Volume 77 / Number 39 - Feb. 27 - March 04, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Tequila Minsky

Tom and Gayle Patrick-Odeen, the co-owners of Lola restaurant on Watts St. in Soho.

Lola can’t live without music; Soho license fight becoming broken record

By Barrett Zinn Gross

In a hearing before the board of the New York State Liquor Authority last Wednesday, the owners of Lola, the Cajun-soul food restaurant on the corner of Watts and Thompson Sts., asked the S.L.A. to finally let the music play at their new Soho nightspot.

Lola has only been serving up canned music since opening in April 2007, since live music is explicitly banned in its current liquor license. The original liquor license — which was annulled in court but later reinstated on appeal — allowed live music, and the S.L.A. has yet to explain why it changed its tune on the matter. 

According to its owners, Lola has struggled to break even without live music, which was their trademark in their original location on W. 22nd St. At last week’s hearing, Gayle Patrick-Odeen, co-owner of Lola with her husband, Tom Patrick-Odeen, choked back tears as she recounted her three-and-a-half-year battle with the Soho Alliance and neighbors before S.L.A. Commissioner Noreen Healey and S.L.A. Chairman Daniel Boyle. Patrick-Odeen and her husband said they are virtually bankrupt from their legal odyssey, and that the restaurant — which featured local jazz, soul and gospel artists in its first location — was “hanging on by a thread” without live music.

Arguing against Lola at the Feb. 20 hearing was attorney Barry Mallin, who has represented the Soho Alliance in many other cases before the S.L.A. He claimed that the Patrick-Odeens attempted to deceive Community Board 2 about their intention to host live music at Lola, a charge later repeated by Soho Alliance Director Sean Sweeney. However, the minutes of the relevant September 2004 C.B. 2 meetings show that the issue of live music was addressed in detail before both the C.B. 2 Business Committee and the full board of C.B. 2 a week later. 

Also speaking in opposition to Lola were Carl Erman, a resident of 362 West Broadway whose windows overlook a courtyard that is part of the Lola lease, and William Manning, a former business partner of Mr. Patrick-Odeen.

Speaking in support of Lola, which was represented by attorney Terry Flynn, were Ms. Patrick-Odeen and Andrea Fiore, a longtime resident of 26 Thompson St., which is around the corner from Lola.

When the S.L.A.’s Boyle and Healey responded with questions for Flynn, their chief concern seemed to be whether the S.L.A. board at the 500-foot-rule hearing in 2004 knew that Lola planned to present live music. Under the so-called Padavan Law, a 500-foot-rule hearing is required when a new application is made for a liquor license within 500 feet of three or more existing licenses.

Healey stated that Lola’s original application indicated that there would be “background music only.” Attorney Flynn countered that the application was amended at the 500-foot-rule hearing, and cited as proof the fact that the first liquor license O.K.’d live music. However, he was unable to produce supporting evidence at the hearing, and the S.L.A. commissioners gave both attorneys until Fri., Feb. 22, to submit their final arguments.


Who changed Lola’s license?

Lola’s original liquor license for its new Watts St. location was issued in 2004. But the license was then annulled in 2005 by a ruling in New York State Supreme Court on an Article 78 proceeding filed by Mallin on behalf of “Soho Alliance, et al.” An Article 78 proceeding is a request to overturn a decision by a city or state government agency.

In the Article 78 proceeding, Judge Marilyn Shafer asserted that the S.L.A. failed to explain how granting Lola a liquor license would serve the public interest, a requirement of the 500-foot-rule. Lola’s owners hired attorney Eric Sherman to represent them in their appeal, and the Appellate Division subsequently overturned Judge Shafer’s ruling. The case was returned to the S.L.A. with the order by the Appellate Division that the authority reinstate the license and provide an adequate explanation of how the license served the public interest.  

Meanwhile, the S.L.A. board’s makeup had changed in the intervening years, and the new commissioners were reluctant to speculate what motivated their predecessors. As a result, Thomas Donohue, the S.L.A.’s chief counsel, drafted a letter explaining the reasons the current board felt it could not comply with the court’s order. According to Soho Alliance attorney Mallin, the S.L.A. forwarded Donohue’s letter to a former Mallin associate, attorney William DeCoste, who filed it in a motion asking the court to permit the S.L.A. to hold a de novo, or brand-new, 500-foot-rule hearing on Lola’s liquor license.  

The Appellate Division denied the joint S.L.A.-Soho Alliance motion and reiterated its instructions to the S.L.A. — but the delays continued. According to Ms. Patrick-Odeen, it was not until she appealed to the office of Lieutenant Governor David Paterson for assistance that the S.L.A. finally issued the second liquor license. But the live music ban had mysteriously appeared as a restriction added to the license, and Lola was forced to return to the S.L.A. once more seeking relief. Meanwhile, Mallin began a second Article 78 proceeding against the second license; ironically, the case is once again before Judge Shafer. 


