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Op/Ed: Neighborhood Groups Should Have a Larger Role in Liquor License Decision-Making

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Photo collage depicting nightlife debauchery – presented by LES Dwellers Association at community meeting this week.

Editor’s note: For the past couple of years Community Board 3 has been developing new policies for liquor license applications.  This coming Tuesday night, the conversation will continue during a public hearing to address how to handle sections of the neighborhood that have become over-saturated with bars and clubs. The meeting takes place at 6:30 p.m., at 59 East 4th Street, CB3’s office.  Today, we have an op/ed from community activist K. Webster concerning some of the topics likely to come up during next week’s hearing:

The SLA Committee of CB3 draws fire from everyone -whatever the outcome.  They are up late trying to navigate between residents and nightlife operators, a thankless task, and wind up the target of all of our ire. We need clearer policy and we need to add different players to this body.

We have local bar, restaurant, and club owners on the committee. Their expertise and viewpoints can be invaluable. We also need the perspectives of other community leaders. We need at least equal membership from experienced block association presidents. They will have a resident’s perspective but also experience working with many kinds of retail businesses. We need people who have histories of resolving disputes while standing firm on what makes a block work.

There has to be a common sense balance between local small businesses and residents’ desire for retail diversity and less noise, crime, crowds– and an entrepreneur’s desire to start an alcohol-related business venture.  There are a few realities that I think we have to be honest about:

  • Every license permitting a bar to close at 4 a.m.  means neighbors in the vicinity are forced to become the unpaid monitors of laws no one has the time or ability to enforce.
  • Every license approved for a high-end bar means increased pressure on the tenants above it, and on nearby businesses, to pay higher rents or move out.
  • Excessive liquor licensing means, in practice, that retail diversity, start-ups and small business ingenuity suffers. It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy requiring a business possessing a liquor license to pay the higher rent a space can now command. Every food purveyor must claim the need for a license to make the new rent.
  •  The NYPD has far more important work to do than policing partying adults and all that surrounds a nightlife landscape.
  •  “In 2009,” the New York Times reported, alcohol was responsible for more than 8,840 hospitalizations…a 36% increase over 2000. Additionally, the proportion of alcohol-related emergency-room visits …ages 21 to 64 doubled from 2003 to 2009. There were 70,000 such visits just in 2009…”
  • Owners have to go to SLA committee meetings once or twice. They have lawyers and a financial vested interest. For residents? It’s almost monthly attendance required, hours of unpaid time, and no lawyer representing their interests. The best outcome possible? They don’t get the fourth (or fifth) new club nearby.
  • It isn’t possible to vet the petition signatures that are required by the State. No one has the time or resources to check every signature to insure the individual lives within the required area most affected by a new license.

It’s an emotional issue for those of us who live and work here. We see the community being deluged by a nightlife culture that lures clients with promises of a scene that doesn’t quit. We desperately need retail diversity – not an economy that depends on a mono- business culture that produces nothing of concrete value. Becoming a nightlife destination wears thin if that’s all you got.

Block Associations are key. Their organizing talents and time should be used to:

  • Gather and make known the views of their block on new licenses.
  • Make themselves known to the community and the SLA Committee.
  • Offer to train and help new block associations (along with CB3’s office).
  • Inform neighbors of the complaint process (311, police precinct, CB3) and the SLA guidelines.
  • Work to make sure translation is available to tenants from a third party (not, as recently happened, provided by a landlord who stood to gain financially).
  • Build community with residents and all small businesses on the block –including bars/clubs- to seek consensus on any new licenses “wanting in” on the block.
  • Build relationships with other block associations (and CB 2 where relevant).

Block associations are a visible conduit for any new proposals on their block but each license seeker still gets to make their pitch to the neighborhood (as is required). The SLA Committee would know every block association’s general view and know if there was a dispute or general agreement (individuals could still protest or support any individual bar request).

Here is my wish list:

  • Work to put all the information in “plain language” and in Spanish, Chinese, English.  Post the definitions for relevant SLA policies at all CB SLA meetings. (Community Benefit, etc.) Give workshops on the rules/laws once a month (by rotating BA Presidents, BID or Committee members ?). Clearly and audibly state the guidelines for decisions before and during the meeting.

Something has to change. Everyone knows it. Because right now, the only person I see looking happy about the status quo is the very tan lawyer who was busy at the last SLA Committee meeting earning his keep from the equally frustrated license-seeking clients.

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  1. u are the problem, actually people like you. You speak of concrete value, what does that mean. Businesses that dont employ tons of people or pay more than their fair share of taxes and regulatory fines and expenses? Licensing is NOT the call of a two bit “community” board. I have a license and not one of the peope present at that meeting has seen the light of day for anything other than said meetings. A bunch of crying wolves who contribute far far less to their beloved community that they so nastily protect. For all i care u can all move to staten island! This is the nightlife enter of the world and it has been that way long before you started your mission to rid the east village and les of us nasty, vial bar and restaurant owners. When u employ anyone, even a housekeeper call us. until then take ur op ed and get some ed. dope

  2. Nightlight is great when its well done. But at this point health and safety are being compromised by mobs of people. That’s the red alert that its gotten too dense, things are going downhill and its time to pull back in some areas.

  3. “the nightlife center of the world”? More accurately, the LES is the dumping grounds for late night bars and clubs for New Jersey girls who drink themselves into oblivion and then vomit all over our streets!

  4. Almost every type of business employs people yes? If you read this then you would know I don’t oppose businesses (quite the opposite) or every alcohol related business. Bars and restaurants can be great additions to a community – or at least not a nightmare for the neighborhood. What I mean by “concrete value” is something that is produced or sold that is of tangible use: groceries, plumbing supplies, hardware store, shoe repair, medical supplies, flower stores, poetry, art, etc. Productive human output.
    I believe that going out to get one’s tummy full or have a drink can be an important respite from life’s grind, but setting up an entire community so it becomes a magnet for folks who want to get plastered and spew all over the street – much less “concretely valuable – to me.
    As to contributing to this neighborhood, my conscience is pretty clear on that one.

  5. excellent, well thought out article k!
    thank you for giving voice & guidance to the many local residents who would like to have their communities back. we are waay tired of the alcoholic theme park that it has unfortunately become………..in great part because of persons on some community boards that seem to overlook the ‘community’ part of the equation! their main concern – has the applicant a good plan for survival. it should be – how will this application affect the surrounding neighborhood.
    the cb sla boards are removed from the aftermath of the application’s approval. the neighborhood and other small businesses should not be left to suffer – we ARE the community and we should be equally represented!

  6. Good article.. I’m on CB 2 with the same liquor license nightmares in our Geographic area.

    We also need TRANSPARENT INFO about licenses. Agreements and stipulations need to be shown on the license itself, on the SLA WEBSITE ,and be made known to the NYPD who do not know the conditions for a particular license. So the cops know what to specifically look for and enforce.

    Both cops and residents need to KNOW closing hours, type of music, type of noise mitigation like windows closed and other important elements that we work so hard to get operators to stipulate to.

    Our local state senators and assembly members should be pushing for this transparency.


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