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“No Brunching While Black” or “Bar Operator Allegedly in Violation”? Looking closer at the Woodland controversy

Woodland at left, next to Bleachers and Sugarcane
To regulars, notably black millennials flocking to a bumping brunch often described as “lit,” the restaurant-bar-lounge Woodland, at the commercial corner of Flatbush and Sixth avenues, is a cherished haven, highlighted last year in Eater by Stacy-Ann Ellis as "The Joy of Black Brunch".

To several nearby neighbors, the local police precinct, and the local Community Board, Woodland is a problem nightclub, blasting music, attracting long, sometimes unruly lines down Sixth Avenue, and pouring so much alcohol that customers sometimes puke and pee on neighbors’ stoops, disturbing a residential district.

Brooklyn Community Board 6 has multiple times asked the State Liquor Authority (SLA) for Woodland’s liquor license to be revoked or suspended.

Since Woodland supporters, especially the Bertha Lewis-led Black Institute and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, think such problems are overblown, reflecting historic patterns of official bias, and thus charge racism by (mostly white) neighbors.

Amplifying that has been distorted journalism, notably Park Slope Progressives: “No Brunching While Black" in the online Kings County Politics (KCP), written by the notoriously unprofessional (and ethically dubious) Stephen Witt, who ignores counter-evidence as well as other reasons for the SLA’s crackdown.

The controversy has grown. Council Member Brad Lander and Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon, two (white) elected officials, have charged that Woodland owner Akiva Ofshtein, “who is white, chose to hire a lobbyist”—presumably the vocal Lewis—"to manufacture a race issue for his own profit, rather than simply be a good neighbor.”

(State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who’s black, has joined Lander and Simon in previous letters calling for Woodland’s liquor license to be revoked.)

Well, Woodland does have a (previously unreported) $7,500/month lobbyist, though not Lewis, and the controversy includes the alleged involvement of felons and a seeming effort to erase their role. But let’s first consider the contrasting frames.

Externalizing impacts from a busy, boozy brunch

What if most Woodland visitors have a raucous good time, behaving reasonably when they exit, thus neither causing nor observing untoward neighborhood impacts?

But what if—despite posted signs urging “Please respect our neighbors/Keep all noise to a minimum and leave the premises quietly”—the bar’s operating practices mean some patrons over-imbibe and take it outside, thus provoking complaints based on Woodland's business model, not patrons’ identity?

After all, Woodland features a six-hour brunch on Saturdays, and a nine-hour one on Sundays, featuring two hours of bottomless mimosas and a DJ “spinning hip hop, R&B, reggae and soca,” as one Yelp user put it. “Their 2PM is like other places 1am, meaning its lit,” another Yelp user commented approvingly last year.

Descriptions from Woodland fans suggest operations that push the envelope. A happy brunch attendee in New York magazine’s “The Cut”--which did a "Look Book" of celebratory visitors--this May described people “drinking gallons” of mimosas and a 30-minute wait for bathrooms.

Another brunch-goer, in February 2018, cited “Woodland's ‘adult-friendly’ aka heavy pour policy,” the “very club-like atmosphere basement,” the “long and slow line for the bathroom,” a crowd “at capacity and then some,” plus “chaotic traffic” outside.

Given such practices, despite Adams’s claim that “it’s a well-managed place,” it's plausible that some Woodland impacts might spill onto adjacent residential streets, as sworn affidavits allege, and that the NYPD's 78th Precinct, according to its Commanding Officer, “frequently assign[s] a police car to the premises during the weekend days and nights to prevent violence.”

Adams, the former NYPD Captain and Brooklyn’s first black Borough President, claims to be “extremely conservative” on crime and once said he would “out-white” a mayoral rival to woo voters (as cited in my op-ed last year for City & State).

In this case, he seems to be prioritizing racial solidarity, and/or perhaps a relationship with owners of restaurants—and their politically-connected lawyer—that he’s rented for some fundraisers.

Animus toward Woodland’s demographic?

What about alleged local animus towards Woodland’s demographic? Well, two adjacent bars along Flatbush, Bleachers and Sugarcane, attract a predominantly black customer base, as does BK 9, a block away at Fifth Avenue, but have not provoked such complaints.

