Community Board 3 voted 27-11 last night to support a liquor permit application for a new restaurant on Monroe Street from the team that owns Forgtmenot and Kiki’s. But beforehand, there was a lengthy and contentious debate about gentrification and nightlife encroachment in one of the last unspoiled sections of Manhattan.
The operators of the popular Division Street spots are planning to open a 2500 sq. ft. Southern European restaurant in a commercial building at 49 Monroe St., across from Coleman Skatepark. Earlier this month, CB3’s SLA Committee recommended approval of the liquor license, while acknowledging opposition from 81 local residents who signed a petition circulated by the Orchard Street Block Association. Members of the panel cited the owners’ reputation on Division Street as responsible operators sensitive to concerns from neighbors.
But last night new opposition surfaced from residents of Knickerbocker Village, the large residential complex located on Monroe Street a block to the west of the new restaurant. Even before the meeting began, we received a press release from a new group called the “Two Bridges Neighborhood Association.” Lead organizer Jenny Yu said in a statement, “The residents of Two Bridges are a tight-knit community and are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that any changes serve for the betterment of our residents, and there continues to be a place where hard working-class New Yorkers have a place to call home and raise their families.”
They came last night armed with 400 signatures and letters. Isabel Reyna Torres, a member of Knickerbocker Village Tenants’ Association, recounted an incident this past November at 49 Monroe St. — a private event in the building — that caused “immense noise and chaos” and ended in a visit by cops from the 5th Precinct. Paul Sierros, co-owner of the new business, noted that he hadn’t even signed a lease until January 1 and had nothing to do with the event Torres highlighted.
A pastor from Chinese Mission Church at 31 Monroe St. spoke against a full liquor permit, saying the area is “a family oriented” neighborhood. Another speaker asked whether it is the community board’s job to “protect businesses trying to exploit the neighborhood” or to protect local residents.
The board also heard from supporters of the Forgtmenot team. Michael Goldman, a Knickerbocker Village resident, said the original restaurant became a home-away-from-home for him shortly after moving to the area four years ago. He said the operators are small business owners, not corporate interlopers, that their “identity is consistent with the neighborhood” and that they do not represent gentrification in any way.
Following public remarks, board members had their say. Cathy Deng, an affordable housing activist, said her organization (CAAAV) has been advocating for tenants being squeezed out of buildings on Monroe Street. When one nightlife establishment comes into an area, she argued, “we start to see other problems,” referring to more restaurants, rent hikes and displacement of residential tenants.
Another board member, Anne Johnson, said she hoped the food would be affordable to the local community, which is predominantly working class and low income. “I have just as many concerns about gentrification” as the residents, Johnson said. Val Jones agreed, asserting that the restaurant is “moving into new territory,” a part of the neighborhood where “we don’t have a lot of bars and don’t want a lot of bars.”
“As a community,” she said, “we should say we support the residents.” Noting that the restaurant is across from a playground, Jones called the liquor permit a question of public health.
But Meghan Joye (co-owner of bars such as Lucky Jack’s and Donnybrook) noted that the State Liquor Authority would almost certainly approve the permit. The 500 Foot Law, which triggers a state hearing, does not apply because there aren’t three or more existing liquor licenses within striking distance of the new establishment. Since the applicant runs two other businesses with impeccable records, she said, and because Sierros already agreed to scale back his hours, the permit is basically “a gimme.” Personally, Joye added, she found it offensive (as a bar owner and mother of young children) to hear people say that a liquor license shouldn’t be approved near a park where children play. Using phrases such as, “exploiting our neighborhood,” she argued, is over the line in talking about “a guy who has proven he is part of this community.”
MyPhuong Chung, who lives a block away from Forgtmenot and Kiki’s, called the owners, “really wonderful neighbors” and said of Sierros, “He has a track record of running his business responsibly.”
Board member Enrique Cruz said he understood the residents’ concerns but urged them “to be sensible.” Sierros previously agreed to close the restaurant at midnight during the week and at 1 a.m. on weekends. Rejecting the proposal, Cruz cautioned would likely lead to longer hours and no operating restrictions, which the community board routinely negotiates with nightlife operators.
In the end, a majority of the board agreed. Sierros said he would close on Thursdays by midnight, rather than 1 a.m. Board members also asked him to agree to shorter hours on the weekends, but Sierros said he’d already made as many concessions as he could make and still run a viable business. The final decision is, of course, up to the State Liquor Authority.