Gramercy Park NIMBYs Whine About Wine Bar and SLA Says No to Pinot

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Photo: Shanna Ravindra

It was almost a year ago that we first introduced you to the plight of a wine bar at 38 Gramercy Park North that faced such heated opposition from neighbors that owner Cole Miller temporarily withdrew his liquor license application despite having sunk $1 million into the project. Back in May, things were looking good when Miller told the Observer that he finally got Community Board 6s blessing, but Town & Village now reports that the State Liquor Authority has voted to deny the license, partly because cops use 21st Street as an artery and didnt want cars outside of the bar blocking emergency vehicles access to the narrow street. Arlene Harrison, who headed a committee against the bar, hailed it as an emphatic victory for the residents in her letter, reprinted below.

The Gramercy Park Residents Group

Last Thursday, a year's worth of hard work by a dedicated group of Gramercy Park residents finally paid off when the Board of Commissioners of the New York State Liquor Authority voted unanimously to deny a license for a late-night wine bar being planned for 38 Gramercy Park North. The Commissioners cited issues with the "character and fitness" of the bar's developers and the importance of maintaining the unique residential character of historic Gramercy Park in support of their determination that the license was "not in the public interest".

The bar, originally proposed to remain open as late as 4 a.m. (later scaled back to 2 a.m.) was to be situated at 38 Gramercy Park North, one of the 34 residential "Lot Owner" buildings that sit on lots surrounding the four sides of Gramercy Park that form part of the original Gramercy Park Trust established by Samuel B. Ruggles in 1831.

The residents had come together at a meeting held one year ago, in January 2010. At the meeting, they mapped out strategies that would ultimately involve hundreds of neighbors representing every residential building around the Park, except 38 Gramercy Park North, the landlord for the proposed bar. What became The Gramercy Park Residents Group devoted thousands of hours of work over the next twelve months before their concerns were finally taken seriously.

Many of the group's members were veterans of years of earlier battles over the extreme traffic congestion and resulting public safety and quality of life issues on the street in front of the proposed wine bar. All of them were concerned that a late night bar could undermine the historic, residential character of the Gramercy Park neighborhood as laid out in the Ruggles 1831 Indenture. Long concerned with the oversaturation of bars on Third Ave and Park Ave South, Gramercy Park's "backyards", residents complained about feeling sandwiched between these two night-life districts. They worried that a late-night bar now being proposed for their "front yard" would become a stopping off point for after-hours crowds passing back and forth between the two night-life districts.

For many months, group members researched the developers, neighborhood traffic, history, public safety and quality of life problems, and conducted surveys of local restaurants and bars. The Group coordinated with area residents, elected representatives and reached out to the 13th Precinct, whose police officers for years have been working with the community on extreme traffic congestion and public safety problems on that street. According to the Precinct, traffic spillover from 21st Street gridlock occasionally blocked egress from Precinct headquarters onto Third Avenue, forcing emergency vehicles headed West to exit the Precinct by Second Avenue to the East. Any business adding additional vehicle traffic to what they considered "the most heavily trafficked street in the Precinct", at a location a half a block from the Precinct, had the potential to increase response times both for the police and for Emergency Services Unit #1 (housed in the 13th Precinct), one of only two such units serving all of Manhattan, and who respond to twenty to thirty emergency calls daily.

Hundreds of Gramercy Park neighbors attended four meetings of Community Board 6 and its Business Affairs and Street Activities Committee ("BASA"), presenting their research on the misrepresentations of the developers of the proposed bar, quality-of-life issues arising from the oversaturation of bars in the neighborhood, traffic problems and the historic residential character of the neighborhood. The developers, too, presented research, including traffic experts who attempted to assuage the residents' concerns, claiming that the Police were over concerned about the negative traffic implications of a bar on that street.

In a March 11 article in Town & Village newspaper, Deputy Inspector Timothy Beaudette, was quoted as saying to BASA Committee members "I've never been down here before to oppose any restaurant or bar, but I'm very much against this. The traffic on 21st Street and Gramercy Park North is very, very heavy. I can't be more against the location."

The Community Board, however, ultimately brushed these concerns aside, at one point describing the statements of the 13th Precinct's Commander as "self-serving" and the concerns of the residents as "disingenuous". The BASA Committee chastised the residents for not opposing any other prior liquor license application for the existing bars along Third Avenue and Park Avenue South, two major commercial thoroughfares, unlike the narrow one lane, residential East 21st street. Before voting not to object to the proposed bar in May of 2010, one of the BASA Committee members went so far as to advise the residents in attendance that "I've got news for you: this is New York."

Believing the Gramercy Park neighborhood to be a unique part of New York, whose historic residential character is a benefit to the entire City, the residents pressed on undeterred. They continued to meet throughout the Summer and Fall and pressed their neighbors to request a hearing before the Board of Commissioners of the New York State Liquor Authority. During this time, the Commissioners received hundred letters from neighbors expressing their opposition to the bar and asking for a hearing of the issues that the Community Board had dismissed.

In December, 2010 the Commissioners agreed to hear the residents' concerns, first at a regular hearing on December 15 and then at a special hearing on January 6, scheduled specifically to address the myriad of issues raised by the proposed bar at 38 Gramercy Park North. At the hearings, the Commissioners demonstrated a familiarity with the many concerns raised in the hundreds of letters they had received. In addition, they grilled the developers on misrepresentations on the bar's liquor license application and on the resume of the one of the proposed principals. They also expressed concern as to whether all of the persons who would be involved in the proposed bar were disclosed to the Commission.

In the end, the decision was not even close. The Commissioners voted unanimously to deny the bar's license, after admonishing the bar's developers for their misrepresentations, inconsistencies and duplicity throughout the process, which they said demonstrated that the developers did not have the "character and fitness" to hold a liquor license in the State of New York.

The final vote came from Commission Chairman Dennis Rosen, who described the significance of Gramercy Park to the City, emphasized the importance of maintaining its historic residential character, and concluded that a bar in this location would "not be in the public interest".

A year-long struggle to preserve a historic corner of the city concluded with an emphatic victory for the residents, for the 13th Precinct, for Gramercy Park and indeed for the entire City of New York.

SLA corks plans for Gramercy Park wine bar [Town & Village via Real Deal]