Monday, September 15, 2008

Good news at the community board

Those of us worried about the new members of the SLA committee of Community Board 3 had our fears allayed. The committee took strong stands against new liquor licenses, against licenses on side streets and against applicants who failed to show good faith with local residents.

Most encouraging, David McWater, former CB chair, laid out in his motions, votes and discussions an array of principles regarding liquor applicants: licenses should not be encouraged on side streets, applicants should keep licenses that already exist rather than add new licenses to the pool, applicants should be discouraged in areas already saturated with licenses. In all these principles McWater reflects widespread sentiment among long-term residents of the district.

McWater's view is nuanced with an ethical concern: if the CB identifies moratorium areas, then areas not so designated send the signal to nightlife speculators that those areas are open to additional liquor licenses. If the board doesn't want any bars in a location -- not even a well-run bar -- it should not give the impression to the industry that the area is open to licenses. It's not fair to the applicants to encourage them to invest in a location only to be surprised by resistance at the committee level. Applicants should not be made to pay for the lack of a clear signal from the board. He recommends extending the moratorium areas wherever the neighborhood is saturated with bars.

(It should be pointed out that the moratoria are symbolic only. The SLA requires that every applicant be given a fair hearing on its own merits. Blanket denials are an abridgment of due process. The CB moratoria merely indicate community orientation or intent. The committee must hear the individual applicants even in moratorium areas.)

There is merit in McWater's ethics and no harm in extending the moratoria. But the current attitude of the committee seems to me to be exactly that clear indication to the nightlife industry that new liquor licenses are no longer welcome here, regardless how responsible the applicant. And, honestly, no bar owner should be surprised by community resistance: bars are nimby issues; there is scarcely a residential community in the five boroughs that welcomes a bar. Applicants may feign ignorance, but they know exactly which neighborhoods are dense with bars. Those are the neighborhoods they seek out -- nightlife destinations with their bottomless well of non-local patrons.

The example of 124 1st Avenue -- a liquor license withdrawn in favor of a Kim's Video -- shows that there are welcome alternatives to nightlife. If McWater would add to his principles that even well-run bars should be discouraged in saturated areas, he'd have a perfect score. On the committee, John Fout, Noah Yago and Alexandra Militano, the chair of the committee, vocally stood behind that principle.

The committee had tough decisions before it: there were several applicants with excellent records of following quiet, respectful, responsible business models, who happened to apply in areas full of noisy, disrespectful and irresponsible bars. The committee would gladly have installed these quiet bars in place of the existing noisy ones, but that's not an option. The noisy ones are here to stay, and the unpleasantness of their presence is keeping the quiet ones out: the community has had enough, and the committee took the difficult position of siding with the community. Those decent businesses are being sacrificed to the licensing excesses of the past. The committee too is paying for the past.

Well, nothing to shed tears over. The applicants, if the SLA respects the CB's recommendations, will have to find their opportunities to rake in piles of cash elsewhere. Meanwhile, the culture of the neighborhood has been preserved a little bit, for a little bit longer.

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