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State Liquor Map Helps Locals Track City Bars

By Jill Colvin | January 30, 2012 8:51am
The State Liquor Authority is planning to launch their new interactive map next month.
The State Liquor Authority is planning to launch their new interactive map next month.
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MANHATTAN — Think of it as Google maps, wearing beer goggles.

The State Liquor Authority is getting ready to launch a new interactive map, plotting each and every bar licensed in the city as well as all pending applications and violations bars have logged.

The map — which cost $75,000 to create — aims to help residents and community boards keep track of local bars, clubs and lounges in their neighborhoods. The design comes amid growing complaints from residents who believe rowdy bars and noisy drinkers are taking over their block.

“Just for them to have this information at their fingertips would be very useful,” said William Crowley, director of public and legislative affairs at the SLA.

Crowley said that staff has been double-checking addresses and working out last-minute kinks in anticipation of a February launch.

Earlier this month, Deputy CEO Michael Jones admitted the SLA is short-staffed, inefficient and unable to effectively regulate the city’s nightlife industry, with just six investigators on hand to supervise thousands of bars and restaurants in the city, along with those in Westchester and Nassau counties.

“I'll tell you right now, a lot of mistakes are being made at my agency,” he told residents at a recent community forum looking at the abundance of new nightlife in the Hell’s Kitchen area, hosted by State Sen. Tom Duane.

The map was paid for using a special budget appropriation dedicated to investments in information technology, with money saved by using public data sets and existing databases, said Crowley, who described the sum as "incredible value for what we have developed."

"We built the system with low staff impact and no additional hiring, however we expect a high return by improving license review time and community transparency," he said.

Once it's live, residents will be able to scroll across the map, zoom in and out, and search active and pending licenses by address, company and business name. When they click on a point, the map will display all license details and disciplinary histories.

The map, which will be automatically updated every night and span across the state, will also plot the locations of churches and schools, which are taken into account when applications are considered.

While much of the data is already available on the agency’s website online, the maps will provide additional information that was previously only available through phone calls and Freedom of Information Law requests to the SLA, which take time and manpower at an agency that's already deeply strained.

The map comes as community boards across Manhattan appear to be cracking down on nightspots, forcing earlier closing times and other stringent requirements in response to neighbors’ complaints.

Crowley said the agency has already been showing the program off to local boards and is planning a large demonstration session this Tuesday to teach them how to use the tool.

“We think community boards are going to find it very useful,” he said. 

Corey Johnson, chair of Community Board 4, which spans Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen, said he'll be at the demonstration and is eager to see what it can do.

"The SLA has been, over the past few years.. a bit of a bureaucratic fortress to penetrate, so any transparency will be extremely beneficial to both community board and the broader community," he said. "Not to be hokey, but information really is power."

While the agency may be short on cash, he said he believes the project is well worth the investment.

"These issues affect the quality of life in such a large way that $75,000 is money well-spent," he said.

Jeff Ehrlich, co-chairman of Community Board 1's SLA Process Review Task Force, who saw a preview version of the map in a meeting with the SLA last year, also praised it as “a great idea.”

"It will give the public the knowledge they need to register a complaint,” said Ehrlich, who devoted hours of his time to mapping every single liquor license in TriBeCa several years ago, so that the board would be able to verify how many bars were within 500-feet of any new applicants. Now the online system will do all that work instead.

"You'll be able to zero on in a particular establishment,” he said, adding that the current database can sometimes be difficult to navigate because of misspellings and other mistakes.

With Julie Shapiro