HARLEM — When Ruthann Richert heard that a wine and liquor store was coming to Lenox Avenue and 119th Street, in the Mount Morris Park historic district where she has lived for 25 years, she had visions of wine tastings with her neighbors.
Instead, her jaw dropped when she saw workers installing walls of bulletproof plexiglass behind which the sales people and all the alcohol would be encased. And then came the large red neon "Wine & Liquor" sign with a shiny metal back plate and a giant yellow and red vertical "Liquor" sign.
Richert was so alarmed that she sent out an email blast titled: "Abomination on Lenox! Help!"
"This is so out of character of the vision we have of Mount Morris Park," said Richert who is treasurer of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association. "It's the old school, blazing liquor sign and it's just not tasteful."
Mount Morris Park is home to $2 million brownstones, $3 million apartments and has celebrity residents such as poet Maya Angelou. A proposal to expand the 16-block historic district was endorsed by the Historic Districts Council and in recent years, pioneer restaurants such as Ristorante Settepani and Native have brought commerce to the avenue.
The look and style of the liquor store recalls the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s when the city owned much of Harlem's residential property via tax liens and store owners considered barricading themselves behind bulletproof glass simply as the cost of doing business, residents say.
"There used to be a liquor store that looked like this on every corner in Harlem. It brings down everything we are trying to build up," said Syderia Chresfield, president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association.
"I don't like to use the word ghetto, but that's what it is," Chresfield said of the liquor store's design.
Chresfield said many people in the neighborhood were excited about the prospect of a liquor store on Lenox Avenue until the design became clear.
"The bright neon sign looks like a cheap bodega and the plexiglass takes me back to the rioting on 125th Street. It makes no sense," she said. "The signage should match the tasteful cloth canopies used by other stores such as Ristorante Settepani."
Ristorante Settepani co-owner Leah Abraham said she went through a difficult process to get her own signage and facade improvements approved, even needing to show the preservation commission that the fabric she chose matched the brick facade.
"You can't have $2 million homes next to a store where you have to buy drinks under plexiglass. The neighborhood has changed," said Abraham.
CB 10 has filed formal complaints with the DOB and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, said District Manager Paimaan Lodhi. The owner of the building at 183 Lenox Ave. did not respond to a request for comment.
"We embrace small businesses but you have to respect our community. This is our grand boulevard. This could be our Champs de Elysse," said Laurent Delly, co-founder of real estate advertising firm Property Roster and vice president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association.
Some in the neighborhood are also concerned about the type of clientele that a liquor store with a bright neon sign and all of its product behind plexiglass will attract.
A man who identified himself only as Zerayb said he worked for the owner of the liquor store. He said the neon sign was hand crafted and cost $4,500.
"Compare our signs with other signs. It's okay. It's more expensive," he said.
"Those signs are simple and cheap," said another man who said he was the construction manager for the project and identified himself as Bee. "This is a good sign."
Zerayb said he had already spoken to members of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association and nearby concerned business owners and was open to making changes. Abraham said she had also reached out to the owner and he seemed receptive.
"We want to find out what they want us to do before we spend money. They want us to match with the community, it's not a problem," said Zerayb.
But Bee indicated that changes would be hard because of the amount of money that has already been spent.
Despite the uproar, not everyone in the neighborhood is upset with the design of the store.
Rick Jones, 58, a handyman who has lived in Mount Morris Park for 30 years, said he thought some members of the community were overreacting. He said he wasn't a fan of the sign, but was excited about the liquor store moving to the block because the nearest one was several blocks away.
"Everything can't be nice," said Jones. "A liquor store is not supposed to be a fancy place. It's a place to get drunk."
He said that the plexiglass was for the store operator's safety.
"What man in his right mind would open a liquor store and wouldn't have plexiglass? In this economy he would get robbed," said Jones.
Chresfield said that was the type of thinking the improvement association was fighting against.
"I'm not sure how people can see a beautiful awning, a product they can touch and feel and think that's not for them, because that's not what they are accustomed to. They need to understand that because a store has a different look or feel that doesn't mean it's not for everyone," said Chresfield.
Abraham said the liquor store is just one of the problems with the retail on Lenox Avenue. Ristorante Settepani is located next to a row of vacant buildings and commerce on Lenox has not developed as it has on nearby Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
Abraham has put her plans to open a second restaurant, a brick oven pizzeria, on hold because it's difficult enough keeping her current establishment up and running.
"There needs to be a plan to address the abandoned buildings and to develop a cohesive signage plan for the historic district," Abraham said, adding that a recent bodega that recently opened also has signage that is not consistent with the historic character of the neighborhood.
Abraham said that each new storefront that deviates from the character of the neighborhood means that it will be easier for future stores to do the same.
"I've put a lot of money into this boulevard and I'm still sitting next to a row of abandoned buildings," said Abraham. "I'm worried about the future of the boulevard."
Chresfield said the association is launching the "Lenox Avenue Initiative" in 2012 to address some of the concerns raised by Abraham, other store owners and residents. The group is going to survey residents to see what retail they want in the neighborhood and try to connect landlords with business owners.
Lenox Avenue faces a lot of challenges because it has small storefronts in landmarked buildings. Many are located too close to a church to get a full liquor license, limiting restaurants from opening. However, many people believe that Lenox Avenue has the potential to successfully develop into a healthy retail strip.
"We need to define who we are on Lenox Avenue so people can come visit. We don't have enough of anything on Lenox to make people walk from 125th to 116th street," said Chresfield.
Despite the fact that Lenox Avenue is in transition, Richert said long-term residents such as herself are not willing to accept just anything.
"Some people say 'at least something is there', but that argument doesn't work anymore," she said.