By Alex Low
A boon to the local economy, or a growing nuisance that crowds out other business? A symbol of a thriving neighborhood, or a neighborhood going in the wrong direction? As the number of bars in the area continues to grow, so too does the number of strong opinions from local residents and business owners on the bars’ impact.
According to some residents, Williamsburg has become a “drinking destination” overrun by crowds of people visiting from other parts of town and even from all over the world. Certain blocks have become unbearable due to excessive noise, unruly behavior, and vandalism. One longtime resident, Tom Hameline, said that late at night it often feels like “a big parade going on in the street.” Said another local, “They drink, piss, throw up, and then leave the neighborhood. This neighborhood used to be filled with drug-dealers and prostitutes. They were more respectful than these people!” “The bars are knocking out small businesses,” said Linda Dagostino.
In the opinion of other residents, though, the bars play an important role in the lively nightlife of Williamsburg. Angie Ripe, who lives next to a bar, welcomed the scene and said the noise was not a problem for her, pointing out that in her area “the trucks make more noise than the bars.” Larissa Reuss, another resident, said “the number of bars is just about right. It works for this neighborhood.”
Statistics reflect the changes in the neighborhood. Since 2005, the number of establishments in the 11211 zip code owning a liquor license has grown by almost 50 percent, and the number of bars and restaurants owning a full liquor license (allowing them to serve any type of liquor) has risen 66 percent. The growth in number of licenses was the most of any zip code in the city, more than twice the number as in next highest area, and the percentage increase was also among the highest.
Growth in full licenses was also strong in Greenpoint, up by 32 percent. These numbers are likely to grow even higher. Mieszko Kalita, the chair of Community Board #1’s Public Safety Committee, which issues advisory recommendations to the State Liquor Authority (SLA) on license applications, reported that his committee would be reviewing 90 applications for new or renewed licenses at this month’s meeting.
Kalita thought it was a record, adding that he couldn’t remember a month previously when there were more than 50 applications. Of the 90, he estimated that 45 were new, though he cautioned that not all those bars would actually go through the full application process.
According to some residents, the SLA and Community Board #1 have been too lenient in approving new licenses. They point to the current “lax” interpretation of the so-called “500-foot rule,” which requires bars applying for a license within 500 feet of three or more establishments to demonstrate that the license would be in the “public interest.” Despite this rule, in the 11211 zip code only six establishments’ applications for the full liquor license have been rejected over the last five years.
Residents also claim the process is stacked against them and say it is pointless protesting each individual bar whose license comes up for approval, since the bars are typically well represented by lawyers and the problem is not necessarily specific to individual bars but more a general problem. In addition, they say that the SLA is not sufficiently responsive to the local concerns of the neighborhood, and in the current economic crisis is inclined to view new bars favorably as job-creators.
One resident, Philip Dray, recalls that in 2000 the Northside community mobilized and raised almost $10,000 in a successful legal effort to prevent the rock club Siné from getting a liquor license for its premises on North 8th Street. “We won that one. But,” Dray cautions, “we can’t raise $10,000 every month.”
Kalita said that the general growth in bars was natural given the changing demographics of the area. He also said that it was a difficult balancing act between supporting bar owners’ right to start a business, and the rights of residents to a quiet neighborhood. The most contentious issue was on the use of outdoor spaces such as back yards. One tactic CB #1 has employed is to broker compromises between residents and bar owners, usually in the form of license stipulations. Bar owners typically agree to earlier closing times for outdoor areas, as well as restrictions on lighting and amplified music. One recent example of a successful resolution involved contentious plans from the owners of Lokal to expand and open a roof garden.
According to Kalita, only 25 percent of license applicants typically attend his committee’s meetings, and when the Board recommends denials, the SLA often does not heed them. For example, according to fellow committee member, Ward Dennis, a few years ago the SLA had ignored the Community Board’s recommendation to deny the license for Triple Crown, which was the site of persistent noise problems.
William Crowley, Director of Public & Legislative Affairs at SLA, contends that the SLA takes the Board’s advice seriously, and that SLA chairman Dennis Rosen has attended many of the Board’s meetings over the past year to discuss issues and concerns. He admitted that license rejections were rare, but said that the figures were misleading since many establishments with slim prospects of getting a license did not even file applications. Bar owners, even those operating bars had been in the area for a long time, were generally not keen on the idea of restricting licenses. Felice Kirby, owner of Teddy’s Bar and Grill, which is 120 years old, was one of several to mention bars’ positive impact. She recalled a time when nightlife was not so vibrant and the streets of Williamsburg were unsafe to walk at night. “Having been a victim on desolate blocks, and a mother with children out and about after dark, I do feel the difference.” To Kirby “a good bar is like a second living room, it’s a gathering place for local people who live in these tiny apartments to meet in the community.”
Many bars recognize that problems could be prevented by developing good, respectful relationships with their neighbors and being active in the community, for example in hosting community meetings and contributing to fundraisers. Paul Kermizian, owner of The Gutter and Barcade, said “There would not be so much concern about there being too many bars so long as bars owners take responsibility, select the right location, and are not destructive to the local community.” Several owners feel that a few bad bars were making it miserable for everyone else.
According to some, the issue can only be solved through legislative leadership. One legislator who has worked on the issue is State Senator Daniel Squadron, whose district includes sections of Williamsburg and Greenpoint close to the waterfront. He has sponsored three bills seeking to amend or clarify existing laws, including one recently enacted that allows the SLA to revoke a liquor license from an establishment which has six or more noise or disorder violations within a 60-day period. “This bill will protect communities from out-of-control crowds and illegal noise that keeps them up all night,” said Senator Squadron by email.
Perhaps over time other trends could resolve the situation. Kalita recalled the story of one man who one year attended the CB #1 meeting to support a bar’s application and then, a year and a half later, came back to complain about the bars because, by then he had started a family. “Hopefully the young population will mature and have different needs.”