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Plan to Serve Wine and Beer in Park Avenue Church Shot Down by Locals

By Amy Zimmer | July 25, 2012 1:11pm
James Hallquist, director of operations at 583 Park Ave., standing in the main room at 583 Park Ave.
James Hallquist, director of operations at 583 Park Ave., standing in the main room at 583 Park Ave.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

LENOX HILL — An events company located inside a Christian Science church has been shot down by a community board in its request for support for a wine and beer license — the latest obstacle in a year-long struggle to be allowed to serve alcohol in the venue.

After nearly two hours of public testimony, Community Board 8 voted against endorsing a wine and beer license for the Rose Group, a company that caters weddings, fundraisers, fashion shows and other opulent events inside the Third Church of Christ, Scientist building at 583 Park Avenue near East 63rd Street.

The Rose Group — which pays a reported $250,000 a year in rent, as well as 10 percent of sales — has been leasing space at the church for years, after seeing its membership dwindle to less than 100 people since it built its elegant neo-Classical edifice in 1923.

The church said it needs the event venue to be successful in order to come up with enough funds to maintain its landmark building.

Tom Draper, chairman of the trustees overseeing the church — which, ironically, forbids alcohol for its members — said the arrangement is necessary to allow the church to survive.

“We depend upon the income from the lease to pay for the maintenance of the exterior and our programming,” he said, noting that the Rose Group does the interior upkeep. “It is our understanding that without this license the Rose Group would not be able to meet its obligations.”

But residents in the area say the venue has already adversely affected the nature of the street with early morning deliveries, late-night noise, trash and double-parked limos.

“It takes a very long time to create a beautiful landmarked corridor in one of the largest cities,” said Marilyn Jenkins-Madina, curator emerita of Islamic art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a resident of 570 Park Ave., one of 10 nearby co-ops battling the Rose Group, at the meeting.

“Conversely, it takes very little to change the ambience of a neighborhood,” she added, describing Park Avenue as “the jewel in the crown of New York City.” 

Madina worried that approving the wine and beer license would set a “dangerous precedent,” signaling to other churches that they could “sell out” to catering companies to use their space.

The Rose Group initially expressed interest in getting a full liquor license, but would have needed a wavier to get around the state's ban on liquor licenses within 200 feet of churches. The Rose Group has since reduced its sights, settling on a beer and wine license, which is considered easier to obtain than a full liquor license and is also not prohibited in the state's 200 foot church rule.

The Rose Group tried unsuccessfully to plead their case in court, then approached Albany lawmakers and found a state senator from Binghamton willing to sponsor a bill to challenge the rule and grant an exemption for the venue operating in a church itself, according to the New York Times. The bill stalled before the legislative session ended.

But Clint Johnson, of 565 Park Ave. — a co-op that is no longer part of the opposition network — defended the Rose Group, noting that the Rose family lives and went to school in the area.

“They are one of us,” Johnson told the board, “and have the sensibilities, character and good judgment to operate a venue in our neighborhood.”

James Hallquist, director of operations at 583 Park Ave., rebutted complaints from residents who claimed to have “hundreds of pictures” of double-parked trucks and cars related to 583 Park Ave. He, in turn, offered the community board a series of photos taken recently during a week the venue held no events that purported to show six black cars and 14 trucks double-parked, along with an Ethan Allen furniture truck parked all day in front of one of the co-ops.

“I really feel we’re being singled out,” Hallquist said.

“Not once has a neighbor come to use and said, ‘Can you get that car removed?’” he said. “We feel we’ve been doing everything right.”

He noted how the company invested roughly $10 million in upgrading the interior — from installing new carpeting in the main ballroom (with church input and approval), to adding a heating and cooling system, to renovating the bathroom with marble and wainscot reused from the church’s own pews.

State Liquor Authority officials said they had yet to receive an application from 583 Park Ave. and that applicants must notify community boards 30 days prior to submitting an application.

The application will have to go through the State Liquor Authority for final approval.