Volume 75, Number 11 | August 3 - 9, 2005

Moskowitz makes some noise on bar complaints

By Lincoln Anderson

Downtowners haven’t just been imagining they live in the noisiest neighborhood in the city — it’s true. A report by City Councilmember Eva Moskowitz confirms that Manhattan below 14th St. is, in fact, the most audibly offensive area of the city, according to 311 data collected over the past year.

Moskowitz, a candidate for Manhattan borough president, has released a report, “At an Unhappy Hour,” on noise from nightclubs and bars, including a top-10 list of those garnering the most complaints from July 2004 to May 2005. Eight of the top 10 are located south of 14th St.

Based on volume of 311 calls, the city’s 10 loudest bars and nightclubs are: The Flat Club/Sutra Club, 16 First Ave., with 235 complaints; Open Air/Morissey Park, 121 St. Mark’s Pl., with 131 complaints — in each of the first two cases, the business’s name was changed at some point during the study period; Rothco, 116 Suffolk St., 130 complaints; 11th Street Bar, 510 E. 11th St., 128 complaints; The Door, 508 Ninth Ave. at 39th St., 124 complaints; Groove, 125 MacDougal St., 114 complaints; XES Lounge, 157 W. 24th St., 104 complaints; Ye Waverly Inn, 16 Bank St., 96 complaints; Le Souk, 47 Avenue B, 95 complaints; and Denizen Lounge, 73 Thompson St., 87 complaints.

Noise is the number-one category of calls made to 311 — the city’s nonemergency hotline — with 18,755 complaints about voluble bars this year, according to Moskowitz’s report.

Community Boards 3, 2 and 4 have the highest concentrations of din-making drinking places. C.B. 3 (East Village, Lower East Side, Chinatown, the “Two Bridges” area) had 3,055 bar-related noise complaints during the study period; C.B. 2 (Greenwich Village, Noho, Soho, Lower East Side, Chinatown and Little Italy) recorded 1,866 calls about excessively loud bars; and C.B. 4 (Clinton and Chelsea) lodged 944 complaints. Another Downtown board, C.B. 1 (Tribeca and Lower Manhattan) fared relatively better, coming in ninth out of the borough’s 12 board districts, with only 270 bar-related noise gripes garnered.

Moskowitz says most bars are good operators, but that violators must be brought into line and worst offenders’ licenses revoked. She says the issue goes beyond the bars, though, involving how city agencies fail to coordinate their responses to bar noise, and the biggest problem of all, the State Liquor Authority.

Moskowitz’s report slams the “dysfunctional process by which liquor licenses are granted and noise complaints are addressed,” and calls the S.L.A. “notoriously ineffective.”

“The New York State Liquor Authority, which grants liquor licenses, has essentially never seen a bar it didn’t like and has for years failed the residents of Manhattan,” her report states.

Moskowitz is calling for home rule for liquor licensing by establishing a City Liquor Authority. In both 1996 and 2004, the council issued resolutions backing creation of a C.L.A., but they “have fallen on Albany’s deaf ears,” the report notes.

In the absence of home rule, Moskowitz is recommending “drastic reform” of the S.L.A., including requiring that at least two of its three commissioners reside in New York City. Despite the fact that, according the report, 31,000 of the state’s 70,000 licensed establishments are in New York City, none of the three commissioners currently lives here.

“It is difficult to imagine what it’s like to live next to a noisy bar if you’re a resident of Cattaraugus County or some other Upstate residential community,” the report notes.

Moskowitz’s report also faults the lack of a single central city agency that handles noise complaints. Noise complaints to 311 are forwarded to the police and Department of Environmental Protection. If the complaint is for loitering, smoking ban violations or civil disturbances, police respond. If the complaint is for loud noise emanating from inside the bar, D.E.P. sends an inspector to take a reading with a sound meter to determine if there is unreasonable noise or music in excess of 45 decibels. There’s scant information sharing between the two and with the S.L.A., the report says.

In addition, the S.L.A. doesn’t take “public interest” into account, Moskowitz says. Yet, it’s supposed to under the 1993 amendment to the state’s liquor law that requires the authority to determine whether or not an additional bar within 500 feet of three existing bars is in the public interest. The report cites the precedent-setting 1996 lawsuit in which Soho residents got the court to overturn the S.L.A.’s issuing of a liquor license for 76 Grand St., after the S.L.A. said the license was in the public interest since it would generate tax revenues and employment.

Another problem highlighted in Moskowitz’s report is the authority’s disregard for community boards’ opinions. “The S.L.A. does not take into account the recommendation of city community boards,” it states. “These boards have hearings on matters of street life and are best equipped to understand what residential neighborhoods can handle and what they can’t. The S.L.A. regularly grants licenses in neighborhoods overpopulated by bars despite fierce community opposition.”

