Soho House Decision Day, Ludlow Landmark Application, Dwellers Drama (Updated)

139 Ludlow Street. Photo courtesy: Soho House.

The long wait for a decision from the State Liquor Authority (SLA) regarding Soho House, which  hopes to open a new club at 139 Ludlow St., is almost over. The SLA will finally take up the application tomorrow.

139 Ludlow Street.  Photo courtesy: Soho House.
139 Ludlow Street. Photo courtesy: Soho House.

In August, attorneys for the private members’ club, made their case during a public hearing at the liquor authority’s Harlem offices.  There will likely be more testimony tomorrow from supporters as well as opponents of the liquor permit, before the commissioners vote.  In May. Community Board 3 opposed the application, and local elected officials have also weighed in against the proposal, on the grounds that the area is already over-saturated with bars.

In a related development, community activists have been in talks with Soho House about supporting a landmark application for the Ludlow Street building purchased by the club last year.  In a “request for evaluation” prepared for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, they call the 1930 Gothic-style structure with “glazed terra cotta” a building that is “integral to the historic fabric of the Lower East Side.”  A preservation group, the Friends of the Lower East Side, notes that 139 Ludlow St. has served many purposes, functioning as a “hay and feed store and stable in one era and an automobile garage and funeral home in the next.”  Friends of the Lower East Side has been working with the East Village Community Coalition on the application.

Another neighborhood group, the LES Dwellers, is expected to make another big push against the permit at tomorrow’s hearing.  They have fought the plan for many months and are now tangling with the leadership of CB3.  Even though the board and the Dwellers agree that the application should be rejected, they are at odds over broader tactics and procedures.

In an October 1 letter to the organization, CB3 Chairperson Gigi Li wrote, “the Board has decided to suspend the LES Dwellers of block association status for three months.” She asserted that the Dwellers seemed to be “working as its own entity,” unilaterally contacting liquor license applicants and submitting evidence against applicants to the SLA without informing the community board.  The group expressed outrage, claimed that CB3 was violating its free speech rights and called on the Manhattan Borough President to launch an investigation.  Just this morning, EV Grieve published a letter from the Dwellers calling on the community board to set up a task force to investigate itself. The letter was accompanied with a lengthy audio recording of a phone conference between CB3 reps and members of the Dwellers organization (the CB3 participants did not know they were being recorded).  Here’s part of the letter:

We … followed up with written request (CB3 Special Task Force: LESD Suspension Letter) on October 10th to CB3 chair Gigi Li to convene an independent, internal panel (“Special Task Force”) to investigate the facts and events surrounding the suspension of the LESD (Lower East Side Dwellers). We asked that the Special Task Force be charged with investigating two matters. First, did the LESD engage in any unlawful or inappropriate conduct that would warrant a suspension by CB3? Second, did CB3 Chair Gigi Li, CB3 District Manager Susan Stetzer or any other member of the CB3 Executive Committee engage in unlawful or inappropriate conduct in suspending LESD?

The letter and the Borough President’s investigation were both discussed at CB3’s executive committee meeting last Thursday.  Li said there had been extensive conversations with members of the Borough President’s office about the matter.  Earlier last week, Li said, CB3 got word from the city’s law department that the board had (in her words) done “nothing legally out of bounds.”  Li also said it was not her intention to appoint a task force to investigate the conduct of the board but she does intend to address the controversy at tomorrow night’s full board meeting.

In previous public statements, Li has said that members of the Dwellers are free to speak during the public session of any CB3 meeting. The suspension, she added, only meant that the board is not recognizing the Dwellers as as a group.

UPDATED 4:54 p.m. In the interest of being more precise, here’s the text of what Li said at CB3’s liquor licensing committee meeting:

As I stated in the letter (to the Dwellers), we encourage that the members of the neighborhood continue to take part in this process as concerned residents which everyone should be doing anyway, which is why we have the notification requirements in the window (applicants are asked to post notices announcing their community board applications)… (But) they are speaking for themselves and not for the neighborhood and the blocks that they previously were representing…  There were two discussions that I personally had with leadership of the Lower East Side Dwellers before making this decision and this decision was discussed at the executive committee in which 10 members were present.”

UPDATED 10/21:  In a letter sent to Gigi Li Monday, Borough President Scott Stringer expressed concern about the suspension. “Notwithstanding the legal authority for such a policy and suspension,” Stringer wrote, “the decision to exclude an organization… under these circumstances does not serve the interest of community board transparency and democratic representation.”  Asserting that the decision was made without a “fully deliberative process,” Stringer added, “I ask that the board reconsider its current policy… to ensure that its mission of representing and responding to community concerns remains fully transparent and open to public scrutiny.”