LOWER EAST SIDE — Community members are protesting an upcoming eatery’s plan to move its main entrance in order to dodge a state law dictating distance between liquor-serving establishments and houses of worship, claiming the new entrance would hinder public transit and pedestrian traffic.
The owners of Gracias Mama, a taqueria slated to replace a beloved Chinese Bakery at 162 E. Broadway, came up against a hurdle to their sought-after liquor license when the State Liquor Authority found their entrance to be within 200 feet of St. Theresa’s Church, putting it in violation of the SLA’s 200-foot law.
But since the SLA’s measurements are made door-to-door, the restaurateurs opted to simply move — placing the entrance just far enough away from the church steps, but closer to a stairwell to the F line’s E. Broadway subway station and an M9 bus stop, indignant community members said.
“This area, especially that subway stop, is severely congested already, and to move that door doesn’t help the situation,” said Diem Boyd of LES Dwellers, one of several neighborhood groups that last week launched a petition imploring the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to ban the new entrance.
“For anyone who lives in that area, you can barely walk,” she continued, citing a pedestrian traffic study prepared for Community Board 3 earlier this year.
The restaurant’s entrance would sit on Rutgers Street, steps away from the East Broadway subway entrance — which loads and unloads more than 14,000 commuters on an average weekday, according to MTA data.
Boyd and other neighbors fear increased pedestrian and road traffic in the already-congested area would be a public safety hazard. The new business would bring delivery trucks while clientele would clog the streets with taxis and other car services, the petition argues, potentially delaying emergency responders.
Meanwhile, diners funneling into the new entrance or lingering outside would slow down pedestrian flow and block the subway and bus depots, Boyd said.
While neighborhood activists insist the restaurant’s entrance should be on East Broadway, around the corner from the subway, restaurant co-owner Nima Garos maintains he and his business partner Koorosh Bakhtiar had always planned on using an alternate entrance on Rutgers Street anyway — the original being even closer to the subway stairs.
Members of block associations who have put their names to Boyd’s petition, however, say the Rutgers Street entrance had long been boarded up, and that longtime locals had always used the East Broadway entrance to the former bakery.
Gracias Mama first stirred up controversy when Bakhtiar and Garos came before Community Board 3 in March to request a liquor license recommendation. Though the board at the time issued a tentative approval with conditions, many community members expressed concern that the eatery would draw noisy crowds and disrupt pedestrian traffic.
Neighbors also called into question whether the eatery was outside the bounds of the 200-foot rule, as the operators claimed, leading the board to ask the SLA to measure the distance definitively.
The authority found the establishment to be within 200 feet of St. Theresa’s door, according to SLA spokesman Bill Crowley, meaning state law forbade them from issuing a liquor license, though a beer and wine license would have been allowed.
When the restaurateurs appeared again before the board on June 20 to request moving their entrance in order to score a liquor license, the board approved the plan in exchange for the owners’ guarantee that they would reduce the capacity of their stand-up bar and scrap an idea for an outdoor takeout window, a resolution from the meeting shows.
Garos said there were multiple reasons for moving the entrance, such as facilitating a now-indoor takeout counter and improving “seating and flow” of the restaurant — though both community board and SLA representatives confirmed the requested move was due to the 200-foot rule.
But the establishment’s thirst for a liquor license shouldn’t trump public safety, said community members, who further argue restaurants should not be able to so easily circumvent a state law meant to prevent liquor saturation.
“For us it's first and foremost about public safety and convenience in the sense we need to be able to access the public sidewalk,” said Boyd. “But secondarily, it’s an obvious way of circumventing a law to get a liquor license.”
The SLA, however, confirmed the owners could legally move the entrance to avoid breaking the 200-foot rule.
Though the coalition continues to petition the MTA, asking the transit authority to “deny” a Rutgers Street entrance, an MTA spokeswoman said the authority has no reason to intervene.
“We have been to the site,” said MTA spokeswoman Amanda Kwan. “We did not see anything that gave us concern.”
The owners of Gracias Mama submitted their liquor license application on June 8, and the SLA has yet to issue a decision, according to the SLA website.