Earlier this month, we reported briefly on the “500 Foot Hearing” at State Liquor Authority offices in upper Manhattan for Jose Rodriguez and Robert Payne, the team planning to open a Latin-style restaurant at 106 Rivington Street. Now here’s a more detailed account from that hearing, which pitted the operators and their supporters against Community Board 3 and members of the LES Dwellers neighborhood association.
A 500 Foot Hearing is required whenever the location of a proposed full liquor permit is within 500 feet of three or more existing licenses. In October, Community Board 3 voted 16-17 (two abstentions counted as “no” votes) to oppose the full bar. CB3, whose decisions are only recommendations to the Liquor Authority, approved a wine and beer license for the two-level, 200-person occupancy restaurant.
Raymond DiLuglio, an administrative law judge, heard arguments on both sides and is now preparing a report for SLA commissioners, who will make the final decision. The case on behalf of the unnamed restaurant, which goes by the trade name, “106 on the LES,” was made by attorney Donald Bernstein.
He said the restaurant would be a “modern, upscale and full service Latin-style restaurant,” with 118 seats, including bars on both levels of a tenement building that is undergoing a top-to-bottom renovation. Bernstein referred to 106 Rivington, formerly a legendary practice space for “some of New York’s finest jazz, funk and rock musicians,” as a “heavy metal rock-in-roll rehearsal studio” that is now “dilapidated and bleak.” Bernstein said french doors would be closed at 10 p.m. and promised there would be no dj’s or live music, only recorded background music. Explaining why a full liquor license was required, he said there would be an “innovative cocktail menu… a rum-oriented beverage program” that’s integral to the type of Latin cuisine that the owners envision.
During his presentation, Bernstein addressed a number of concerns raised by residents and argued that granting the license would be in the “public interest,” a threshold required by state law. He conceded that Rodriguez and Payne “don’t have experience running this kind of restaurant but said the team they are assembling, executive chef, consulting chef and general manager do… The people they are hiring are not club people. They’re not bar people. They’re food people.” That team, Bernstein said, consists of John DeLucie (Waverly Inn) as a consultant, Jonathan Masse (Le Parisien Bistrot, Waverly Inn) as executive chef and Santiago Pesantez (Per Se, Veritas) as general manager.
Bernstein said Rodriguez lives on the same block in which he was raised and “has helped his brother operate three gourmet stores on the Lower East Side.” Rodriguez, he added, also helps fund the LES Baseball Academy and has worked with the soup kitchen at “Our Lady of Sorrows Church on Pitt Street. Payne, Bernstein said, “has worked in the restaurant business although he hasn’t owned a restaurant and he was a former NYC police officer and currently runs a security company.”
Referring to Community Board 3’s October vote, Bernstein said, “it was a rather chaotic and confusing meeting” in which some board members were bewildered and “did not know what they were voting on.” That evening, supporters and opponents of the proposed restaurant testified and there was a lengthy debate about the merits of the application. Some noted that the block in question is clearly overburdened with nightlife establishments. Others argued that the operators, longtime locals, deserved a chance. Bernstein highlighted the close vote and pointed out that one board member, who became confused, asked to change his vote but the chairperson “refused” to allow it. He also made the case that CB3 creates an excessively high standard for applicants by requiring that they seek support from neighbors in the immediate vicinity of their proposed restaurants and bars:
The community board has what I believe is a different standard than New York state. This area they used to call a moratorium area, then they called it a resolution area. Now it’s called a saturation area. They insist in a saturation area that you show overwhelming community support from people who live right in that building and next door and across the street, which I think is an overly restrictive definition of the community… It is the Legislature here that was elected by the people. They set the standard for ‘public interest’ in the statute and I don’t think a community group, community association or a community board has the right to up that standard and impose a greater obligation on an applicant on an application; yet this is done by this community board…
During the hearing, there was also testimony from Enrique Cruz, who said he’d grown up with Jose Rodriguez and is now working for him as a consultant on the new restaurant. He argued that the upscale establishment would be in the “public interest” because there are very few Latin restaurants in the neighborhood (only a couple dozen according to city Health Department records) even though there are a large number of Latino residents, and most of the Latin restaurants that do exist are “quick serve” style diners. “It’s not that Latinos can only go to Latino restaurants,” he said. “(But) we feel, if there are 40,000 people in the community who are… Latino and there are only 21 restaurants that they can go to, I think it’s very under-served.”
