Volume 74, Number 3 | June 8- 14, 2005

Bar battle is a ‘not in my backyard’ issue, literally

By Ellen Keohane

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Liz Glass and her youngest daughter Jackie were all smiles playing in their backyard one morning earlier this week. But in the evenings, noise from the next-door Boxcar Lounge’s backyard garden is a nightmare, Glass and neighbors say.

At 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, only a few people sat inside the Boxcar Lounge at 168 Ave. B. Most were outside, in the bar’s backyard garden. There, 32 patrons crammed into every available plastic seat, sipping their drinks, chatting and enjoying the warm June night. A few smoked, flicking their ashes on the ground.

But many neighbors, who share the same courtyard with the Boxcar Lounge, aren’t enjoying this spring’s warmer weather. Instead, they’re inside their apartments with their windows closed and air conditioners on, trying to block out the noise. They say this is literally a NIMBY (not in my backyard) issue if ever there was one.

“It’s an acoustic nightmare,” said Elizabeth Glass, whose apartment windows are less than 10 feet from the fence that separates her backyard from the Boxcar’s. “I can’t sleep. It keeps me awake,” she said. “My daughter wakes up every night.”

A 36-year-old, stay-at-home mom, Glass lives in a two-bedroom co-op on E 11th St. with her husband and three children, ages 6, 4 and 18 months. Her husband, Kyle Baker, first purchased the co-op 20 years ago. Every room in their apartment faces the backyard.

Glass and eight other neighbors took their complaints against the Boxcar Lounge to Community Board 3’s State Liquor Authority and Economic Development Committee meeting on May 23. On June 20, they will follow up at the next committee meeting regarding their complaints.

In preparation for this month’s meeting, Glass has collected 31 petition signatures from other neighbors who share the courtyard with Boxcar asking for an earlier closing time for the backyard garden and decreased seating. Glass plans to give the petitions to Susan Stetzer, C.B. 3’s district manager, with copies to City Councilmember Margarita Lopez; Lieutenant Cawley of the Ninth Precinct; C.B. 3’s S.L.A. Committee chairperson, Edward Kelly; and Commissioner Emily Lloyd, head of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Glass admitted the noise level in the Boxcar garden started to decease the week following the May 23 meeting. “For the first time ever, they’re trying to keep the noise down. But ultimately it’s still very noisy,” Glass said.

When the Boxcar’s owners first applied for their beer and wine liquor license in 1998, they never told C.B. 3 that they would be using the backyard, said Lisa Ramaci, who was chairperson of the S.L.A. Committee from 1994 to 2001.

John Spingola, one of the bar’s owners, could not confirm or deny Ramaci’s statement. He was not as involved in the business at that time, Spingola said. However, the bar had no problems getting approval from C.B. 3 for their full liquor license two years ago, he said.

The first time Glass and her neighbors complained about the bar to the community board was in 2000. Following that meeting, the bar’s owners agreed to close the Boxcar’s backyard at midnight during the week and at 1 a.m. on weekends. Depending on the weather, the backyard is open from April to November, Spingola said.

Aside from New York City Alcohol Beverage Control laws, which mandate when bars close — 4 a.m. — the State Liquor Authority does not mandate specific hours of operation for backyard bars, said a representative from the S.L.A.’s public affairs office.

Community boards can add stipulations to liquor license applications that are then passed on to the S.L.A. However, sometimes the S.L.A. includes these stipulations and sometimes they don’t when it issues a liquor license.

The city’s Department of Consumer Affairs licenses sidewalk cafes, because sidewalks are considered public space. In contrast, backyard bars and rooftop bars are located on private property. When it comes to noise complaints, backyard and roof bars fall under the jurisdiction of the Police Department and the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health, said Geoffrey Eapon, chief of staff for Councilmember Philip Reed, who chairs the council’s Consumer Affairs Committee.

Despite the established backyard curfew, the noise continued to bother Glass. So when her husband, a graphic novelist, was offered a job in Los Angeles, the family sublet their apartment from January 2001 until January 2004. But the rules of the co-op only allow them to sublet three years out of 10, so they had to move back last year, Glass said.

“I noticed this year that it’s been much louder than last year — I don’t know why,” said Michael Edwards, the president of Glass’s co-op. Edwards, 49, lives in the co-op with his wife and 6-year-old son. Except for the dead of winter, when the Boxcar’s garden is closed, Edwards sleeps wearing earplugs, with the windows shut and the air conditioner on.

At Spingola’s invitation, Edwards visited the Boxcar for the first time two weekends ago. “It sounds like a frat boy bar, but it’s pretty nice inside,” Edwards said. “But when you get 32 people in a space that size, everyone starts talking louder and louder. Drunk people shriek.”

