The Fight for our Democracy Starts Close to Home by Voting for Community Board Term Limits [OP-ED]

Posted on: November 5th, 2018 at 5:00 am by

In a time of fear that our democracy is slipping away, we comfort ourselves thinking that, in this corner of the country, our voices will be heard. Yet all too often, New Yorkers instead face a demoralizing system that serves up a healthy dose of cynicism.

That is what dozens of Chinatown and Lower East Side residents got in October from Community Board 3. Despite overwhelming opposition to the Jarmulowsky Bank hotel’s liquor license application for nine onsite nightlife venues (a mix of both public and private) with a capacity of over 800 people, the board recommended approval of the application to the State Liquor Authority.

It was a harsh reality check for the many newcomers to the community board process who expected their voices to be heard and procedures to be transparent. The hotel project at 9 Orchard Street illustrates why we need more accountable and representative community boards.

Tomorrow, on election day, we can take a first step by voting Yes on “Proposal 3,” which would impose term limits on community board members (maximum of four consecutive full two-year terms).

Typical Community Board Meeting, Sep. 2017

In October, the private equity real estate firm DLJ Real Estate Partners brought an application for 9 Orchard to Community Board 3, which called for several full-liquor venues and for live music and DJs in the double-height lobby lounge. In the face of heartfelt pleas from hundreds of neighbors who either attended the board meetings or signed a petition calling for more modest plans, the committee members pushed the proposal through to the State Liquor Authority.

Why would community board members ignore the very people they are appointed to represent? One probable reason was that a small group purporting to represent the neighborhood had apparently cut a behind-closed-doors deal with the developers on license stipulations, leaving the community out of the conversation. That group then went before the community board with a valuable advantage: representing them was someone who happens to be a long-time member of Community Board 3.

In addition to the apparent inside dealing among longtime members, the board seemed to be tacitly accepting the developer’s ignorance of the community they hope to join. About two-thirds of residents around the hotel are Chinese-language speakers, nearly half of them first generation immigrants. Yet in the developer’s community outreach, they did little to engage the Chinese community.

When the Orchard Street Block Association presented maps to the community board showing the Cheng Chio Buddhist Temple within 200 feet of the hotel, which would trigger a state law prohibiting liquor licenses next to places of worship, hotel representatives didn’t even appear aware of its existence.The community board’s usual procedure is to table a hotel’s application when there is a question of a 200-foot case. In the this instance, for some reason, it went right ahead with its proposal.

Now that the developers have been notified about the Cheng Chio temple directly across Canal Street, if it is found to be a 200-foot case, they will likely do everything they can to lobby the state for an exemption to the law so the SLA can grant their liquor licenses. The community has been vocal on this point, calling on State Senator Brian Kavanagh and Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou to uphold the law and require the developer to come back to the community to reach a reasonable agreement, not create a nightlife nuisance on the backs of working residents.

Orchard Street, December 2017

But it should not have come to this. The Jarmulowsky Bank Hotel case teaches us that, in the face of massive public opposition, all the nightlife industry needs is the approval of long-serving board members who aren’t accountable to the community they represent.

We the locals can’t afford powerful lobbyists, lawyers or technical experts to make our case with community power brokers. And we can’t just pick up and move when the neighborhood becomes a nightlife destination, as the hotel developer suggested to one of our members.

At a time when our federal government has been hijacked, we need to bring community boards back to the community, and we need our local representatives to represent us. Voting Yes on Proposal 3 is just the beginning.

Lisa Blum is a member of the Orchard Street Block Association, a group that organizes and advocates on behalf of the Lower East Side community.

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