Another supporter, Alex Wright, noted that the Lower East Side had become a “destination for partying,” and that “transients” had taken over. “There is nothing there that is for the people who were born and raised in that community,” he told the judge, adding, “the other owners, not only do they not live in the neighborhood, some of them are not even in New York City, so they have little to no concern for what goes on in the neighborhood. It’s just about money. It’s about selling liquor… These guys have been in the community all their lives… The whole neighborhood is filled with liquor licenses.”
Finally, Shalom Eisner of Eisner Brothers sporting goods on Essex Street, testified as to Jose Rodriguez’s dedication to the community, saying of his family, “they are the best people you can ever find… I really believe in the character and the background of these people 100%.”
The case against the application was made by Susan Stetzer, CB3’s district manager, as well as residents from the LES Dwellers Association. Stetzer said this particular block, between Essex and Ludlow streets is especially problematic, so much so that police close it to automobile traffic late at night on the weekends.
In the last 10 years, approximately, this has been increasingly a very hip nightlife area. (Years ago) it was named “Hell Square” by residents because of the intense conflicts caused by pitting late night venues against residents with quality of life concerns… The behavior of (young) people leaving these establishments at 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the morning is not that of polite people. There is binge drinking, vomiting, screaming and behavior you must visit to believe. This is in very upscale places. the hotel across the street is upscale. We have many upscale restaurants with celebrity chefs and I can tell you that the behavior of people in these places is totally obnoxious.
During Bernstein’s presentation, he pointed out that the community board did not oppose the restaurant entirely, since it approved a wine and beer permit while rejecting a full bar. When it was her turn, Stetzer explained the board’s stance. “Because residents have been talking about Latino culture, because they have been reporting that (the applicants) are local people, the community board wanted to have a compromise.,” she said. “They didn’t want to be in the position of just saying ‘no.'”
In public hearings, opponents said they feared the 106 Rivington venue would morph from a restaurant into a club. If it really is just a restaurant, Stetzer told the judge, there’s no reason why it can’t close at midnight (the operators are requesting 2 a.m. on weekends):
This block is an extremely troubled block. We want the SLA to abide by the 500 Foot Rule, which presumes, according to the SLA web site, that a license will not be issued unless there’s a ‘public interest.’ Residents on this block are already suffering… There are over 20 (licenses) within 500 feet. There are existing problem places on this tiny little block. Right across the street at the Hotel on Rivington, in the last several months, the SLA has gotten a letter from us (addressing complaints from neighbors)… We have Fat Baby on that block which is out of hand… This is a problem area. The police close it off because it is a problem area.
As for the applicants, Stetzer said:
We’re not clear who the principals are and what their experience is. We have documentation that appears to show conflicts as to who the financial backers are. There may be more people involved. There’s a tremendous amount of money being put into this application. There are four or five lobbyists, plus a consultant, plus a lawyer. This is unheard of in Community Board 3. This is the first time we have ever had lobbyists work on a State Liquor Authority license… There’s one person named Johnny Marines. I don’t know who he is, but he seems to be a celebrity. He seems to be a factor in this application. We have (in the CB3 packed submitted to the judge) tweets from him saying this is his license and asking people to come support this license, so a lot of the organizing has been by this other person who says it’s his license. We do not understand the situation.