But noise isn’t a top concern of the S.L.A., the reports charges; generating revenue for the state is.

The report goes on to note that the S.L.A. insufficiently monitors bars, with only seven inspectors for all New York City and Westchester.

Also, the report finds, the authority rarely rejects a renewal application: in 2003, 186 of 191 liquor license renewal applications in Manhattan were granted.

According to the report, the S.L.A. doesn’t uphold Article 8, Section 118 of the Alcohol Beverage Control Law, which states that licenses can be revoked because of “the existence of a sustained and continuing pattern of noise, disturbance, misconduct or disorder on or about the licensed premises, related to the operation of the premises or the conduct of its patrons, which adversely affects the health, wealth or safety of the inhabitants of the area in which such licensed premises are located.”’

“Nightlife is very important to Manhattan, ‘the city that never sleeps’….,” Moskowitz told The Villager. “Most bars are good neighbors, but some are not and need to be held accountable. New Yorkers need a modicum of peace and quiet and ability to sleep.”

Moskowitz said she wants the mayor to take her recommendations about better agency coordination to heart and for him to push Albany leaders for home rule on liquor licensing.

“I hope Mayor Bloomberg read my report and fired off an e-mail to [Police Commissioner] Ray Kelly and [D.E.P. Commissioner] Emily Lloyd and said, ‘I want you guys to sit down and work this out,’ ” she said, adding, “Mayor Bloomberg has a very good relationship with [Assembly Speaker] Sheldon Silver and [Senate Majority Leader] Joe Bruno. Didn’t he wine and dine them at his home in Bermuda?”

Ron, general manager at Groove, number six on the top-10 noisiest list, with 114 complaints, said most of these were made by one individual who doesn’t even live in the same building as the live rhythm and blues and funk club.

“I think it all happened about a year ago,” Ron said. “There was one neighbor who was making complaints every day. So if you do 60 days by two complaints, you get 120 complaints.” Ron said an inspector came with a sound meter, took a measurement inside the man’s apartment and found it within acceptable levels. He says he tries to be accommodating whenever neighbors say the noise or music is too loud, and will close the windows or do whatever is necessary. They have $15,000 of sound insulation in the ceiling, he added.

“This came to me from out of the blue — I woke up Sunday and saw it on the TV news and in the newspaper,” he said. “That’s why I feel this report was unfair. They never even came and asked.”

The New York Nightlife Association, among others, has criticized the 311 system on noise complaints and is lobbying for its reform.

Regarding the Moskowitz report, Robert Bookman, NYNA’s attorney, said, “Ms. Moskowitz demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of how 311 works, let alone the importance of one of the most significant industries in the borough she wants to lead. Perhaps if she had come to the council’s recent hearing on two bills designed to reform the abuses of false and repeated calls to 311 by a handful of full-time complainers, she would have learned something. One of the bills is sponsored by one of her opponents, Margarita Lopez.

“Since they do not require the name and address of the person calling to complain, 311 has no idea how many different people are complaining,” Bookman said. “311 also does not know if the complaint is valid or not. Finally, 311 agreed that complaints about outside street noise, a problem caused in part by the smoking ban Moskowitz voted for, are listed as ‘noise complaints.’

Street noise is not a bar’s responsibility, but the city’s.”

Bookman did not have an answer for why there are more 311 calls south of 14th St.

Deputy Inspector James McCarthy, commanding officer of the Ninth Precinct, said that of the East Village bars on the top-10 list, only Le Souk is a major problem, in his view, having been the scene of fights, underage drinking and legitimate noise complaints over two years. Two of the other bars on the list, 11th Street Bar and Sutra Club, which was ranked number one in 311 noise calls, haven’t seen serious problems of this nature, he said.

“Sutra, at times, it can be a little noisy,” McCarthy said. “But it’s not the biggest noise problem in the East Village.” The C.O. said it’s basically two people who have been complaining about Sutra and one person who has been complaining about 11th Street Bar.

“It made number four on the list, and it’s one caller — it’s not loud at all,” McCarthy said of 11th Street Bar. He said the woman making the complaints might be described as emotionally disturbed and that her problems likely go beyond the bar. He said he’s visited most of the apartments of these callers to personally monitor the noise levels.

But rather than knock the 311 system, McCarthy said it’s a great tool for letting police know where the problem areas are.

“The East Village is the place where we have the most licensed premises,” McCarthy said, in response to why Community Board 3 ranked first in complaints. “I for one do not want to see another licensed premises opening in the East Village. I think we have enough. You have some blocks with three bars next to each other.”

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