Will CB3 Make Good on its Promise to Curb the Liquor License Saturation in Hell Square?

Posted on: May 16th, 2016 at 9:27 am by

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No Fun was busted by the NYPD in October 2015

“CB3 … will not approve license applications that are subject to the 500-foot rule unless they meet the high standard of being in the public interest.” –Community Board 3, April 2016 resolution


Restaurateur Michael Stillman was handed defeat last month for his Quality Eats outpost proposed for Ludlow Street. Community Board 3 denied the application, with SLA subcommittee chair Alex Militano arguing the restaurant was not in the broader public interest. This ruling went against many neighbors in the vicinity who wanted the “approachable steakhouse,” including the controversial LES Dwellers.

The ruling, and subsequent ratification, visibly surprised a few on the panel who noted the anomalous situation in which the block association actually backed a full liquor license in Hell Square. That this position merited additional weight given the group’s history (and tendency) to vote down newcomers to the embattled nine square-block area.

Some subsequently suggested that the denial was a petty turf war between Community Board 3 and the LES Dwellers. Anyone following the nightlife situation in Hell Square the last few years understands the tense dynamic between the two. It’s certainly no secret they’re at loggerheads, with tempers having reached a head when the LES Dwellers were suspended three months by CB3 for allegedly overstepping its bounds in 2013. The relationship hasn’t been the same ever since.

A week after the Quality Eats vote, the full CB3 body passed a resolution “recommitting itself” to observing the 500-foot rule. This state law dictates that three or more full liquor establishments within 500 feet triggers a hearing during which an applicant must prove “public benefit” to the community.

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Velvet ropes for Hotel Indigo bar Mr. Purple, May 2016

“We are optimistic that CB3’s decision will be matched by their action and commitment to raise the quality-of-life standards for residents, uphold public safety, and encourage and preserve retail diversity in our community,” LES Dwellers co-founder Diem Boyd noted. “We also look to CB3 and our elected officials to join the statewide effort to combat the weakening of the 200 and 500 Foot Rules by lobbyists and special interests in Albany.”

But shouldn’t the board have been doing this all along? The common practice was adding stipulations to an approval of establishments within 500 feet of several licenses. Some neighbors argue that such conditional approvals – protection in the event of an SLA green light – actually signals to the State that the community is cool with even more booze. That’s partly why Hell Square is so saturated with more than fifty licensed establishments in a nine square-block radius.

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Too many licenses were let through, despite past (futile) efforts toward a moratorium. According to Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City, by Richard Ocejo, “the first five years of the new century continued the upward trend of liquor license activity that began in the 1990s.”

From 2000 to 2005, CB3 voted on an average of thirty-two liquor license applications per month, with an average of forty-nine per month in 2003 alone.

The number of NEW liquor license and transfer applications also increased tremendously during this period, with the former reaching an all-time high of 136 in 2002 and the latter reaching thirty-seven in 2003, the highest for a year at the time.

So, to bring it back home, in evoking the high standard CB3 set last month, will the party line be upheld? And what does said stance spell for two new concepts gunning for Hell Square on Monday. As previously reported, both Serafina and Michael Shah’s Orchard Street Social (probable bait-and-switch) seek full liquor licenses in this saturated area. If it’s setting new precedent, CB3 should follow the lead, and deny these and any future applications for the nine square-block zone. Indeed, there are more than fifty licensed establishments operating here.

“Our CB needs to help preserve affordability for tenants and small businesses who cater to the ethnically diverse needs of Chinatown LES residents, and stop encouraging rising rent ceilings supported by liquor licenses in 500ft zones,” Residents of Two Bridges block association noted in a statement.

The Mahfar Tenants Alliance also weighed in, as their landlord nemesis has a track record of installing nightlife in his buildings. “The systematic removal of diverse daytime retail in exchange for high-rent paying nightlife operators is part of the bad acting landlord playbook used to prey on the LES. Everyone in the community suffers,” a spokesperson said.

The damage is done in Hell Square, but can retail diversity win the day if and when bad operators get the axe?

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