Marines, manager of the popular Latin group Aventura, said (via twitter) that he was only expressing support for Rodriguez and Payne because they’re “family/friends,” and that he is not in business with the applicants. Stetzer said an officer in the 7th Precinct reported that a representative of the 106 Rivington group told him “Mr. Marines was a financial backer for this license.” Stetzer added, that “may be fine but we’re curious why his name doesn’t show up anywhere.”
Stetzer also testified about a situation involving a longtime resident of 106 Rivington, Tyler Kim. A large number of documents concerning a rent dispute between Kim and his landlord were sent anonymously to local media (including The Lo-Down). Kim opposes the liquor license application. Stetzer said a letter was also sent to the landlord of the building next door, 104 Rivington, which is where a resident spearheading the opposition to the liquor permit lives. The letter, Stetzer explained, seemed to threaten the landlord. While she added that Bernstein had told her the applicants had nothing to do with either incident (and she believes him “100%), Stetzer noted, “unfortunate things have been associated with these license.”
As for Bernstein’s argument about Community Board 3’s “strict standards” for approving licenses, Stetzer said, “we have a right to have our standards. Our standards are not the SLA standards. We understand that totally. When we make a recommendation it’s what we believe is right for our community.”
Stetzer’s testimony was followed by that of Diem Boyd, the leader of LES Dwellers, who said nightlife on her block is out of control. “I’m a single mother and I’ve been in that particular apartment for 13 years,” she said, “and the last few years have been really, really horrible. I love my neighborhood, I’m raising my kid there,” but Boyd said, many late nights are made hellish by “young transients, screaming in the middle of the street, waking up my daughter.” Boyd said her group had poured through petitions submitted by the applicants, and found many problems with their signatures (fake names, wrong addresses, etc.) Out of more than 500 signatures, over 400 were invalid, she alleged. Several other residents testified against the application, but the judge, anxious to wrap up the proceedings, cut off repetitive remarks. The group submitted about 50 letters from residents opposing the license, as well as detailed maps showing the presence of Latin restaurants and restaurants with wine/beer only permits in the area.
Finally, the community board packet included letters from City Council member Margaret Chin and State Senator Daniel Squadron in opposition to the liquor license application.
Bernstein was allowed a rebuttal. First off, he objected to Stetzer’s remarks concerning the hiring of lobbyists. He said the practice is common whenever there’s a difficult application before a community board. Bernstein said he was outraged at the suggestion that 106 Rivington’s lobbying firm, Capalino & Company, had possibly offered to “take community board members to lunch” in exchange for their support. Stetzer later clarified her earlier testimony, saying that while a lot of money clearly had been spent on the application, she was not implying that Capalino acted improperly.
On the matter of 106 Rivington’s financial backing, Bernstein said the State Liquor Authority was provided with a complete accounting of the business’s finances. He said this type of information is normally not submitted to the Community Board. In closing Bernstein questioned the amount of work that had gone into the community board’s case against the application:
This is a very detailed letter from Miss Stetzer… And Miss Stetzer made a comment that based on her tight schedule, which I can appreciate, that she needed help from others to do this, and I don’t know the authority to provide documentation like this by the community board. I don’t know if the board members are aware of the lengths, uh, to produce a document particularly where the vote was a — one-person would have changed the vote — and the vote was more people in favor of this application than voting against it. I would like to know who drafted this. I would like to know by what authority this was given and I would like to know who helped prepare this.
Stetzer responded that no one helped prepare her statement, but that residents provided additional testimony on issues such as petition signatures.
For the most part, the judge refrained from interjecting during the hearing. When the lobbying issue was brought up, he told Bernstein and Stetzer that it “seemed like a community board issue,” rather than a matter for the liquor authority. But he added that SLA Chairman Dennis Rosen and other commissioners would likely be very interested to hear more about the role of lobbyists in community board deliberations concerning liquor permits.
Once the judge’s report is forwarded to the full SLA board, another hearing will be scheduled and the commissioners will vote on the application. The LES Dwellers are considering a lawsuit if the full bar is approved.