As one neighbor stated in an affidavit attached to a companion state court case:
We often hear and see very loud music, drunk and disorderly conduct… We also often see people standing in the line openly smoking marijuana even though there are often small children walking with their parents in the middle of the afternoon. We have also witnessed people fighting on the sidewalk… I have lived in the neighborhood for 15 years so I was here before Woodland and prior to the current ownership, the corner was a very pleasant place to be. We have been patrons of Sugarcane for years.
(As with other affiants, she didn’t cite her own racial identity nor that of Woodland’s patrons, but she and her husband are black.)

Those charging racism do not cite specific evidence, but seem to argue that (allegedly spurious) complaints from mostly white neighbors constitutes racism.

In Witt’s first Woodland article, Council Member Lander offered a response: “While it is always important to be attentive to implicit biases"--a reference, it seems, to the unfortunate history of a majority white society policing ordinary black life--"the fundamental issue here is that the bar has created a loud, destructive, and potentially dangerous environment.”

Lander noted that other bars serve a similar clientele without generating such concern. But Witt gave the rebuttal to Ofshtein and Lewis.

(I have a long history of tangling with Witt, who was such a supporter of Atlantic Yards he once gave developer Bruce Ratner a bear hug. I should acknowledge Kings County Politics and Witt have aggressively covered the city’s dubious third-party transfer program.)

What about the questionable ownership?

Moreover, the SLA’s belated effort to pull Woodland’s liquor license—officially held by an entity called Prime Six—goes beyond neighbors’ complaints. Some purported violations may be, as Woodland contends, distorted. But the most serious charge relies on seemingly documented evidence: ownership of Woodland’s operating entity Prime Six has involved felons, which is forbidden.

The alleged business involvement of twin brothers (and felons) Robert and Zhan Petrosyants was aired two-and-a-half years ago by DNAinfo, but did not until this year provoke SLA action.

They in 2014 pleaded guilty in Brooklyn federal court to operating medical billing companies that filed no-fault accident claims with insurance companies, using a web of shell companies to launder funds through a Flushing-based check cashing business.

DNAinfo in February 2017 cited evidence that the Petrosyantses, who faced federal charges levied in 2012, were owners of the nightspot. For example, a $1,000 campaign contribution in June 2013 from Robert Petrosyants to Adams’s campaign for Borough President listed him as a Woodland owner.

DNAinfo also noted that a 2016 lawsuit alleging that Ofshtein and the Petrosyants diverted investors’ money into existing restaurants, as well as “personal” use by the twins (who according to that suit owed more than $600,000 in a federal forfeiture agreement), cited the twins as having an ownership stake in Woodland. (The suit also says Ofshtein failed the disclose the twins’ criminal charges. Response papers deny the allegations; the case—which has been narrowed significantly, in a win for the defense--is pending.)

Today, Woodland denies the connection, with a deflection. In the separate court case aimed to stay the SLA’s effort to pull Woodland’s liquor license, the bar owner states: "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.”

That, of course, does not address whether the twins had any previous ownership. Though the New York Post reported that Ofshtein “declined to comment” on that issue, some evidence points to past ownership. A Yelp screenshot from “two years ago”—some time in 2017–shows a response from Robert P., identified as “business owner.”

Also, a former page (now empty) on the website for American Standard Hospitality Group, an LLC established in July 2015 with Ofshtein's law firm as conduit, cites “restaurants owned” by the group, including Woodland, and calls Woodland the first restaurant the brothers "established."

Screenshots suggest Petrosyantses owned Woodland
Sometime after I wrote about that page on 5/1/18, it vanished, but I downloaded it on 4/30/18.  It's excerpted at right and embedded at the bottom. (It spells their name as Petrosyan.)

Contrasting frames

That suggests another angle on the controversy WPIX-TV last month distilled into Black patrons see racist overtones in challenge to liquor license of popular Park Slope brunch spot. What if news coverage highlighted the felon question, the owner’s tax arrears, or the lawsuit against the bar’s three alleged principals? If so, perhaps the most important color here is green.

It may be, as the Black Institute argues in a new report, the SLA and city agencies have a record targeting locations serving people of color. In this case, though, the state authority has arguably been dilatory, given longstanding evidence that Woodland ignored license stipulations made with CB 6.

In March 2018, Community Board 6 Chair Sayar Lonial asked local elected officials, according to Bklyner, to push the State Liquor Authority regarding Woodland, because “We sent letters to the SLA and the SLA actually says, ‘We don’t care, we’re collecting money.’ and they rubber-stamp this.” That’s not necessarily a “small yet powerful group,” as Ofshtein characterized his adversaries to Bklyner.

