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After SLA suspends Woodland's liquor license and pushes for revocation, venue gets a stay; charges of unfair treatment (and disruptive behavior)

Update 6/14/19: Bklyner reports that the State Liquor Authority on June 18 will hold a hearing on the more serious charges outlined in the press release, including “permitting dancing, contrary to application,” permitting the premises to “become disorderly,” and “the occurrence of noise, disturbance, misconduct or disorder in the licensed premises, in front of or adjacent to the licensed premises…” which resulted in the location “becoming a focal point for police attention.”

The popular (and controversial) Flatbush Avenue bar-restaurant Woodland, known for long bottomless mimosa brunches attracting a fashionable black millennial crowd--and some fraction of disruptive behavior from over-imbibers, neighbors say--saw its liquor license suspended last week by the State Liquor Authority (SLA).

But Woodland quickly got a court order for a stay, so it can sell liquor during the interim at Flatbush and Sixth avenue, and maintain a business with 60 employees. A hearing to continue the temporary restraining order, according to Bklyner, is scheduled for tomorrow, and Woodland's licensee has until June 26 to respond, with a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge.

The SLA, in a 6/7/19 press release headlined SLA ISSUES EMERGENCY SUSPENSION FOR BROOKLYN BAR, said it intends to revoke the license. It cited violations uncovered during a 5/29/19 inspection: "a myriad of fire hazards, code violations and dangerous conditions including the storage of fireworks and compressed gas, in addition to blocked emergency exits, uninspected fire extinguishers, and uncovered electrical outlets."

To Woodland, those were minor, correctable violations, according to its legal filing, which noted, for example, that the "fireworks" were actually "sparklers and candles for cake." That meant the risk was not so extraordinary to entitle the SLA "to circumvent a licensee’s due process rights," Woodland argued, noting that no hearing was held prior to the license suspension.

Manager Pedro Yamasaki, in an affidavit, detailed numerous recent improvements in procedures sparked by that inspection, thus rendering the violations moot. Woodland noted that neither the New York City Department of Buildings nor the New York City Fire Department issued any violations.

Their lawyer, Abrams Fensterman's Frank Carone--who the New York Times, in an unrelated article, called "an influential figure in the Brooklyn Democratic Party and a longtime ally of [Mayor Bill] de Blasio’s"--argued that the suspension would harm Woodland, which had  many special events already booked. For example, on June 20, the day of the NBA Draft at the nearby Barclays Center, the event was described as "FULL BUY OUT NBA 200 guests / 2pm-8pm / PrePaid $19,980."

Bklyner cited past comments by Woodland owner Akiva Ofshtein, who said neighbors objected to the racial identity of the venue's clientele, a claim made by Bklyner commenters and also made by Borough President Eric Adams, who, like some other officials, has held fundraisers there. Then again, one Bklyner commenter wrote that "plenty of the neighbors who have issues with the noise, public drunkenness and dangerous activity" were diverse racially. (Bklyner this week has been the only media outlet to cover the SLA action.)

It may be that Woodland--which attracts huge crowds, and long lines, on weekends--is great fun for many, but also pushes the edge. After all, in a recent photo essay for New York magazine's fashion vertical The Cut, The Look Book Goes to Brunch at Woodland, one attendee, when asked how many mimosas he had, responded, "Not sure. People were drinking gallons. The bathroom line was a half-hour long. But no one got too frustrated."

Felons as owners?

The most serious charge in the suspension is that the licensee, Prime Six, owned by Akiva Ofshtein, "made its license available to a person not specified in the license," notably Robert and Zhan Petrosyants, "from on or before 6/3/19." The twin brothers in 2014 pleaded guilty in Brooklyn federal court to laundering money via a Queens check-cashing business; felons are typically ineligible for liquor licenses.


In a window
Woodland's legal response: "Prime Six is solely owned by Akiva Ofshtein and managed by American Standard Hospitality Group" and "The SLA was provided a copy of the management agreement in approximately April/May of 2018 to demonstrate that Robert and Zhan Petrosyants have no ownership interest in Prime Six."

Documents and reports from before that date have described the brothers differently, as I wrote. A $1,000 campaign contribution in June 2013 from Robert Petrosyants to Adams listed him as the owner of Woodland, as reported by DNAinfo. The website for the American Standard Hospitality Group, an LLC established in July 2015 with Ofshtein's law firm as conduit, once called Woodland the first restaurant the brothers "established." (That page is no longer available on the web.)

