It appears the long soap opera involving Lower East Side bar Mason Dixon may be nearing an end. Last night, Community Board 3’s SLA Committee approved (4-2-1) a proposal from nightlife operator Matt Levine to take over the troubled spot at 133 Essex Street.
The current owner, Rob Shamlian, decided it was time to call it quits after the NYPD shuttered the bar last month for alleged underage drinking and other charges. But scrutiny from the 7th Precinct was only his latest problem. Residents living above the bar have been locked in a legal battle with Shamlian for four years.
In April, Levine (formerly of The Eldridge) presented his plan to replace the Southern style bar, which features a mechanical bull, with a modern American restaurant “honoring the neighborhood’s ethnic roots.” At that initial meeting, Committee Chair Alexandra Militano implored Levine to withdraw his application, while attempting to negotiate with the neighbors, who opposed the restaurant’s 4 a.m. closing time.
Last night, Levine was back, promising to remove a sliding door on Essex Street, pull out an ATM machine, consult with residents about acceptable noise levels and to install a security camera. But on the question of hours, he was unwilling to compromise. Levine said he had hoped to speak with the neighbors face-to-face but only one person showed at a meeting.
Several supporters showed up at the community board hearing last night to say they supported the new concept. At The Eldridge, they said, there were never any problems (a lot of people didn’t even realize the exclusive venue was there). They also argued the neighborhood needs a good restaurant serving until the wee hours, since so many Lower East Side establishments cater only to the bridge-and tunnel drinking crowd.
But the residents were in no mood to acquiesce. A number of speakers said they have had it with the noise, the crowds and the brawls that have occasionally broken out inside mason Dixon and on the sidewalk in front of the bar. “Just because people want to eat a late meal does not mean I have to suffer… eating at 4 a.m. is ridiculous,” one woman complained.
They said Levine and his partner, Michael Shah (who bought the building a few months ago) had offered $400,000 if the residents would accept a 4 a.m. closing. “Hours are not for sale, not at any price,” Wesley Gaus, condo board president, declared.
Shamlian, who has been outspoken about the 7th Precinct’s bar crackdown, took the opportunity to defend his management of Mason Dixon and other neighborhood bars he owns (including Los Feliz and Spitzer’s Corner, which have also been shuttered by the NYPD). He said undercover/underage officers come into his bars, buy drinks and then leave,without alerting him to problems. Then all of a sudden, he added, the cops show up with court papers, shutting an establishment down with no warning.
(In the past, 7th precinct Captain David Miller has said no bar is closed until after he has made repeated attempts to work with operators to resolve problems.)
Shamlian told CB3 members he ordinarily would have fought the allegations, but since negotiations were ongoing to sell Mason Dixon, he felt it was unwise to engage in another long legal battle. He also said the residents suing him moved in after the bar had already been approved by the community board. Since that time, he alleged, “they have been non-stop harassing me.”
David McWater, a committee member and bar owner, rose to Shamlian’s defense. “This guy has been chased, broken. He acted in good faith when he signed his lease,” McWater said, in arguing that Shamlian should be allowed to sell his business and that the current hours should be maintained.
As for the police scrutiny, McWater asserted, “there has been a reign of terror in the 7th Precinct. I think anything the precinct has done… should be taken with a grain of salt.” Following McWater’s remarks, Susan Stetzer, CB3’s district manager, interjected. While acknowledging that many bar owners are upset about the crackdown, she suggested a lot of residents are relieved that after years in which “nothing was done” by the precinct, nightlife enforcement has become a high priority. “You have to listen to both sides,” she said.
In the end, four members voted yes, one voted no and one member abstained. The committee’s recommendation must be approved by the full board next week, before the State Liquor Authority makes its decision on the license.