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January 10th, 2006

Community Board to SoHo: Get Lost!

by D. Clark MacPherson

SoHo: Paradise Regained for Bars, Clubs and Lounges; Paradise Lost for Families and Residents

As part of the effort to transform SoHo from an artist’s enclave of gothic guerilla art and galleries to a Times Square look-alike, the lower Manhattan business elite has successfully engineered a new direction for our community. We have always cherished a sprinkling of local watering holes–like Fanelli’s or Kenn’s Broome Street Bar–and have welcomed good neighbors like Diva and Novacento on West Broadway. But recently, the combination of multiple liquor license applications, illegal billboard signs festooned across our gothic architecture, and a complete lack of traffic enforcement, has threatened to further degrade our community.

In trying to maintain SoHo’s delicate balance between what it was and what it isthe perception of an arts Mecca versus pressures from business and development interests–Community Board #2 has been the focus of many heated controversies. Only two members of Community Board #2 have been appointed from SoHo and the representation is clearly skewed. While Greenwich Village is a more mature community, and NoHo is better represented, SoHo has become the rich, but ignored stepchild. The recent Community Board #2 election has sealed SoHo’s fate as a variation on Sisyphus pushing a political rock uphill. The big losers are SoHo’s residents, families, and most especially parents with young children who count on quality of life issues being supported in their neighborhoods. We lack public schools, parks and now political representation on the Community Board. SoHo has been relegated to the audience without any control over it’s quality of life.

This unfortunate state of affairs is partially due to the ambitions of a few Board members who own bars, the wealthy nightlife industry, and the essential egocentric politics of the Chamber of Commerce. This sorry situation came to a boiling point primarily over the intolerable saturation of bars located in a two or three block area on West Broadway and Grand Street. While it was about the applications of Besito Restaurant and Lola, it was less about them than it was about the transformation of SoHo into a dumping ground for out-of-towners looking for a place to party in the streets. With no Police or S.L.A. enforcement and 17 bars in a two block area, the arts Mecca has at times become more like Coney Island on a bad day. With crowds spilling on to the sidewalks and people drinking and urinating in the streets, quality of life has become a joke.

In order to take control of their neighborhood, local resident activists like Marie Evans, Irene DaCosta and Sean Sweeney brought their complaints to Community Board #2 in an effort to block more liquor licenses in this oversaturated area. With great difficulty (and antagonism from the bar owners on the Board), some licenses were rejected, only later to be approved by the State Liquor Authority–an agency composed primarily of political hacks appointed by Pataki. The S.L.A. can be reached by attorneys and connected politicians doing favors for clients. Many attorneys who represent liquor license applicants are related to current or former commissioners sitting on the S.L.A Board.

Beer and Wine licenses, which bizarrely are not treated as if they are alcohol-related, are simply rubber-stamped by that august body. Remember that little detail after you trip over the next wino on the street.

In other words, folks, the Community Board did vote to deny liquor license applicants who clearly should have been rejected (with great effort) for the sake of the community. But, it required a lot of hard work and arm-twisting since many of the Board members just can’t say no to a new bar. Especially, if it’s in SoHo–where there is no representation.

How does control of the Community Board matter?

The Business Committee approves liquor licenses. The Sidewalks Committee approves sidewalk cafes. And, the Board oversees real estate developments. Many of the new Board officers own real estate, own and operate bars and have sidewalk cafes.

In any other line of work this would be called conflict of interest. A case in point is the fact that there was no initial opposition by Community Board members to the first application by Lola and Besito (which were vehemently opposed by SoHo). Yet, there was an organized and concerted effort by NoHo to defeat one license by an applicant in a location where there were no other bars. What reason was given by the new nightlife controlled Business Committee in denying this NoHo application? Over-saturation. In other words, SoHo’s seventeen bars within 500 feet are tolerable, while one bar on Bond Street is not.

Where does this leave SoHo?

In a defining moment, the new Chair of Community Board #2, Maria Derr, removed political activist Sean Sweeney (Director of the SoHo Alliance and President of the Downtown Independent Democrats), from the Landmarks Committee and the Zoning Committee only days after she was elected. He was summarily stripped of having anything to say about the conditions in SoHo.

