Thursday, June 21, 2012

At arena liquor license hearing, CBs 2 & 6, despite dismay over post-event service, maintain support for license; CB 8, BrooklynSpeaks call for earlier cutoff; Forest City apologizes for poor communication, says no bottle service at 40/40 Club

Barclays Center operators Ratner dodged something of a bullet last night, as representatives of Brooklyn Community Boards 2 and 6 came to a State Liquor Authority hearing in Harlem to say that, however much they're dismayed about the "obfuscation" or "untimely disclosure" of the arena's plans for post-event alcohol service, they're not ready to rescind their support for the liquor license.

From the letter
Surely contributing to that was a letter (also at bottom) sent this week by arena general manager John Sparks that indicated that, despite the request to serve alcohol for an hour after events at three venues (holding up to 1863 people), "we expect there to be little demand" for service in the fourth quarter or after NBA games, as well as little demand at most other events, though there "may be special, post-event functions" after some concerts, "limited to a select group.

Also, he said, most events would end well before midnight, though concerts and boxing could end between 11:30 pm and midnight.

Meanwhile, Forest City Ratner External Affairs VP Ashley Cotton apologized for a presentation before CBs 2 and 6 in April by an arena lawyer who said that liquor service would stop before events ended. "We just handled this poorly," she said. She later clarified that there would be no bottle service--marked-up bottles of hard liquor--at Jay-Z's 40/40 Club, though it would serve bottles of wine and champagne, and arena suites would be able to maintain bottles of liquor.

Opposition from CB 8, BrooklynSpeaks

Meanwhile, Community Board 8, which does not include the arena site (which is split within CBs 2 and 6) but does encompass the parking lot and residential streets on which arena patrons will walk, weighed in with strong opposition to the plan as presented, saying the SLA should play a role in "managing this risk," with a cut-off time that is early--he suggested 10 pm--and uniform.

"We just feel residents need their sleep more than patrons need an extra drink," said Robert Witherwax, 2nd Vice Chair, who suggested that CB 8 residential streets could bear the largest brunt of arena foot traffic.

"Even if the foot traffic were stone cold sober, your honor, this is already a heavy burden that we face," he said. "And if this crowd is less than sober, the risk of disruption and misbehavior is heightened even more."



A subtext to the hearing was whether the arena should be treated like any other sports facility in New York--though, actually, Madison Square Garden ends alcohol service uniformly after the third quarter of NBA games--or whether, because of the facility's setting in a residential neighborhood--and the overrides of zoning to site the arena and its nearby parking lot--an earlier cutoff of alcohol is merited.

Map by Tracy Collins
Gib Veconi of BrooklynSpeaks noted that 1300 people had signed a petition in support of a 10 pm cut-off, and that the coalition, along with several elected officials, backs a Neighborhood Protection Plan, borrowed in part from the neighborhood experience of Wrigley Field in Chicago, that aims to respect the arena's tight setting.

Given that most events would end well before midnight, Veconi said he didn't see why arena operators want to preserve their capacity to serve alcohol until 2 am, rather than agree to an earlier cutoff.

He added that he didn't see how the Community Board Chairpersons could speak for their boards without having gone through a process of taking public input.

Mix in audience, next stop SLA

About 50 people attended the 90-minute hearing, with a show of hands indicating a dozen in support of the application, and about 17 in opposition, with the rest officials, the arena applicant--Brooklyn Events Center and Levy Premium Restaurants--and press. The session was scheduled after state Senator Velmanette Montgomery said a daytime hearing, as scheduled last week, would be insufficient.

While those in opposition were local residents, some in support were signatories of the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement, and thus beneficiaries of Forest City Ratner financial support:James Caldwell of Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD) and Bertha Lewis, formerly of ACORN.

Also expressing opposition or concern were representatives of Council Members Letitia James and Steve Levin.

Administrative Law Judge Raymond Di Luglio, who stressed he was not making findings or recommendations (contra press reportage, including mine) but merely gathering information, hurried the meeting along, indicating he didn't want duplicative testimony.

So, even though there were more opponents than supporters among the public, more supporters got a chance to speak.

Di Luglio did stress that his comments at the first part of the hearing last week about the arena being a "fait accompli" were not meant to refer to the liquor license only.

The SLA board could meet to consider the application on July 10 or July 25, in sessions that go for hours, include numerous applications, and are webcast.

Judge opens

In his opening remarks, Di Luglio summarized the testimony from last week's hearing, including a letter from state Senator Velmanette Montgomery and other elected officials, criticizing the applicant's failure to disclose post-event service.