‘This board didn’t do it’

At last week’s hearing, S.L.A. Chairman Boyle reiterated on several occasions that no current S.L.A. commissioners were sitting on the board when the original 500-foot-rule hearing for Lola took place four years ago, and that the S.L.A. was forced into this latest hearing by the courts. Lola attorney Flynn pointed out that the only reason for the hearing was the live music ban, which had appeared on the license without any explanation. Mallin meanwhile asserted that the current S.L.A. board was responsible for the change adding the restriction — but Boyle replied sharply, “This board did not do it.” Boyle added that the live music ban was inserted “by counsel” without the knowledge or consent of the S.L.A. board itself. Boyle did not say which S.L.A. legal counsel wrote in the ban or why.

The Patrick-Odeens signed a lease for the ground floor of 5-15 Watts St. on Sept. 9, 2004. The unusual building is a former Con Edison substation. The location is on a major Holland Tunnel approach route, and the daily jams of New Jersey-bound traffic idling in front of the space had made it difficult for the landlord to rent.

When the Patrick-Odeens began scouting for a new location for Lola, they fell in love with the busy tourist, retail and restaurant district that Soho has become, and quickly settled on the Watts St. space because of its unique character and lower-than-market asking rent. After their lease was signed, the Patrick-Odeens proudly posted signs on the storefront announcing Lola’s imminent opening.


They never liked Lola

Community members turned out to speak against Lola at the September 2004 meeting of C.B. 2’s Business Committee. According to the meeting’s minutes, Lola’s owners agreed to three specific conditions in response to neighbors’ concerns: a midnight closing time, removing a side-yard outdoor seating area from their plans for a minimum of three years and installing windows that could not be opened onto the street. The committee voted unanimously in favor of a resolution endorsing Lola’s application to the full board.  

(At last Wednesday’s hearing, Flynn promised that Lola would essentially adhere to these same three conditions if the S.L.A. allows live music inside the restaurant.)

Following the Business Committee’s vote, Lola opponents at the meeting were incensed. Ms. Patrick-Odeen recalls that Bob Rinaolo, then the Business Committee chairperson, suggested she contact the Soho Alliance’s Sweeney to try and enlist his support for the restaurant. Sweeney and Ms. Patrick-Odeen spoke shortly thereafter, but their recollections of the conversation differ. 

Sweeney testified on Wednesday that he had told Ms. Patrick-Odeen that “she had a problem with the community” and that she should not try to open her restaurant in Soho. Ms. Patrick-Odeen claims that there was more than one conversation, and that in their first conversation, Sweeney was “welcoming” and agreed to meet her. Yet she said when Sweeney called back a short time later, he was joined on the phone by Marie Evans. Ms. Patrick-Odeen claims that Evans — a resident of 362 West Broadway like Carl Erman — threatened her with a lawsuit “by an attorney who had never lost a case before the S.L.A.,” referring to Mallin. Sweeney said he could not recall Evans’s participation in the phone call but that it was possible; Evans did not return a call seeking comment for this article.

A few days later, fliers were posted in doorways throughout Soho asking residents to come to C.B. 2’s full board meeting to “Say No to Lola.” The fliers called the restaurant a threat to the neighborhood, claiming it would increase crime because Lola featured rhythm-and-blues music. Ms. Patrick-Odeen, who is African-American, felt the implied link between a black musical genre and the threat of increased crime was inherently racist. Charges of racism were raised at the C.B. 2 full board meeting, where Soho Alliance members spoke in opposition to Lola, and again last Wednesday at the S.L.A. hearing, when Fiore — the neighbor supporting Lola — called the opposition to the restaurant “a high-tech lynching.” She was rebuked by S.L.A. Chairman Boyle for her choice of words, but was allowed to complete her remarks.  


Ohher local live music

The Soho Alliance hasn’t opposed all liquor license applications in Soho. The community organization opposed Il Besito on West Broadway, but did not oppose the Soho Room on Spring St., Tailor on Broome St. or many other recent license applicants. There are also several other licensed premises regularly presenting live music in Soho — among them, the Cupping Room Cafe and Idée on West Broadway, Boom on Spring St. and Café Tina on Prince St. The Soho Alliance has not taken action against any of these venues. 

In addition, a private detective discovered that dozens of petitioners named on the Soho Alliance’s first Article 78 proceeding were residents of Shelter Island whose names were supplied by Evans, who owns a home there. Other Soho residents named as petitioners signed affidavits denying they ever gave the Soho Alliance permission to use their names. One resident petitioner, Ronnie Wolf, said that although she had given the Soho Alliance her name several years ago “to fight the growing number of bars and restaurants in Soho,” she was “not familiar” with Lola.  
In the second Article 78 proceeding there are only 38 individual petitioners, compared with the 509 in the first Article 78, but at least two names seem dubious. Ivan Karp, co-owner of OK Harris Gallery and a longtime West Broadway resident, reacted with shock and surprise when he was informed that his gallery is named as a petitioner in the second Article 78 proceeding.

“That’s impossible! I love that place, and I would never do anything to hurt those lovely people,” said Karp of Lola and the Patrick-Odeens. When told that his son and partner Ethan Karp was a named petitioner, he replied, “How could that be? Ethan doesn’t even live in this neighborhood.”

The S.L.A. is set to hear the issue of Lola’s liquor license again on March 5, at which time the commissioners may issue their final decision on the liquor license.

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