LOWER EAST SIDE — Amidst mounting frustration with the saturation of bars and loss of small businesses in the East Village and Lower East Side, Community Board 3 has recommitted itself to the strict observance of a State Liquor Authority rule meant to prevent the concentration of liquor licenses within a small area.
The board has passed a resolution stating that it will reject liquor license applications that are in violation of the SLA’s 500-foot rule — prohibiting the issuing of a license to an establishment within 500 feet of three or more full on-premises liquor licenses — unless the applicant can prove the operation would benefit the local community.
“CB3…will not approve license applications that are subject to the 500-foot rule unless they meet the high standard of being in the public interest,” reads the resolution, which was drafted by the economic development committee before getting approval from the full board.
The screed, a reiteration of similar resolutions passed in 2008 and 2011, seeks to reaffirm a commitment to promoting a diversity of retail spaces in neighborhoods continually overrun by booze — a recurring topic of concern among locals tired of watching beloved mom and pops pushed out by nightlife, said the chair of the SLA subcommittee.
“There are significant complaints from long-term residents that there is a lack of retail diversity and that it is ever-decreasing,” said Alex Militano.
The resolution speaks to the loss of local businesses due to inflated rents, affordable to nightlife venues but not to mom and pops, as well as the quality of life issues caused by a saturation of liquor in small areas — concerns expressed at length at the last full board meeting, in which residents rallied against a booze-slinging taqueria set to replace a beloved Chinese bakery.
The board ultimately voted to recommend the taqueria’s license application so long as the business adhered to a long list of stipulations, giving way to a heated debate about the application of the 500-foot rule.
Some board members have criticized the SLA subcommittee for putting through these conditional approvals — tentative recommendations attached to stipulations on closing times and noise control — to establishments within 500 feet of a handful of licensed spots rather than giving the applicants a hard “no.”
“I absolutely think the committee should say no,” said former board chairperson Anne Johnson. “They could certainly write stronger language into their denials talking about the 500-foot rule.”
The problem, Militano said, is the SLA is ultimately not beholden to the community board’s ruling and may choose to grant a license anyway — leaving committee members to assess each applicant and decide whether they would be better off giving a flat denial or including a list of demands in the event of an approval.
“Sometimes it would be strategically better to impose restrictions and sometimes it’s better to do a flat denial,” she said.
Dissenting board members have balked at this strategy — the 500-foot rule is state law, stated one member, and to brush it aside by submitting conditional approvals is to give the SLA the green light to flood the neighborhood with booze.
"I think we should be very explicit that this is not just a matter of policy, but to go ahead and grant this license violates the law," said Chad Marlow.
The liquor authority also does not define “public interest,” giving way to varied interpretations of what it means for a business to be in the interest of the community, said Militano. The new guideline, drawing from a 2011 resolution, seeks to clearly outline what should be taken into consideration when weighing public benefits.
In order to win the “public interest” category, a business must prove that it provides a good or service needed by the local community, a unique service not already in the community, a cultural benefit or increase in retail diversity, or must prove that it will enhance local residents’ quality of life or provide a “conscientious business owner” who would be “a stabilizing force in the community.”
Board members jaded by what they perceive as historically lax enforcement of the rule by the subcommittee are tentatively relieved by the resolution’s passage — the real test will be whether the subcommittee in practice strengthens its resolve to deny licenses in violation of the law, said Marlow, who hopes to see a change in course.
“If this indicates a recalibration and that we are going to start taking this law seriously, I think that’s a very good thing,” Marlow said.
While each license must still be assessed on an individual basis, Militano said, the resolution is important in that it lays out, in clear terms, an approach to evaluating applicants.
"It’s always helpful, if we think there should be something we want to do as a group, to memorialize it in writing because it gives people direction," she said.