Concerns about Woodland have been steady; Community Board 6 has been increasingly critical. "They're so inebriated they don't know what they're doing," Patch reported board member Pauline Blake saying at the March 2018 meeting. (Blake, by the way, is black.)

As Bklyner reported, after CB 6 at that meeting voted against recommending renewal of Woodland’s liquor license, Ofshtein said managers had added a security guard at the corner of residential Sixth and St. Marks avenues on weekends, as well as crowd control barriers, but was unwilling to shorten brunch hours.

The SLA pursued limited enforcement. 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 pressure grew. The SLA, in a 6/7/19 press release headlined SLA ISSUES EMERGENCY SUSPENSION FOR BROOKLYN BAR, said it intended to revoke Woodland's license, citing 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.”

The Emergency Order of Suspension was mooted after Woodland went to court, gaining a temporary restraining order, as Bklyner reported.

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." The risk was not so extraordinary to entitle the SLA "to circumvent a licensee’s due process rights," Woodland argued.

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

Though not part of the Emergency Order of Suspension, the SLA press release alleged other, more serious violations: disorderly operations, failure to abide by license stipulations, and allowing “undisclosed persons”—the Petrosyants—to operate the bar.

Those violations are the subject of the ongoing evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge, or ALJ. In legal papers, the SLA notes “over $50,000 in unpaid violations to various New York City agencies.”

The coverage sets the “racism” frame

Though a few news outlets, like Bklyner, have covered Woodland evenly, five Kings County Politics articles, especially Witt’s first, have stressed the “racism” defense. Park Slope Progressives: “No Brunching While Black” gained 21,000 hits soon after it was published July 3, then a link from a Black Institute alert urging people to attend an SLA hearing.

In it, Witt suggested that "Brunches after Sunday Church to Brooklyn’s African- and Caribbean-Americans is akin to Sunday lox and bagel brunches to secular Jews,” said “roped-off lines to get into the eatery on Sunday afternoons stretch peacefully around the corner of the commercial thoroughfare.” He quoted Ofshtein as saying Woodland was blamed unfairly. The article made no mention of license stipulations or the alleged role of felons.

Lewis told Witt: “It’s not about noise complaints or violence. It’s the [Brownstone Progressives] not wanting these people lining up on a commercial thoroughfare having fun. If it were hipsters it would be no problem. Race has always been an issue and it’s rearing its ugly head again.”

Similarly, in a recent podcast interview with Witt, Adams blamed racism and decried “the destruction of a legitimate business in the city.” Last year, Adams responded to complaints about Woodland, as I wrote, by saying, “I’m not going to be closing people down because folks are saying, ‘I don’t like the way customers look.’

Beyond the rhetoric

Despite such rhetoric, and some comments on the “Save Black Brunch” petition launched by The Black Institute (with more than 3,000 signatories), the Woodland case doesn’t fit simple tropes.

As noted, other businesses appealing to black patrons have not faced such pushback.

Also, it’s no black-owned business under siege: Ofshtein and his alleged partners are white.

At a rally July 24 before an evidentiary hearing held by a SLA administrative law judge, one Black Institute protester held a sign urging “Protect M/WBEs,” an organizational priority regarding Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises. (A few online commenters have contended that, because Woodland isn’t black-owned, customers should go elsewhere.)

Though the New York Post quoted a Woodland backer calling criticism “gentrification at its worst,” this doesn't involve persnickety new gentrifiers—people who “probably just got there in a week,” Adams snarked—who've imposed new standards, or invoked previously under-enforced rules, on a venerable institution.

Rather, many neighbors (some of them black or other people of color) have lived there for years, and Woodland is the newcomer—the space was previously a video store—embracing new nightlife opportunities near the Barclays Center. It opened in 2012 and, according to the SLA, had been “licensed for less than a year before it started engaging in continuous misconduct and flagrant abuse” of state laws and rules.

In some ways, Woodland might be likened to the arena itself: both are a very tight fit, encroaching on residential districts and creating externalities. (Yes, Barclays has had less impact than once feared, but still vexes the nearest neighbors: that’s why city zoning requires a cordon around such sports facilities, which in this case was waived, given a state override of zoning.)

At least 108 reviews on Yelp describe Woodland as “loud,” often precluding conversation. Contrast that with Witt's report, headlined My Experience At the Woodland Brunch, which described, upon approaching, the “very low sound of the music inside” and later an opportunity for “thought-provoking conversation” inside.

