Volume 75, Number 39 | February 15 -21 2006

Kosher steakhouse isn’t to Chelsea neighbors’ taste

By Albert Amateau

Arthur Emil, whose former restaurants included Windows on the World at the World Trade Center and the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center and now include luxury Midtown restaurants Beacon, Solo and Prime Grill, wants to open a high-end kosher steakhouse in Chelsea.

But neighbors of the mostly residential W. 15th St. block between Sixth and Seventh Aves. have been burned once by a broken promise of a sedate venue and they don’t want to risk another disappointment.

The 5,000-square-foot ground floor, plus a basement with about the same area, at 147 W. 15th St. where Emil wants to open a new steakhouse was where Man Ray, originally billed as a high-end restaurant, turned into a noisy nightspot until it closed more than two years ago.

So neighbors early this month asked Community Board 4 to recommend that the State Liquor Authority deny a liquor license for the proposed restaurant even though Emil pledged not to admit patrons after 11 p.m., to store garbage in an inside refrigerated space and have it picked up at an hour when it would not disturb residents.

“We don’t run nightclubs,” Emil told C.B.4 on Feb. 1. “We will be responsible operators at all times — upscale restaurants are my life.” The fact that a kosher steakhouse would be closed on the Jewish Sabbath from Friday evenings to Saturday evenings was suggested as an advantage for a residential block.

Neighbors, however, were not receptive and the community board deferred to residents and voted against approval of a liquor license.

“We’ve had promises before,” said Thomas St. Michel, of 139 W. 15th St. “Believe me, it’s not going to work.”

Robert Brill, of 155 W. 15th St., said, “A place this size cannot possible co-exist in a residential block.”

While Emil said the proposed restaurant would have a maximum capacity of 100 patrons, neighbors said the previous capacity had been rated at 300. “They’ll have to rely on private parties to be viable,” suggested Richard Blinkoff, a member of a co-op board on the block. Emil acknowledged that private parties might use the site, but he said they would have to agree to abide by conditions set by the steakhouse.

Moreover, there is an unresolved zoning issue and a question of liquor-license eligibility because the proposed site is across the street from a Mormon church in the former St. Zita’s Convent at 144 W. 15th St., which the church acquired in 2002.

S.L.A. rules prohibit liquor licenses to be issued within 200 feet of a house of worship or school. Emil, however, insisted the rule refers to buildings that serve exclusively as houses of worship. “I’ve been there and there is an employment service in the building,” Emil said. Board members, however, noted that churches commonly offer social services as part of their ministry.

Nat Pierce, an elder in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told the community board that the building, which also extends through the block to 143 W. 14th St., includes three Mormon congregations serving a total of 750 worshippers on Sundays and serves members throughout the week.

But the zoning question was most important for board members. The block had been rezoned as strictly residential and Man Ray was there as a pre-existing nonconforming use. The city’s “grandfather” rule, which allows nonconforming uses for two years after a site becomes vacant, was “artificially extended,” according to board members, when the landlord opened a small deli last summer in the space that Man Ray vacated. The deli, which served microwaved food, obtained a Department of Health permit as a token of a continued commercial use.

According to the community board Business Licenses Committee, there had also been “serious allegations” that Man Ray operated in the space without a valid certificate of occupancy. “We are concerned about the landlord’s manipulation of the rules,” the committee report said.

The committee suggested that the board report its findings to the S.L.A. without making a recommendation for or against a liquor license. But the board on Feb. 1 voted for a “no license” letter to the agency. Board members said the residential rezoning was part of a community board initiative and should be taken seriously.

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