Sweeney fought hard to prevent bars and lounges from saturating SoHo. He also took part in the fight against the removal of art and the horrendous proliferation of billboards within our community. Litigation to preserve “The Wall” at 599 Broadway was supported by his SoHo Alliance as well as other activists. Unfortunately, The Wall litigation failed to preserve the Frosty Myers construction due to?Ǭ a Judge (Judge Batts) who apparently has no interest in arts preservation and seemingly, little intelligence.

Sweeney is a very visible and pro-active supporter of SoHo and his rejection?Ǭ by Community Board #2 was clearly a rejection of SoHo. It was an attempt, in part, by the nightlife crew to silence any objections to the unchecked spread of bars. That is because the new Chair is supported by the bar owners and nightlife industry with the active help of C. Virginia Fields–the lame-duck Borough President and her staff.

Who now controls the Business Committee?

John Diaz, a supporter of the new Community Board Chair (Derr) now runs the reconstituted Business Committee. Diaz is not a bar owner since the rules prohibit a bar owner from being Chair of the Business Committee, but it is a committee that is heavily populated by influential liquor license holders like Bob Rinaolo, Roscia Sanz and Phil Mouqhino. But don’t expect much support from Community Board #2 on the bar issue while Virginia Fields still holds office. She has been known to appoint Community Board members based upon their views towards the nightlife industry. They give good fundraisers. SoHo produces vast income for the city and has truly become the artistic, philosophical and political moralist for downtown. Meanwhile Community Board #2’s new leadership is busy handing out copies of Machiavelli’s The Prince and approving as many liquor licenses as possible. Especially if the applicant wants to do business in SoHo.

Updates in SoHo:?Ǭ Liquor Licenses and Over-Development

Besito Restaurant, at 357 West Broadway finally got a liquor license by showing up at the Community Board three times in less than a year and exhausting the resources of the community–and after the new Executive Committee of Community Board #2 had its election victory dinner at that restaurant. Of course, no one would ever imagine that plans to help get them their license were ever discussed at that dinner.

Lola continues its effort to open a bar-restaurant-cabaret on Watts Street. The court issued a temporary restraining order (T.R.O.) to prevent a liquor license from being issued after being approved by the S.L.A in defiance of the community. Lola has applied for a Beer and Wine license, essentially circumventing the process thus far. Get out that rubber stamp, boys! Attorney Barry Mallin and John and?Ǭ Marie Evans have worked hard on this issue.

Rick Panson, of the Duplex in Greenwich Village (and Chair of the CB2 Environment Committee), has teamed up with 76 Wooster Street owner Ron Pasquale, both members of the new Community Board #2 IN crowd, to open a restaurant in SoHo called Eat 4 Health. While we did not discuss the theme of this new venture with them, a beer and wine license for the new location is in the offing. For those of you who have followed the numerous applications for liquor licenses at this location, the current concern of the community is whether this is a novel approach to food or a novel approach to opening a lounge if the food is not so popular. It is a location that has roused the community to legal action numerous times in the past.

Meanwhile, the passing of icons in SoHo continues unabated. The Tunnel Garage will soon give way to a nine-story condo. While there will be a garage in the new development, it will have roughly one-third fewer spaces and quite a few new residents. Moondance Diner, another emotional anchor will also give way to a nine-story condo and without the parking spaces to replace the current garage. Prepare yourself for a wave of rich, creative neighbors searching for the missing artists–and your parking spot.

Art History?

The Parks Department had been completely ignoring the efforts by activists trying to restore the Bob Bolles sculptures to the park at Thompson, Broome and Watts but at least in that regard there appears to be some genuinely positive movement. For three years, Commissioners Castro and Benepe had indicated that they would help return these iron pieces to SoHo after storing them on Randall’s Island–and now they have finally begun to return the work.?Ǭ The SoHo Arts Council (a non-profit organization dedicated to the restoration and preservation of SoHo’s arts heritage) working through the offices of attorney Lawrence Goldberg, has finally recovered three of the sculptures. We’ll keep you posted on the developments.

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