As we reported earlier, Soho House has gotten the okay from the State Liquor Authority (SLA) to open a new club at 139 Ludlow St. Here’s a more detailed account from today’s hearing at the SLA’s offices in Harlem.
The decision effectively ends a battle that has spanned most of this year and pitted the global private members’ club against a group of neighborhood residents. The ruling means Soho House can now begin a year-long project to restore a building it purchased in 2012. Today the organization’s attorney intimated that Soho House is willing to work with local preservationists to secure landmark status for the 1930 property, which features a beautiful Gothic-style facade.
Dennis Rosen, the chairman of the State Liquor Authority grilled the lawyer, Donald Bernstein, and Soho House founder Nick Jones about the plans on Ludlow Street. As a condition of the license, liquor will not be permitted in an outdoor portion of the proposed fifth floor roof deck. Several residents who live in an adjacent building spoke out against the proposal. Michael Zadorozny, a resident of the block since 1980, said he’d literally be able to reach out and touch the roof deck, which is about four feet from his bedroom window. “Our way of life is at stake,” he testified. He called the outdoor space a “recipe for disaster” and a potential assault on any semblance of normalcy.”
The testimony obviously resonated with the chairman. “It’s a huge concern to me,” he told the applicants. “I don’t think anyone should have to pay a price in terms of lifestyle… It’s a question of fundamental fairness in my view.”
In making his case for Soho House, Bernstein called the club a “unique, iconic brand” that would create a benefit for the community. The Ludlow Street building is located in an area Community Board 3 has declared to be over-saturated with liquor permits (CB3 voted against the application). The liquor authority requires applicants seeking licenses within 500 feet of three existing permits to prove an overriding public benefit. He touted Soho House as a place where creative people can interact, where budding entrepreneurs can work and find support and where members can attend workshops and take part in cultural programming. Bernstein, highlighting support from the Lower East Side BID, also talked up the club’s potential as a daytime destination that would benefit struggling local businesses. He told the commissioners that the club had agreed to donate a 4300 square foot space in the basement to the Educational Alliance, one of the oldest social services organizations on the LES. Bernstein also said the club was “agreeable to working with a local organization to landmark the facade (we first reported about this effort yesterday). “It’s something we can help the community to achieve,” Bernstein said.
Soho House emphasized support from local residents and business owners; Meatball Shop owner Michael Chernow testified today, vouching for the organization’s dedication to nurturing young entrepreneurs. Referring to opposition from the LES Dwellers, a neighborhood group, Bernstein said, “they do not speak for the community. They speak for themselves.”
Diem Boyd, founder of the LES Dwellers, talked only briefly. She pointed out that local elected officials — Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Senator Dan Squadron and City Council member Margaret Chin — had all come out against the liquor application. Another resident asserted that, in spite of Soho House’s claims, it is basically a night club and would attract throngs of late not revelers to an already congested neighborhood. Dale Goodson, an East Village anti-bar activist, urged a denial from the SLA, saying he was worried that approval of the application would set a bad precedent for all of Community District 3.
Rosen grilled Bernstein on several issues. At one point he said, “you allege traffic (on Ludlow Street) won’t be burdensome.” But pointing out that the streets of the LES are narrow and that many people live in tenements, he suggested residents have good reason to be concerned. In response, Bernstein said any use of the building (whether it’s Soho House or, say, a grocery store) would have some impact on the neighborhood. Rosen also questioned Soho House about what he called relatively low membership fees ($1800 annually), suggesting that the club would be very dependent on robust food and liquor sales to turn a profit. “The concern I’m hearing” from residents, he said, is that the club would be “one more destination place… in an area where streets are being closed off due to the shear numbers of people.” He asked about the club’s membership criteria, and wondered whether 20-something NYU students might want to join. Would it really be possible to admit only artists and other creatives or would anyone with $1800 gain admittance?, Rosen asked. Bernstein and Nick Jones said the clubs skew somewhat older and indicated that every effort is made to cultivate a creative spirit among members.
In the end, Rosen not only insisted on a “no-liquor” policy in the outdoor space, but said the doors to a glassed-in portion of the roof must remain closed at all times. The outdoor area must close by 6 p.m. each evening. The Soho House team said the enclosure would be sound-proof. Bernstein asked whether the SLA would consider a wine-only license outside but Rosen rejected this idea. He left open the possibility that the agency might reconsider a couple of years after Soho House opens on Ludlow Street.
In a brief chat outside the SLA’s offices, Jones said he still hoped to win over opponents of Soho House. The team, he said, might rethink the uses of the rooftop space in light of the SLA’s ruling. Renovation of the building has not yet begun; it’s expected to take about a year before the club opens.