Di Luglio noted that, under SLA policy, liquor licenses are typically granted unless a good case is shown in opposition, but if the applicant is within 500 feet of other alcohol licensees--as in this case, the "500-foot rule"--the license is not granted unless it's in the "public interest," which he said is defined very broadly.

Arena/Forest City testimony

Arena GM John Sparks, in response to an invitation from the judge, explained how security staff will evaluate and intercept anyone who seems intoxicated, as well as a "pro-active approach to a designated driver."

(Later, when I queried him, he said that all the NBA arenas operators surveyed, except for Madison Square Garden, allow post-event alcohol service for VIPs. That seems to contradict NBA guidelines, which mention no exception for specific patrons.)



Forest City's Cotton said, "We apologize for any miscommunications or lack of clarity." She described the three locations in the building open to post-event service: the 40/40 Club, the restaurant in the building; the 12 individual Vault suites, and the area around it; and the Courtside Club.

"The total capacity is 1800 people," she said. (The document said 1863)

"I'm interested in why it was thought that this wasn't adequately explained at the Community Board meeting," Di Luglio interjected.

"I was not in the room," Cotton said, noting that she was speaking "thirdhand" but had seen videos, gesturing to my coverage. "We answered every question we were asked, I would say, so if there was any lack--it was a big event, lots of people... when you think there's a conspiracy, there's usually stupidity behind it. We just handled it poorly, I don't know what else to say."

Community Board 2

Rob Perris, District Manager of CB 2, read and paraphrased from a letter from CB 2 Chairman John Dew.

"It is difficult at the present time not to interpret the applicant's omission as an obfuscation intended to prevent discussion by the community board," Perris read, with the arena reps looking somber.



However, CB 2 has since examined floor plans and determined that those at the after-hours venues would have to have event tickets, and learned more about security and operational plans.

"Based on the information provided, Community Board 2 Chairperson 2 John Dew is satisiied that Community Board 2 does not need to reopen its review of the Barclays Center liquor license," stated Perris, who added that CB looks forward to working with all parties "to ensure that the sale and consumption of alcohol at the arena does not become a burden on the surrounding neighborhoods."

Community Board 6

CB 6 Chairman Daniel Kummer was relatively more diplomatic than CB 2's presentation.

He said that, "except in one significant respect, the applicants have substantially complied" with requests. The divergence was the "failure of completely communication," but "the good news, I think, is the communication gap has been closed."



Given the further dialogue, he said, "the arena has begun to address, in good faith, our concerns," including security and operations.

Addressing the community, Kummer said, "At the risk of sounding a bit pollyannish, if there's a silver lining to this regrettable episode, concerning the late disclosures, it's that it ultimately provided a vehicle for increased transparency and a dialogue between the community board and the arena. As time moves on, we're going to need a solid and good faith foundation for such dialogue... if we're going to work through the quality of life issues that are inevitably going to arise."

"It's really in all of our interests that this arena operates successfully, both from an economic standpoint, and from a safety, security, and quality of life standpoint," Kummer said, "and we're prepared to work with arena management to achieving all of those goals.. Notwithstanding what was a very significant hiccup in the community review process... we believe that your agency is now armed with sufficient information... to proceed."

Of course there's a tensions between those standpoints, as Veconi's remarks later indicated.

Council Member James's rep

Alfred Chiodo, a representative of Council Member Letitia James, said that the arena had already benefited from zoning overrides, and that the applicant had been less than transparent.



James, he said, would like to see a limit on the time serving alcohol.

Council Member Levins's rep

Ashley Thompson, a representative of Council Member Levin, didn't characterize his statement as support or opposition, but said "he has concerns" and thus urges the SLA to "recognize the overall impact an 18,000-seat arena will have on the community and act accordingly."



"Forest City Ratner was less than forthcoming in their proposals... omitting material information that prevented an entirely informed recommendation," she stated. She stated that the numb er of seats had "been reduced" from 3000 to 1800. (Actually, the number 3,000, as with the figure of 5,400, had never been officially confirmed.)

Judge's observations

In the video below, Di Luglio summarizes some of the testimony from opponents, indicating that concern about late-night drinking "is well known" among the authority.

What he didn't quite indicate is any recognition of the tight setting of the arena.



He asked for a show of hands regarding support of the license: 12.

Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce

Lori Raphael of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce indicated full support for the liquor license, praising the investment in the borough and calling it a "leading economic development measure."