Dr. Eden Fromberg’s apartment on E. 10th St. also faces the Boxcar. An obstetrician, Fromberg can’t wear earplugs to bed or take sleeping pills in case she gets a work-related phone call. So she plays a tape of a stream at top volume to help drown out the “screeching, whooping, shouting and screaming,” Fromberg said. “It goes on at all hours. Past 1 a.m.”

“They turn the lights off when they close the backyard, but people still go back there to smoke,” Fromberg said. “The night of the community board meeting [on May 23], they were out there until 3 a.m.,” she said.

“Maybe she heard other people in their gardens and she’s blaming us,” said Spingola in response. “I strictly enforce our closing times,” he said. Aside from picking up chairs and sweeping, no one is allowed in the backyard garden after 1 a.m. on weekends and midnight on weekdays, he said. The bar used to have metal chairs in the garden, but they were replaced with plastic ones so they wouldn’t be as noisy.

“We want to reach out and deal with this problem,” said Spingola, who lives on E. 10th St. between Avenues A and B. The bar recently hired someone to monitor the backyard after 10 p.m. and this week it is upgrading the soundproofing materials along the fence in the garden, he said.

The Boxcar isn’t the only business that has an outdoor garden in the courtyard between E. 10th and 11th Sts. Gnocco, an Italian restaurant on E 10th St., and the Life Café also have backyard seating in the same courtyard. But Gnocco and the Life Café are restaurants, so it’s a different level of noise, said Edwards. When it comes to noise levels, the Boxcar is the worst, he said.

Not every neighbor is bothered by noise from the Boxcar Lounge. “I know that there’s been complaints from neighbors, but it doesn’t bother me,” said Andrew Goldman, whose E. 11th St. apartment overlooks the bar’s backyard.

At the Boxcar on Saturday night, the crowd seemed mellow. Each table held several fliers stating, “In an effort to be good neighbors… please make a concerted effort to keep the noise at a reasonable conversational level.” At a back, corner table, someone had neatly ripped and folded one flier into an origami crane and left it sitting on the vinyl tablecloth.

“I’m conscious of being quiet, but I could easily see people being drunk and loud,” said Mirka Feinstein, a 26-year-old therapist who was having a drink with a friend. Feinstein came to Boxcar specifically because of its outside garden.

Her friend, Maureen Linch, 26, was less sympathetic toward the surrounding neighbors. “When you make a decision to live in this neighborhood, you make a decision to live with noise,” she said.

A little after 11 p.m., the buzz of conversation started to rise in the backyard, but was quickly shushed by the Boxcar employee hired to sit in the garden and monitor the outdoor space.

“It’s just extremely noisy in the backyard, said Kurt Andermach, a 41-year-old freelance architectural designer whose apartment also faces the bar’s backyard space. “It really makes it hell to live there.

“I understand that people want to have fun. The East Village is a very fun area to be in. That’s why people are living there,” said Andermach. “[The Boxcar] isn’t the only place that causes trouble. There are more and more bars all over the place in the East Village.” Andermach, who rents his apartment, said he’s considering moving out of the neighborhood.

In June 2004, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed legislation to overhaul New York City’s noise code, with the goal of making the city “quieter and more livable.” According to the mayor’s office, “noise is the number one complaint to the city’s 311 citizen service hotline.” The legislation was sent to the council, but has not been voted on yet.

City Councilmember Alan Gerson is concerned about noise around bars and wants to see the mayor’s proposed legislation strengthened, said Dirk McCall, Gerson’s chief of staff. However, Gerson hasn’t found a legislative solution to it, McCall said. And right now Gerson has been consumed with issues related to the rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, which are more time sensitive, said McCall.

Councilmember Lopez also believes that sidewalk cafes and backyard bars are increasing noise levels. When you put a group of people outside, they’re going to talk to one another, which creates noise, she said.

However, she believes the mayor’s legislation is not going to solve the problem. The mayor’s legislation is more about increasing fines to small businesses, than controlling noise, Lopez said. “I am not a supporter of it in the current form. It needs a lot of improvement,” she said. Lopez also believes that the mayor’s smoking ban — which she voted against — has contributed to the increased noise level in the city.

Carol Green, the Boxcar’s business manager, admitted it’s a challenge to keep the noise down, but they’re working hard to contain it. “It’s hard to cap the enthusiasm of the people in the garden,” she said.

Green is currently trying to set up a time to meet with Glass face to face to discuss the noise problem this week. But Glass doesn’t think meeting face to face will help the situation. She feels she already told them at the community board meeting on May 23 what neighbors want them to do. The Boxcar’s backyard garden needs to close earlier and they’re unwilling to do that, Glass said.

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