Reyes, is, “What constitutes a ‘community benefit’ in the publicly-owned site?” “Who gets to decide?,” she asked. She said the board has asked for a true community-driven process that goes well beyond the membership of the land use committee.
In response, Warner acknowledged the concerns and said. “There is definitely a role for the community.” When Reyes coyly asked, “Did you say you would involve us in the selection process?,” Warner replied, “I did not say that.” The officials said they would come back to the community board to “talk about the proposals.” But citing the city’s confidentiality rules for public bids, they said it would not be possible to discuss specific applicants. “We are not trying to select someone behind you back,” added Warner.
Committee members agreed that it was premature to tell the city their preferences for the space below Delancey Street. They pointed out that little is publicly known about the engineering constraints of a site that’s been dormant since 1947. “It’s not quite right,” said Harriet Cohen, “to start throwing around a lot of ideas” in the absence of details about what’s possible “in this very specific piece of real estate.” The EDC team acknowledged that there would be no city-driven analysis of the site; they’re relying on applicants to spell out what they think is feasible.
Dominic Berg, a former board chairperson, strongly encouraged the city to work with CB3 on a series of workshops/visioning sessions to solicit opinions about the site. “It will be easier for the EDC to have community buy-in (for the project that’s ultimately chosen) if we have workshops,” said Berg. “The EDC really needs to plan for that. Short of doing that, you’re going to hit a wall.” Mentioning that he’s been supportive of the Lowline, Berg acknowledged there could be other good ideas. “Everyone should understand the options,” he said.
Last month, CB3 approved a resolution urging the city to rescind the RFEI, giving the local community an opportunity to reshape the document to its liking. Warner made it clear the city would not be entertaining further delays. But she suggested there would be many more opportunities for community engagement. She was noncommittal about workshops, but said it’s something the EDC would consider.
After proposals are received, the city could take a variety of steps to activate the space. Last night, the officials said the site would be subject to ULURP, the city’s land use approval process. It requires consultations with the community boards and borough president, and the approval of the City Council. It remains to be seen whether the city will issue a separate Request for Proposals (RFP), or begin negotiations with a developer responding to the RFEI.
A new resolution approved by the committee last night called for a real “community process” to develop local priorities for the site and to guide the selection of a developer. It memorialized EDC’s commitment to come back to the board with information about proposals under consideration. And the resolution stated that community engagement should inform both the selection process as well as the implementation of the winning proposal.
The elephant in the room last night was, of course, The Lowline itself. Some members of the panel are supporters of the underground park proposal. Others are skeptical of its merits. But that debate will take place another day. First, the community board wants guidance from the EDC about the range of possibilities in the former trolley space. Then it will start to develop guidelines. It has been three years since the board voted unanimously in support of the Lowline project. Eventually, board members will be called on to reaffirm their support or to reverse their earlier position.
49 Monroe St., the site of a new restaurant from the Forgtmenot team.
In the past year or two, the Lower East Side’s robust nightlife scene has gradually drifted down below Canal Street. At last night’s meeting of Community Board 3’s State Liquor Authority (SLA) Committee, residents showed up to voice concerns about what they see as a threat to one of the last uncharted areas in all of Manhattan.
The panel ultimately approved a proposal from the Forgtmenot/Kiki’s team to open up a new Southern European establishment at 49 Monroe St. (near Market Street). The fact that these two Division Street spots are seen as community-oriented and unusually responsive to neighbors pushed the application over the top. But there was still a spirited conversation of the potential impact in the Two Bridges neighborhood.
The restaurant will cover the first floor, plus the mezzanine, and include 22 tables and a u-shaped, 40-foot bar. Last night’s presentation was led by co-owner Paul Sierros, who said the building would be fully soundproofed. The team received key support from Emma Culbert, head of the SPaCE Block Association. She lives on Division Street, where Forgtmenot opened in 2012 and Kiki’s debuted last year. Speaking of the owners, Culbert said. “They have been nothing but accommodating.” The staff, she said, is incredibly diligent about keeping noise to a minimum and dealing with late night crowds.
Pamela Yeh of the Orchard Street Block Association also acknowledged that the existing businesses are run responsibly. But she challenged representations about the building’s certificate of occupancy allowing 110 people; (CB3’s district manager said her research found Sierros’ plan is legal.)
Another local resident, a man who lives at 41 Monroe St., said he welcomed the new venue because the area is dangerous after dark and the block would benefit from a nighttime business. But others argued that the location, across from the Coleman Skatepark and a recreational area, is an inappropriate spot for a restaurant serving liquor. A few people mentioned the sceney bar, Mr. Fong’s, which opened last summer and began attracting large crowds almost from the start. Locals, some of them residents of nearby Knickerbocker Village, said they were speaking for Chinese neighbors and seniors who fear going public with their concerns. “Do not mistake silence for support,” one speaker asserted. “The area is diverse, low-income, working class… This is not the kind of community where people need a place to get drunk at 1 a.m.”
Sierros said people waiting for tables would not congregate outside. He also pointed out that the block is not exactly tranquil. One of the reasons he’s soundproofing the building is that the train rumbles across the Manhattan Bridge every two minutes. At the request of the committee, he agreed to close on weekends by 1 a.m. (the application proposed a 1:30 a.m. closing time.
A new plan for the old Winnie’s space (104 Bayard St.)
The former Winnie’s space at 104 Bayard St.
Longtime Chinatown residents came out last night to protest a plan from the team behind the popular Orchard Street cafe, Dudley’s, to open a second restaurant on Bayard Street. While the owners said they were trying to honor the previous establishment, Chinatown mainstay Winnie’s, locals called their plan an insult.
The partners applying for a full bar (and a 4 a.m. closing time) were listed as: Mateusz Lilpop, Ben dos Remedios and Gerardo and William Davidson. Winnie’s, known for its karaoke and very diverse crowd, was forced to close after 28 years when the owner was unable to negotiate a new lease with her landlord. The new team said they wanted to keep the old name and the karaoke as an homage to the original spot, while adding an innovative menu; the chef from El Rey on Stanton Street has been hired to run the kitchen.
But many of last night’s speakers were unimpressed. One lifelong resident of Mulberry Street said he’s tired of the late night crowds coming in from other neighborhoods, of the taxis lined up, of the public urination, etc. Others said they were offended by the use of Winnie’s name. Community Board 3 member Karlin Chan submitted a letter from Winnie, who was sitting in the audience. “A 4 a.m. karaoke bar should set off alarm bells for everyone,” he argued. “This concept does not fit the culture of the neighborhood. You can’t just take someone else’s brand.” Another speaker said, “We don’t need another hipster bar in Chinatown… We don’t need privileged and entitled people exploiting our neighborhood.”
The applicants, however, received an important vote of confidence from Andrew Chase, co-owner of Orchard Street’s Cafe Katja (Chase is a public member of the SLA Committee). He said Dudley’s has a “very subdued clientele” and that the owners do a good job of handling crowds. “I feel they are sensitive to the neighbors,” said Chase.
In the end, committee member Carol Kostik acknowledged the concerns local residents expressed about gentrification. But she added, “I’m not sure we’re the arbiters of ethnic purity” in the neighborhood. The team agreed to drop the “Winnie’s” name, to cut back their weekend closing time to 2 a.m. and to serve a full food menu during all operating hours.
There was more news from the committee last night. Jerome Barnas won approval for his new cafe at 26 Canal St. (at Rutgers Street). The proposal was supported by the SPaCE Block Association. The cafe will open at 7 a.m. daily, offering coffee and an all-day menu. Closing time on weekends is 1 a.m.