Looking more closely

Though not part of the Emergency Order of Suspension, the SLA press release alleged other, more serious violations regarding disorderly operations, noise, and police attention:
The SLA is currently conducting a disciplinary hearing against Woodland for eleven violations issued on March 29, 2019. Charges include operating a disorderly premise, becoming a focal point for police attention, excessive noise and failure to abide by stipulations the licensee entered into with Community Board 6. Additionally, the licensee is charged with availing their license by turning over operation of the business to undisclosed persons.
During the initial hearing on the March 29th charges, several business owners testified Woodland’s operation is having a negative impact on the community, with drunken, belligerent patrons from the bar disrupting their businesses. Residents also testified Woodlands’ patrons have made life intolerable, with uncontrolled crowds of intoxicated patrons wreaking havoc on the neighborhood, especially during weekend brunch hours. The NYPD’s 78th precinct reports receiving over two-hundred 311 and 911 calls regarding the premises in the last year alone, with the Commanding Officer from the 78th precinct advising the SLA that a patrol car must be posted directly next to the premises on weekends to prevent violent incidents.
Those remain to be substantiated or resolved in the legal proceedings. In May 2018, the SLA agreed to dismiss all five pending charges--failure to exercise adequate supervision; “a focal point of police attention;” and disorderly premises--if Woodland paid a fine of $12,000.

“The repeated and increasing number of disruptive incidents at this establishment, combined with the failure to correct serious public safety issues, demonstrates that this licensee lacks concern for the safety or well-being of their patrons or their community,” said SLA Chairman Vincent Bradley in the recent press release. “History shows adhering to fire and building codes is essential to keeping patrons safe in the event of an emergency. This suspension should serve as a message that we will not hesitate to take a license when a bar poses a threat to public safety.”

Woodland responds

Yamasaki's affidavit, in large part, details measures taken in response to the inspection, thus removing such threats to public safety. For example:
17. Paragraph 6 of the Suspension (Exhibit “A”) states that on May 29, 2019 Prime Six did not have fire equipment and devices in working order. On May 31, 2019, all fire extinguishers were inspected and brought into compliance. Please find true and accurate pictures of the monthly inspection record tags for all fire extinguishers at Prime Six demonstrating its compliance is attached as Exhibit “J”. All fire extinguishers on the Prime Six premise will be recharged as of June 7, 2019. Moreover, all smoke detectors at Prime Six have been cleaned, batteries replaced, and tested. Please see true and accurate pictures of the smoke detectors at Prime Six as of June 6, 2019 attached hereto as Exhibit “K”. As a result, the violation listed in Paragraph 6 is moot. See Exhibit “A”, ¶ 6.
While many of the responses may provide enough information to resolve the disputes, a few passages do not, and thus might be contested.

For example, the SLA claimed "Prime Six violated condition to not use St. Marks Avenue exit for non-emergencies, permits outside cigarette smoking on St. Marks, permits and advertises hard liquor bottle service all in violation of community board stipulations."

Yamasaki responded that Prime Six has not had hard liquor bottle service since his tenure, and that a policy forbids patrons and employees from smoking on St. Marks, nor are employees allowed to use that exit in nonemergency situations. The legal process may assess how well those policies are followed.

Regarding dancing

Screenshot from Yelp
Another response:
47. Paragraph 37 of the Suspension (Exhibit “A”) states that on May 29, 2019 Prime Six permitted dancing. Prime Six does not maintain a dance floor. See Exhibit “A”, ¶ 37.
Not maintaining a dance floor does not necessarily mean dancing is banned. After all, Yelp has 75 reviews mentioning dancing, as indicated in the screenshot at right. New York magazine's photo essay stated "The Flatbush Avenue restaurant hosts a weekend daytime dance party."

New York has recently repealed the Cabaret Law that required a license for dancing, which had been arbitrarily enforced, but dancing is allowed only in particular locations, and requires a change in the liquor license, according to City Limits. (Woodland's initial 10-year lease, expiring April 30, 2020, states "No cabaret shall be permitted," according to a previous filing in a bankruptcy court dispute.)

Regarding noise, and the police

The affidavit states:
48. Paragraph 38 of the Suspension (Exhibit “A”) states that on May 29, 2019 Prime Six caused a continuing pattern of noise disturbance. In order to comply, Prime Six has since put signs regarding noise volume in its premises. A true and accurate of these signs are attached as Exhibit “JJ”. As a result, the violation listed in Paragraph 38 is moot. See Exhibit “A”, ¶ 38.
The legal process may assess how the placement of signs regarding noise volume translates into curbing noise disturbance.

It also states:
49. Paragraph 39 of the Suspension (Exhibit “A”) states that on May 29, 2019 Prime Six caused a noise disturbance becoming a focal point for police. However, such noise was not traceable to Prime Six as evidenced by Exhibit “KK”, which is a true and accurate video demonstrating that the source of the noise is coming from a bar across the street taken on May 11, 2019. As a result, the violation listed in Paragraph 39 is moot. See Exhibit “A”, ¶ 39.
The legal process may assess how a video taken on May 11 can explain the source of noise on May 29.

Another statement:
51. Respondents’ attempts to portray Prime Six as an unsafe venue are untrue. Prime Six is run very professionally and has a very good reputation with the local police precinct. We are constantly in touch with the local police precinct to ensure that there are no issues with the venue. If Prime Six was not operated in a safe manner, then the local police precinct would not hold Prime Six in such high regard.
That's at odds with the press release statement--not a legal filing--that "the Commanding Officer from the 78th precinct advising the SLA that a patrol car must be posted directly next to the premises on weekends to prevent violent incidents." Again, that may be ventilated in the legal process.

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