We have more now on yesterday’s decision by the State Liquor Authority to deny a full liquor license for Jose Orlando Rodriguez and Robert Payne, who are seeking to open an upscale Latin restaurant at 106 Rivington St. The ruling followed months of controversy surrounding the application, which devolved into an ugly battle encompassing race, gentrification and community board politics.
Donald Bernstein, an attorney representing Rodriguez and Payne, covered many of the same points he made before an administrative law judge back in January. In short, he argued that the proposed restaurant enjoys “overwhelming support in the community,” that the applicants had modified their plans to address concerns from neighbors and that the business would offer a “public benefit” because there aren’t any latin restaurants of this type on the LES.
State law requires an applicant to prove “public benefit” when the proposed establishment is within 500 feet of three other licensed venues. Bernstein argued that CB3’s policy discouraging liquor licenses in specific “saturation areas” (106 Rivington sits in one of these zones) goes beyond the law enacted in Albany. “Community boards do not create policy,” he argued. “That is left to the Legislature… Every application must be considered on its merits. Community Board 3’s, or I should say the District Manager’s viewpoint, should be considered in that light.” Bernstein was referring to Susan Stetzer, CB3’s manager, who testified against the application at an earlier hearing but was not present yesterday. The community board voted against the license in a narrow decision last fall.
Yesterday’s session took place at State Liquor Authority offices in Harlem. SLA Chairman Dennis Rosen participated from Albany via video hookup. In questioning, he asked about Rodriguez’s business background and his involvement in several gourmet groceries throughout the LES. Rodriguez said he inadvertently neglected to mention four violations in 2006 for underage drinking at one of those establishments, a deli at 201 Madison St. “Not to disclose that is rather disconcerting,” Rosen told the applicants. In response, Rodriguez, Bernstein and Enrique Cruz (a consultant and long-time friend) explained that the violations happened while other family members were tending to the store and that the omission on the application was just an oversight. Later, Rosen asked why the certificate of occupancy noted on the application had increased from 170 to 200 and why there was only room for 110 diners when the space can technically accommodate so many more people. The reason, Cruz said, is that the building is oddly shaped, meaning it was impossible to add more tables.
The commissioners gave both supporters and opponents the opportunity to testify. Anne Johnson, a CB3 member, said she was concerned that ‘pressure coming from an issue group (the LES Dwellers neighborhood association) had too much influence on the community board’s decision and she said the organization was starting to ‘resemble the NRA.” Noting that Rodriguez was born and raised on the LES, she said, “I sympathize with their frustration about bars but you don’t punish the good people for what the bad people do.”
Bernard Marti, another CB3 member, who’s known Rodriguez for 25 years, said, “he is a good guy, a person from the community, for the community. The LES has gone through tremendous changes. It is completely gentrified.” Pointing out that most nightlife issues involving noise and unruly crowds come from outside the community, Marti added, “this group is from the community… their heart is in the right place.”
Several local residents testified against the proposed restaurant, including Scott Cook, whose Ludlow Street apartment would face the new establishment. He said weekend evenings have become a nightmare scenario, with mounted cops and a blockaded street too overburdened with drunken revelers. “It disgusts me that there might be another place,” he said. Ty Trippet, a Stanton Street resident, referenced a shooting that took place earlier this month in the area. Trippet said police officers told him they believe the LES’s over-abundance of nightlife venues contributes to crime.
Diem Boyd, the founder of the LES Dwellers organization, said the blocks around 106 Rivington, dubbed “Hell Square,” have become intolerable, with young bar customers urinating in public, vomiting, leaving garbage and broken bottles everywhere and creating so much noise residents cannot sleep. Boyd says she loves the LES and enjoys a rent stabilized apartment but fears she and her young daughter will have to find somewhere else to live. She said there are 27 full liquor licenses within 500 feet of the proposed Latin spot.
SLA Commissioner Jeanique Greene, as well as Chairman Rosen, asked Boyd whether she was comforted by the applicant’s decision to close on weekends at 2 a.m., rather than 4 a.m., as it had originally proposed. She said, “no,” that customers would simply leave the restaurant and move on to other locations on the block and elsewhere in the neighborhood. The only consolation, she said would be a beer and wine” only permit, rather than a full bar, and a midnight closing time. Bernstein had argued that the restaurant could not get by without full liquor because rum-based cocktails are integral to the kind of Latin cuisine being proposed. Rosen acknowledged this perspective, saying “some degree of a cultural argument can be made,” and asked why the Dwellers were so opposed to hard liquor. Boyd replied, “in out neighborhood restaurants are really (masquerading as) bars. In all honesty it’s a slippery slope, saying every ethnic group gets a full bar.”
Another resident engaged in a fairly lengthy back and forth with Rosen about the effect bars have on neighborhood gentrification. The man, who asked us not to use his name, said the Lower East Side “felt like a neighborhood” when he moved in in 1978. There were drug corners and crime, but also a variety of services, including restaurants, bars and all sorts of stores. The other night, the resident said, he went on a futile search for a banana, and realized the LES has become completely overtaken by nightlife. “Say we deny this application,” Rosen responded, “you’re not getting a grocery store because it won’t be able to pay the rent… the location will just stay vacant.” He then explained his view that issuing liquor licenses is not necessarily the problem in New York’s gentrifying neighborhoods. If bar operators know licenses won’t be granted in Albany, the man countered, and landlords know it, too, they “would get the message” and property owners would start renting spaces to other types of businesses.
Sara Romanoski, an Orchard Street resident, made another point, saying there had been “a non-existent relationship between the applicants and neighbors concerned about the new venue. “It’s been a really nasty process” and people feel really marginalized,” she said. Romanoski added that she’s confident some other business would rent the 106 Rivington space and also that the restaurant could succeed with a wine and beet permit.
After hearing testimony from both sides, Rosen concluded, “you clearly have an area that has a problem with the number and nature of licenses.” He also cited the fact that the venue has not previously been licensed and that it’s a big space. “The burden is on you,” he told Bernstein to prove there’s a public benefit.” “What is the compelling argument?,” he asked. Bernstein told the chairman he believed it is a public benefit to “activate a dank space” and to cater to an under-served community but he expressed the view that the law does not require applicants to show “that a venue is good for a community.”
After the commissioners returned from “executive session,” they delivered a decisive victory for the LES Dwellers. Commissioner Green began by telling the applicants, “your investment in the community is impressive. I know you want to co-exist and I applaud you somewhat for going halfway (with your neighbors).” But Green continued, “it is a saturated area. it’s a tough neighborhood for new liquor licenses… I tend to agree with CB3 (which approved a resolution for a wine and beer permit).”
Rosen agreed, saying Bernstein had made a strong argument but added, “I don’t think your arguments are sufficient to trump the statute (meaning the 500 foot law).” Rosen went on, “this is one of the most saturated areas in the city, probably in the world. It’s just the wrong place. A full license would be an indefensible rejection of the 500 foot law.”
In the end, Rosen and Green said they could support a wine and beer permit and a 1 a.m. closing time. Bernstein indicated his clients would likely apply for a downgraded license. We have a call into Bernstein this afternoon, and will let you know what we hear.