Liquor Authority Chief Listens, As Residents and Bar Owners Vent

Dennis Rosen speaking at night life town hall hosted by Senator Squadron, at right.
Dennis Rosen speaking at night life town hall hosted by Senator Squadron, at right.

No one can say Dennis Rosen, the new head of the State Liquor Authority, is not a patient man. For three-and-a-half hours last night, he sat on stage at P.S. 20 listening to a litany of complaints from dozens of frustrated residents and bar owners.  Five months into the job, Rosen came to the Lower East Side at the request of State Senator Daniel Squadron, for a town hall meeting on nightlife issues.

The narrative inside the packed auditorium was familiar to anyone who attends monthly community board meetings, in which the two groups are routinely pitted against one another.  Neighborhood activists railed against bars and clubs – which they say have overtaken the LES and destroyed their quality of life, while the SLA seems incapable of doing anything to help. 

Meanwhile, bar and club owners countered that they were being harassed and driven out of business by inhospitable community groups and hobbled by the SLA, which can take a year or more to process liquor licenses.  On more than one occasion, Squadron admonished the audience to avoid heckling or hissing at speakers taking their turn at the microphone. But, on balance, the town hall was not the raucous “food fight” some had predicted.

Rosen told the audience, “I know this agency is broken. We are going to fix it.” Repeating a promise he’s made many times in the past, he vowed to clear the license backlog by October of this year (it’s already been reduced by 40-percent). “I will live or die by that promise,” he said.  Rosen has also made outreach to communities a top priority. He and his top deputies have met with numerous organizations across the city, seeking to open up the lines of communication.

But Rosen asserted there’s only so much the SLA can do to control the proliferation of bars and clubs.  He said his agency is hamstrung by antiquated laws limiting the state’s power to clamp down on nightlife.  Squadron and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh (also in attendance) acknowledged the need for new legislation giving the SLA more power to limit liquor licenses in clearly saturated neighborhoods (more on that later).

Joining Rosen, Squadron and Kavanagh up on stage last night were Assemblymember Deborah Glick and Councilmembers Rosie Mendez and Margaret Chin.  Glick urged Rosen to pay a visit to the Lower East Side on a Saturday night at 2am, when the neighborhood is, in her words, “not livable.”  But mostly, the elected officials, Rosen and other SLA officials listened, as residents and bar owners talked.

One resident from the East 5th Street block association handed Rosen a study showing that the 10003 zip code has the second most bars of any neighborhood in the entire country. He described the sleepless nights, the vomit-soaked sidewalks residents are forced to navigate, unruly revelers clogging side streets and even fist fights — the hallmarks of a typical weekend evening outside his apartment. Aaron Sosnick  of the East Village Residents Coalition complained the SLA has failed to enforce the 500 Foot Rule, which is supposed to limit new liquor licenses in already over-burdened areas. When the SLA approves an application in spite of the 500 Foot Rule, Sosnick said, “it makes a mockery of the law.”

Another resident called the practice of approving licenses in neighborhoods bursting with bars and clubs “downright cruel” and something that “doesn’t happen on the Upper East Side.” Others vented about the hoops they must jump through to fight new bars – monitoring community board agendas, organizing residents, coordinating petition drives, sitting through marathon meetings. Many people said noise complaints to the city’s 311 line are often ignored. One mother, appearing with her son (a 5th grader) said he’s kept up at night, “as the noise continues to get worse and no one responds.”

Rosen said the SLA has taken steps to beef up enforcement.  Even as the state budget crisis escalates, he’s funneled more resources into investigating complaints. They’ve have begun working closely with the NYPD to deal with problems that arise. And, Rosen said, the SLA is lobbying for more more money to hire investigators. He noted the New York SLA has a third of the budget of its counterpart in California. In response to the concerns expressed about East 5th Street, Rosen said the SLA rejected a request to upgrade a license just this week. But he added, “we’re not a rubber stamp for the community boards, and we’re not a rubber stamp for the industry.”

He said the 500 Foot Law gives the SLA discretion to consider the “public benefit” of granting new liquor licenses. He conceded there’s no clear definition of  a “public benefit” (but he indicated the SLA is moving to create one). Rosen, however, argued his agency does not have the authority to issue blanket moratoriums, banning new liquor licenses in specific areas.  He acknowledged some community boards have established “resolution areas” in which new licenses are discouraged – and he said community input is an important factor in evaluating liquor licenses. But the SLA, Rosen argued, must consider each license on a case-by-case basis.  Squadron asked whether there’s any number of licenses (10, 100, 1000) on any given block that the SLA would consider excessive. Rosen said it was a question he could not answer – that it would depend on a number of factors, including the neighborhood and the establishment in question.

Restaurant, bar and club owners had their say, as well, last night.  One operator, of a restaurant on 9th Street near Avenue A, complained he’d been waiting for a license for a year -and that a block association has made “false accusations about me.” The man said his entire life savings were wrapped up in the restaurant, and he was on the verge of ruin. His wife added, “the neighbors don’t want us here. What would happen if we all closed up tomorrow? What would happen to the economy?”

The owner of a bodega on 4th Street said “Manhattan is not Long Island, it’s not New Jersey.”  Saying nightlife is one of the things that makes New York great, and that his young children have no trouble sleeping through the noise, he advised residents, “you’ll get used to it.”   A few operators said the Bloomberg Administration’s ban on smoking in bars – forcing smokers onto the streets – had made crowd control almost impossible. Two owners called on the NYPD to bring back specialized cabaret units (eliminated in many precincts).

The owner of the Whiskey Ward on Essex Street said the problem is not the bars, or the residents – but greedy landlords who know they can extract more money from a club selling alcohol, than from, say, a dry cleaners. Meghan Joye, a bar owner and CB3 member, agreed, saying landlords never seem to be present at community meetings. “They tell bar owners it will be no problem getting a license, when they know full well it’s going to be a problem,” she said.   More than one speaker called for the two groups to come together in search of solutions. Among the suggestions- an all-day workshop in which bar operators and residents meet to hash out their differences.

At the end of the evening, Squadron suggested he and fellow lawmakers would begin to formulate legislative proposals to strengthen the SLA’s authority, funnel more resources to the agency and to revamp zoning laws. Kavanagh floated the idea of new zoning ordinances restricting the types of businesses that could open in certain locations, and in so doing, increasing retail diversity. He suggested, “this community could lead the way” in fighting for these kinds of changes.