Volume 78 / Number 7 - July 16 - 22, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Community must have a stronger voice on nightlife

By Daniel Squadron

There’s no question that community boards in Lower Manhattan know how to make their voices heard. In boards 1, 2 and 3, some of the most active and engaged folks in all of New York work together to fight for community priorities. 

Around here, you can sometimes forget that the boards’ role is only advisory. 

But when push comes to shove, in neighborhoods across Lower Manhattan — from the East River to the Hudson, from Tribeca to Soho to the Lower East Side — the limit of community board authority is too often felt acutely; none more than in the battle to control and manage the seemingly endless proliferation of bars. 

To truly change the dynamics of this issue, we must think beyond individual venues and battles — though standing together on these is important. As with so much else in the fast-changing city, to solve this challenge, we must reconceive the role of the community. 

Currently, liquor license applicants looking for a waiver to the 500-foot rule — a provision that limits the number of on-premises licenses allowed within a 500-foot radius of each other — go before the community board, which then makes a nonbinding recommendation to the State Liquor Authority. 

I believe that it is time, for the first time, to create a role for community boards that goes beyond advisory. In residential communities with a high density of licenses, the S.L.A. should require affirmative approval from the community board to grant waivers to the 500-foot rule. 

This new relationship would redefine and improve the relationship between community boards and local establishments, and give a needed leg up to responsible, community-oriented proprietors — the type of operator that communities welcome. In neighborhoods where there is a high density of licensed establishments, operators having a positive working relationship with the community would be more than something that we wish for and appreciate. It would be something that is required. 

Having owned a restaurant and bar a few years ago, I know from personal experience how valuable having a positive relationship with the community can be. Even when we once received a ticket (for serving a patron who was not 21), we had open lines of communication and were able to strengthen our relationships with the community. Sadly, the problem spot across the street did not forge nearly such a productive dialog and was a chronic issue — of course, without a formal process, it is problem spots that are least likely to develop productive relationships, yet are most in need of them. 

This is a dramatic proposal, to be sure. It is a step toward having a true community-based system, particularly in communities that change rapidly. It is a proposal that, if well implemented, will encourage positive neighborhood development while giving neighborhoods a buffer from much larger forces that can bend or break a community. 

Under this system, the community board is likely to act responsibly and unlikely to act capriciously. There will no longer be the need to cast votes designed to send the S.L.A. a message. Community board members will judiciously weigh the costs and benefits brought by each new applicant, knowing their decision will be binding. Of course, the program’s success depends on such reasoned judgment. 

By applying only to residential areas where there are already a profusion of licenses, this proposal will avoid the creation of vast wastelands, completely devoid of the great restaurants and bars that are so integral to our city. It will also have no effect on true tourist zones, like Times Square. 

The first step to implementing this system is a comprehensive review of liquor license density within the five boroughs by the S.L.A., to designate appropriate zones as “residential high density.” This designation will help enormously Downtown; both because of the heightened role for community boards and because of significant new resource allocation.

A dedicated S.L.A. community enforcement team should be created for residential high-density areas. This will likely require an increase in resources so that more inspectors can be hired — a need which exists in any case. The team will maintain a formal relationship with the community board and develop a special knowledge of an area’s establishments. 

Additionally, the New York Police Department should deploy a special street beat during peak times. These officers will be briefed by the S.L.A. on troublesome establishments, and will be familiar with the neighborhood’s concerns and able to identify and quickly respond to issues or complaints. When it comes time for establishments to apply for renewals, data collected on the beat — and even the testimony of the local beat cops — will be an important way to separate the good from the bad. 

Today, it is easy to talk about respect for the community — to mouth the community’s words but not take a stand that has real consequences. The fact is, to really hold everyone accountable — from businesses, to the S.L.A., to elected officials to, yes, community board members — we must give the community real authority and the ability to take real action. 

When it comes to our fast-changing neighborhoods, giving the community binding authority on this critical issue is the only way to ensure a truly community-oriented process.

Squadron is a Democratic and Working Families candidate for the 25th State Senate District (East Village, Lower East Side, Soho, Little Italy, Chinatown, Tribeca, Lower Manhattan, Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill)


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