Williamsburg community board braves mockery over unenforceable moratorium on new bars

Williamsburg. (aturkus via flickr.)
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Nearly two hours into Tuesday’s Community Board 1 meeting in Williamsburg, board chair Chris Olechowski addressed the issue of the night, which was also the reason the Swinging Sixties Senior Center was packed with people who don’t usually attend these types of meetings: the board’s proposed moratorium on approving new liquor licenses, which some board members hope would help address the area’s proliferation of bars.

Olechowski’s name, thick Brooklyn accent, and craggily late-middle-aged mug are straight out of community board central casting. The standing-room-only crowd he addressed including many members of the press, which, since news of the moratorium broke on a local blog the week before, generally portrayed it as a Get Off My Lawn overreaction from Cranky Old Locals.

But Olechowski spoke in measured tones, breathing sensibleness into an issue that lends itself to caricature.

“The fact of the matter is that anything that’s good, up to a point, starts to become bad when there’s too much of it,” he said, before pointing to statistics showing that the area is on pace for a 50 percent increase in liquor licenses from last year. “How much more can this community take? We have a responsibility to everyone, and at this point, we’ve come to a crisis with this issue.”

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The issue of the moratorium wound up being tabled, probably for two months or more. But the hoopla surrounding it, along with a subsequent board resolution about rowdiness stemming from a summer concert series, underscored, as Olechowski described it, the crisis-point of friction between those who live in Williamsburg and those who go there to have fun.

Despite its status in the popular conception as the hipster capital of the world, Williamsburg is also a place where people live and work. The diverse makeup of the community board—some Latinos, some Hasidic Jews, some Polish, some African-Americans, many miscellaneous white people—bears this out. Most neighborhood residents see their Williamsburg as the one from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and not Camel cigarette packaging.

But a thriving nightlife scene, like the one that has sprouted in Williamsburg in the past decade-plus, can change that in a hurry. Bars beget more bars. When an area becomes a scene, the laws of supply and demand that would seemingly regulate the number of suppliers goes out the window. Diversification of neighborhood retail becomes threatened because successful bars can afford higher rents. That’s proven to be the case on many of Williamsburg’s retail strips, and even on some manufacturing-zoned blocks that, rather than propping up the area’s fading industrial sector, have been given over to industrial-themed places to drink.

As Sarah Laskow wrote on this site about the East Village bar scene, “Nightlife is an industry like any other. If coal-burning plants spew ash, bars and restaurants spew drunken hoots and hollers, vomit on doorsteps, loud fights and a gauntlet of stumbling smokers to plow through on your way to the door.”

Board member Ward Dennis, who didn't support the moratorium because he thought it was impractical, characterized the bar-growth proposition more simply: “Who wants a bunch of ‘bros’ coming into your neighborhood that don’t care at all about the neighborhood?"

Against this backdrop, Olechowski said that “the community board has a responsibility to find equilibrium for residents who live here and want peace of mind as well as those establishments who are here who provide those services responsibly.”

The problem with that is that the community board isn’t empowered to fulfill that responsibility.

For all the handwringing by license-seekers about the burdensome process of seeking board approval, the community board’s votes on liquor licenses are merely advisory to the State Liquor Authority, which has final say on whether to issue them. And the SLA, which derives substantial revenue from the state both from licensing fees and alcohol taxes, usually says yes.

“The general presumption of this agency is that it’s going to be approved unless there’s a reason not to approve it,” said William Crowley, the SLA’s spokesman.

Dennis, the board member, said, “It’s like with the DMV: They give you a license if you pass the test. They don’t refuse to give it to you because there are too many cars on the road.”

An exception to this is the so-called “500-foot rule” which mandates that any application for an establishment within 500 feet of three existing bars must serve a public benefit as determined by the SLA. But what constitutes “public benefit” is vague, and enforcement of this law is notoriously sporadic.

Blanket moratoriums like the ones CB1 was debating are basically pointless. By law, the SLA must treat each application on a case-by-case basis and can’t deny one because it falls within a given area.

“There’s strict law that says that we’re bound to look at each application on its own basis,” Crowley told me. “The moratoriums aren’t all that helpful to our agency when we’re trying to make a decision. We’re not given any rationale other than they don’t want more bars in an area.”

Some years back, Community Board 3 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side had a blanket “no” policy for certain commercial strips in the area. But it proved ineffective. Now, board staff spends a good chunk of their working hours writing detailed “no” recommendations on applications to the SLA.

“It certainly puts a lot more burden on us to focus on this and not other aspects of working for the community, but it’s worthwhile,” said board district manager Susan Stetzer. “I’ve seen applications denied.”

Still, a small handful of application denials at great expenditure of time hardly changes the bigger picture. Looked at from this perspective, the moratorium wasn’t a matter of practical policy, but something else.

“We’re going to at this point send a message,” Olechowski said. “This is a tremendous burden on this community, the saturation of bars opening up. We have a responsibility to all members of this community, not just to those who come here to have a good time.”