Volume 76, Number 17 | September 13 - 19, 2006

All new bar applications are bounced for 4 months

By Albert Amateau

The State Liquor Authority, long blamed by critics for the overconcentration of liquor licenses in Manhattan, declared a moratorium last week on new licenses for Manhattan bars, clubs and cabarets subject to the 500-foot rule.

The surprise Sept. 6 announcement came the day before a State Senate hearing on underage drinking and two weeks after the City Council passed the “Bouncer Law” making it easier for the city to close bars and clubs that violate rules on security guard qualifications.

The moratorium applies to applications for all new bars or clubs within 500 feet of three other licensed premises. Under the Alcoholic Beverage Control Law, such applications may only be approved if the S.L.A., after a hearing, finds the new license is “in the public interest.” The moratorium — which will last from September to the end of the year — does not affect new liquor-license applications for restaurants.

For years, neighborhood groups and community boards covering Greenwich Village, Soho, the East Village and Lower East Side have accused the S.L.A. of interpreting “public interest” so broadly that such approvals are automatic.

The moratorium, which S.L.A. Chairman Daniel Boyle personally presented at the Sept. 7 State Senate hearing on underage drinking, also involves a task force to review S.L.A. licensing policy and a revision of on-premises license applications.

Chairperson of the task force is Noreen Healey, a Brooklyn resident recently appointed one of the three commissioners on the liquor authority and the first from New York City in decades. The task force, with members from law enforcement, city government, community groups, industry and S.L.A. staff, will make recommendations on approval or denial of licenses, as well as make the distinction between restaurants and bars and clubs.

Boyle also announced Operation Last Call, a stepped-up enforcement effort targeting problem bars and clubs throughout the five boroughs. The effort will focus on such violations as excessive noise, assaults, violent felonies, alcohol sales to minors or to drunken patrons and drug offenses.

Nightlife industry representatives denounced the moratorium and said it would be a devastating blow to an industry with a $9 billion impact on the city’s economy that employs 19,000 people and admits 65 million customers annually.

“It’s completely illegal,” said Warren Pesetsky, an attorney who represents many S.L.A. applicants and a former counsel with the agency. “They can’t make a distinction between bars and restaurants. It’s all one, O.P. [on-premises] licenses,” Pesetsky said.

But members of community boards and neighborhood civic groups said the moratorium was a step in the right direction.

“I couldn’t be more pleased that Chairman Boyle has decided to take action regarding the issues we discussed at our June 22 Bar and Nightlife Summit — obviously he was listening,” said Zela Jones, president of the Noho Neighborhood Association, who convened a June public hearing on liquor license policy attended by Boyle and Commissioner Healey.

But Jones said the agency should also review the issue of liquor license applications for restaurants.

“The issue in Manhattan below 34th St. is that applicants come to community board meetings with plans for restaurants, but after receiving licenses the food goes, the entertainment comes and the liquor stays,” she said.

“What I like best about it is that it’s comprehensive,” said Lee Compton, chairperson of Community Board 4. “They’re not doing one thing here and another thing there. It appears to be a look at the broadest issue,” Compton said.

But David McWater, a bar owner in the East Village but speaking as chairperson of Community Board 3, faulted the S.L.A. for announcing a liquor license moratorium without community input.

“The role of local government is important,” he said. “Before, they wanted everybody to have a license. Now, they don’t want anybody. I think the board would prefer licenses on a case-by-case basis,” Mc Water said.

“The good thing is that the S.L.A. is beginning a dialogue. Five years ago there was no dialogue,” he added.

Nevertheless, three years ago, before McWater became the board’s chairperson, Community Board 3 imposed its own moratorium on considering any new liquor license applications in specific areas of the district that the board deemed were already heavily saturated with bars and nightlife. Since implementing the moratorium, the board has been issuing automatic denials for such applications. The board’s role in the state licensing process, however, is only advisory.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the S.L.A. moratorium was a good beginning, but she said that elected officials should have been consulted.

Moreover, the City Council is planning a Nightlife Safety Summit later this month, to include police, criminal justice officials, nightlife industry representatives and the S.L.A., to discuss problems of safety in clubs and on the neighborhoods’ streets, Quinn noted.

A series of incidents, including the deaths of two women and a man over the past year in connection with Manhattan clubs, has provoked the response. Two of the victims had attended clubs in Chelsea, while one attended The Falls, the now shuttered bar in Soho, on the night of their deaths.

The City Council is also drafting legislation to control underage drinking, including requiring scanners to detect false I.D. presented by underage patrons trying to get into clubs. Quinn also wants amendments to the state A.B.C. Law to allow the city to enforce S.L.A. regulations.

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