Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Kemistry kaput: SLA denies liquor license to controversial lounge/club aimed for Flatbush but backing into residential Prospect Place

Update July 18: Those behind Kemistry now plan a social club for teenagers.

Kemistry, a lounge/nightclub planned for Flatbush Avenue but with a glass back wall at Prospect Place, was emphatically denied a liquor license today by the State Liquor Authority, which cited widespread opposition from the community regarding late hours and planned bottle service.

Compounding that opposition, neighbors' skepticism about Kemistry was fueled by late-emerging news (via DNAinfo) that one of the two partners in the business, Leonard Bartletto, had been arrested on selling marijuana in March, but had not informed fellow partner James Brown or the SLA.

Though Brown said today that he was willing to buy Bartletto's share and make some partial concessions regarding the scope of bottle service, SLA officials were unmoved, but instead cited the widespread community opposition.

In this case the burden was on Kemistry, planned to host 225 people on two levels. If an applicant for a liquor license is within 500 feet of three or more licensed premises, the SLA must affirmatively determine that granting the license would be in the “public interest.”

After the hearing, Brown’s lawyer said it was unclear what would happen next. However, the SLA expressed skepticism toward even a re-submitted application.

The arena as magnet

While the emergence of the Barclays Center, a huge crowd magnet less than three blocks away, has always been a backdrop to plans for Kemistry, both Brown and SLA officials made that explicit.

Brown said that Kemistry's late hours--planned until 2 am, 3 am, and 4 am (Fri/Sat)--were aimed to take advantage of crowds leaving the arena, while bottle service was needed to reap revenues commensurate with the high monthly rent.

But SLA Chairman Dennis Rosen was worried. “I'm particularly concerned that the problems we tried to avoid” with the arena--limiting hours for a venue that had already agreed to no bottle service--”might rear their head if we grant this application.”

It's not the first controversy created when entrepreneurs have tried to capitalize on the new crowds on Flatbush. Previously, a venue planned for Flatbush and Sixth Avenue, a music venue and sports bar initially called Prime 6, was modified after community consultation into the restaurant and bar Woodland.

Much opposition

Besides individual testimony about a dozen neighbors, including lawyer Peter Adelman, representing Prospect Place Neighbors, representatives of Community Board 6, Council Member Steve Levin, Assemblymember Joan Millman, and state Senator Velmanette Montgomery spoke in opposition at the meeting, held at SLA office in Harlem.

CB 6 District Manager Craig Hammerman, citing the unwillingness of the applicants to compromise on issues raised by neighbors, said they had decided to "cease discussion and roll the dice."

Had the community board known of Bartletto’s tangle with the law, Hammerman said, it might not have been so willing to negotiate. Now that the character and fitness of the applicants has been called into question, he said, "we don't see how the public interest would be served by granting of any license."

Jim Vogel, representing Montgomery, suggested, "if it's a new partnership, it should be a new application."

Adelman said “we put an enormous amount of time attempting to accommodate this applicant” but “its a square peg in a round hole.”

“People simply don't trust the applicants,” he said, “and this was the case before the criminal misconduct came to light.”

Neighbors cited an initial commitment, since withdrawn, to brick up the back wall of the building, where an emergency exit leads to Prospect Place. (The building was formerly a Big Daddy appliance store on Flatbush, but the back was apartments.)

“We have no certainty as to what this is,” commented Rob Underwood. “It feels like a nightclub to us.”

Playing defense

Kemistry lawyer Jerome Sussman said Bartletto had lied to him about his past, and that Brown, having known Bartletto for a dozen years, never knew anything untoward. “We have agreed to give him a $20,000 payout to walk away, only if we get the license,” Sussman said.

He noted that there were no deliveries planned on Prospect Place nor any usage of the back door, except in an emergency. He suggested that soundproof curtains would suffice.

“The hours seem to be a moving target,” Rosen said.

Sussman provided a new set of hours, including lunch service. Brown suggested that the shifting professed hours meant they were trying “to accommodate the community board’s request,” a claim that provoked incredulity from the audience.

Why bottle service?

Rosen, noting a history of problems with nightclubs serving liquor by the bottle, asked why it played a central part in Kemistry’s business model.

“The later evening hours we expect to bring in the people leaving the Barclays Center after any event that may be there,” Sussman said.

He added that Kemistry would serve wine and champagne in bottles throughout the evening, but instead of cutting off hard liquor bottle service one half hour before closing--which prompts worries that people would gulp remaining alcohol--”he is willing to limit that to an hour, hour and a half prior to closing time.”

Rosen suggested bottle service was incongruent with a neighborhood having a high proportion of residences.

“There's not a house on the street that doesn’t have iron gates,” Sussman commented, as if suggesting that detracted from a residential district.

“How is it not a quiet residential street?” asked Rosen, eventually getting the Nassau County-residing lawyer to admit, “I found it to be a fairly quiet street.”

Rosen brought up the Barclays Center, warning that the problems SLA aimed to avoid with that license would instead “be created by Kemistry.”

Brown said he’d compromise on hours but needed bottle service to be competitive.

Where else is there bottle service?

Brown cited the nearby lounge Sugarcane, prompting “no’s” from the crowd.

He mentioned Social Butterfly on Atlantic Avenue, prompting Rosen to point out that’s a different street..

Brown said there was no dancing planned, given that seating would maximize the use of the floor.

One neighbor, Ted Kim, pointed out that the license application proposed getting a catering license to have dancing and DJs.

While the license application mentioned jazz being played at Kemistry, Brown during his statement mentioned that there would also be r&b, which had not previously come up.

The verdict

Commissioner Jeanique Greene observed, “If the community is apprehensive, it sets a tone, it sets a relationship... it seems to have went awry, especially when the community is not getting a clear picture of what you intend.”

“I have to take into consideration the concerns of the community,” she said, noting that the location wasn’t “strictly Flatbush” and “this isn't Lower Manhattan where we have a location every storefront.”

“I just can't see the type of location you have could coexist” with the neighborhood, she said, adding, “I can't even recommend that you go back and speak to residents” and resubmit.

Brown noted that he co-owns another establishment, Atomic Wings, that got a beer and wine license through Community Board 6.

“It's a totally different animal,” countered Greene. Having bottle service, she added, “that just doesn't read as a restaurant.”

Rosen had the final word. “I don't think there's been a demonstration, and this is a 500-foot case, that it will serve the public interest, and the burden is on the applicant.” He repeated his concerns about problems SLA tried to avoid with the Barclays Center.

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