The abundance of bars and nightclubs on the Lower East Side and the East Village is a perpetual source of grousing at Community Board 3 meetings. Sure, we all love a good neighborhood spot, but it’s not so cool to wake up to puke on your doorstep– or to watch your favorite taco joint go under as soon as the landlord realizes he can make big bucks with a cocktail bar instead.
That was the main subject of last night’s CB 3 Economic Development Committee Meeting, which (once again) met to discuss remedies for tamping down liquor licenses in an effort to force landlords to rent to a more diverse array of establishments.
There’s been some success over the years in limiting individual liquor applications, but just nipping a few would-be nightclub magnates in the bud isn’t enough to change the overall cycle of alcohol-infused profits warping the market. Last night the committee pinpointed the over-proliferation of bars and restaurants in the area as one of the main motors driving up rents and squashing retail diversity.
To open, board member William LoSasso mentioned that the committee had already discussed the idea of creating a special purpose district to limit bars, but since it would likely be a lengthy struggle, they wanted to look for other, parallel initiatives that could help stanch the flow in the meantime.
“There are people who want to be entrepreneurs and want to employ people and want to be part of this business community, who can’t succeed because they are getting into a game that is inherently flawed– because there is this race by landlords to get as much as they can, because their property taxes are going through the roof,” LoSasso said. “What I believe is, if we had a better and more diverse variety of retail spaces to begin with– if we had a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, a card store, a sock store, and a couple bars and restaurants on the block– everybody is likely to see more stability in the long run.”
(Of course, the East Village did have a sock store until recently, when the Sock Man shuttered due to what he said was an unaffordable rent hike.)
Board member Andrew Coamey, of the North Avenue A Neighborhood Association, pointed to the recent example of Nino’s Pizzeria at Avenue A and St Marks. After a gas leak in November forced the slice joint to close “temporarily,” Nino Camaj, the owner, was served with an eviction notice for back rent. According to Coamey, Camaj is in court fighting the eviction but in the meantime another applicant has already swooped in, applying for a beer and wine license that would combine Nino’s space with the old Hot Devil Grill bar (evicted for other reasons) next door.
“If a landlord has the incentive to rent to a bar or restaurant, I can tell you he is not rushing to get Nino’s gas turned on,” Coamey said.
The board has been debating these matters for some time. Back in 2012, it considered a strategy of loosening up its moratorium on liquor-license applicants within booze-heavy resolution areas (St. Marks Place, Ludlow Street, etc.) so long as the applicants agreed to serve only beer and wine, operate mainly in the daytime, and close at midnight or earlier. The discussions came after a study revealed that the State Liquor Authority routinely granted liquor licenses despite the board’s recommendations of denial.
But last night Coamey said many would-be bar applicants get the message that a beer and wine license is just the first step to eventually getting a full liquor license, after good behavior is established. Instead, the goal should be to make it much harder to get a new license at all. “If we say no, eventually the landlord is not going to rent, and we’ve seen successes over time,” he said. “The North Avenue A Neighborhood Association, we’ve done it time and time again.”
“What we are trying to do is not necessarily regulate the businesses coming in,” he continued. Board members agreed that bars that already have liquor licenses and want to sell their assets, including the license, should be allowed to do so, but when a bar is evicted or a space does not already have a liquor license, new ones shouldn’t be granted easily.
“We are trying to shape an agenda to not have additional bars and restaurants come in, such that new businesses that aren’t bars and restaurants have somewhat of a level playing field,” Coamey said.
Nothing concrete came out of the meeting to affect the next round of liquor applications, but the committee decided that it would work on creating a board-wide policy on liquor licenses with the CB 3’s State Liquor Authority committee (a few members serve on both) to clarify wider objectives. If things continue this direction, expect the taps to tighten.