The judge interrupted and asked her to address her comments to the issue of alcohol service hours. "I would say that there's no other arena of this size and caliber that does not offer alcohol to its patrons for a wide variety of programming, supported by bar service, to ensure optimal use of a prime asset," Raphael said, not quite answering the question, but looking at her testimony.

"This is an area well served by Brooklyn's largest transportation hub," she continued. "At its very greatest usage, we're talking about 90 percent of the arena being emptied out, and likely that 10 percent not being served at one time. The Chamber believes that Brooklyn, by population the fourth largest city in America, can support this level of usage for this type of venue."

Raphael was looking at the big picture, not the neighborhood concerns.

BUILD's Caldwell

"I'm here on behalf of over 10,000 individuals who have come to our offices seeking employment," said Caldwell of BUILD. (Surely some of those individuals--those who have sued BUILD and Forest City Ratner claiming a "sham" training program--would take umbrage.)



Caldwell said increased hours would create more jobs at the arena: "Our peoples in our community, your honor, needs to work. And that's what I'm here for."

Local businessman

Jack Pitluk, president of Ocean's 8/Brownstone Billiards, a restaurant/sports bar at Flatbush Avenue near Seventh Avenue for 22 years, said that "the idea of what this brings to Brooklyn is what we've dreamt about since 1957, when we lost the Dodgers."

"That's understood," the judge responded.



As a competitor, he said, he might be seen to oppose the liquor license, but in this case he supported it. Asked specifically about the issue of alcohol service hours, he said he didn't know about it and hadn't evaluated it.

BrooklynSpeaks' perspective

Before BrooklynSpeaks' Veconi got up, Bertha Lewis got up in the back and briefly expressed her support for the license. Later, when I queried her, Lewis said the issue was "fairness," that the arena be treated like any other facility.

Veconi stressed three points from his written testimony, "in opposition to the process and the closing time." He said that application did not comply with the stipulations submitted by CBs 6 and 2, and added that the chairs "are not in a position to substitute their judgment" without public testimony.



He said that the SLA should defer action on after-hours service, and recommend a 10 pm cutoff, or one hour before the end of events.

Veconi referred to the letter issued this week to CBs 2 6, with detailed information about the closing times of late-night facilities. "I just want to remark that we asked for a 10 pm cutoff, but this letter details... they don't expect to serve very much... in the hour before the end of an event. They expect... Certainly an hour before the end of the event is fairly close to the cutoff time we've called for."

He also said that the primary mode of service in Jay-Z's 40/40 Club is bottle service, and, while he'd heard it wouldn't be offered, he hadn't seen that formally stated. Bottle service, he said, has been staunchly opposed by the local community boards.

Forest City response

Cotton got up and said that CB 8 had rebuffed an opportunity to meet with the applicatns two months ago and, after news surfaced last Friday that the Community Board was dismayed over the service plans, the CB was unable to meet with Forest City.



"We're not asking to serve liquor until 2 am," Cotton said, indicating the plan to serve liquor after events. "2 am was the request of Community Board 6. The cases in whcih we will be serving liquor til 2 a.m will be few and far between... That is the very backstop."

Regarding bottle service, she defined it as "bottles of hard liquor being sold at an inflated price... to be purchased and drank all at once." The 40/40 Club will have no such bottle service, but will sell bottle sof champagne and wine.

The Vault, the 40/40 Club and the Courtside Club will not have bottle service, but in a suite owned by a company, which will have recurring visitors, "there can be bottles of liquor... sold at a much more reasonable market price."

The judge asked how that would be controlled.

Levy Restaurants' Director of Operations Julie Margolin got up and explained how a host "will create a beverage experience for their guests," with a beverage package including alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. The host is responsible for the suites. Above and beyond that, the licenseholder has servers will monitor the suites over the course of an evening, as well as security personnel throughout the arena.

What next?

Any additional documentation/comments may be submitted to Jacqueline Held, State Liquor Authority, 80 South Swan Street, 9th Floor, Albany, NY 12210; fax: 518-402-2304. The serial number should be included: 1263192.

CB 8 response

Afterward, I asked Witherwax to respond to Cotton's comments. "We felt, at the beginning, it was a staff level decision not to join with [Community Boards] 2 and 6 in the initial review. It was not in our territory. It was only after the subsequent revelations and some of our residents' petitioning us, asking us to comment, that we even felt comfortable commenting on the situation, but again, not the [full] application."

What about not meeting with Forest City? "This happened Thursday the 14th of June," Witherwax responded. "They called our office Friday morning. There was no way we could make a meeting, the executive committee, between then and now. We're hoping to schedule something in the next week."

The letter

Arena Letter to CBs 2&6 61812

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