Several online reviews and comments affectionately call the brunch “ratchet.” While “ratchet” has softened from its original definition as “ghetto, real, gutter, nasty,” as explained by The Cut in “The Rap Insult That Became a Compliment,” it suggests a less than decorous event.

What the neighbors affirm

In the podcast, Adams—a 2021 mayoral candidate—recalled hearing one neighbor claim someone urinated in front of his house. “So you went and you tested the urine and it came from Woodland?” Adams scoffed, as he and his hosts (including Witt) shared a laugh.

Neighbors’ affidavits paint a more troubling picture. One 17-year resident on residential St. Marks Avenue wrote that “living across from Woodland… has seriously detracted from our quality of life,” including regular noise and smoking. (According to the license stipulation with CB 6, outside cigarette smoking was supposed to be allowed only on Flatbush Avenue with sand-based cigarette receptacles.)

A 13-year resident said the bottomless brunch “regularly results in customers leaving the premises and vomiting or defecating on my stoop” and cited “drunk driving by customers - and fights as they return to their cars.”

A 26-year resident of Prospect Place, one block beyond St. Marks, wrote that, “especially in warm weather, the loud music and shouting are audible inside my home even when all the windows are fully closed, and air conditioners are in use.”

A seven-year resident, who arrived the year Woodland opened, wrote that “Men and women regularly pee on the sidewalk even in the middle of the day!”, unnerving her young children, and people drink “cocktails (in cups and glasses from the restaurant) or drink straight from liquor bottles in front of our house.”

In the summer of 2017, the neighbor concluded that a Woodland staffer had, during late night hours, “defecated in the tree pit in front of our house on at least 20 different occasions.” (Only after video footage was taken to the police and Woodland management did it stop.)

Are those representative? The New York Post found a neighbor saying the noise was no problem. A few signing the Black Institute petition say they’re Park Slopers welcoming Woodland.

While some affidavits clearly identify Woodland-related incidents, other neighbors testifying before the SLA, according to an Ofshtein affirmation, could not be certain people they saw came from Woodland. So the evidence must be tested under cross-examination and evaluated by the ALJ.

Ofshtein notes that, regarding a separate case filed last year, two undercover SLA inspections, totaling 5.5 hours in November 2018, found no patrons over-served. Nor was Woodland on the “chronic noise list” for May 2019, according to a police sergeant’s testimony.

A “small business”?

Woodland’s no major corporation, but Ofshtein’s use of the term “small business” does not mean a small, standalone entity. It’s part of American Standard Hospitality Group, which currently runs four restaurants, an “investment and brand management company operating restaurants with cuisine ranging from quick bites to Italian food, seafood, and Caribbean fare.”

In the court case, Ofshtein has argued that losing the liquor license will force Woodland to close and undermine his operating entity’s emergence from bankruptcy. As of February 2018, according to a Bankruptcy Court document, it owed more than $965,000 in back taxes to state and federal authorities. Since October 2018, once the reorganization plan was approved, all monthly Chapter 11 payments have been paid, according to Ofshtein’s affirmation.

Woodland’s hosted numerous political fundraisers, as the DNAinfo reported in February 2017, including several black elected officials, as well as Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In the past year, Woodland and sibling restaurants have been rented for fundraisers for Brooklyn Council candidate Farah Louis, Queens DA candidate Mina Malik, and Adams’s 2021 mayoral campaign.

A well-connected lawyer

Woodland, in litigation terms, is well-connected. Its lawyer in the state case is Abrams Fensterman's Frank Carone, president of the Brooklyn Bar Association, which, along with the Brooklyn Democratic Party, has a significant role in elevating or electing judges. Carone is the former law partner of Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair Frank Seddio.

In April, a Daily News article described Carone “as a central architect behind the city’s $173 million real estate deal with the notorious Podolsky brothers” to acquire homeless shelters, and said he’s “enjoyed unfettered access to City Hall since Mayor de Blasio took office in 2014.” (Carone's connection to a bank involved with the Podolsky brothers and de Blasio mortgages has also raised questions.)

More recently, the Daily News reported how Adams, like his predecessor Marty Markowitz, uses a nonprofit to raise money from entities that otherwise couldn’t contribute as much to his campaigns; Carone’s law firm gave Adams’s One Brooklyn nonprofit between $5,000 and $19,999, while Carone gave Adams’s campaign the maximum $5,100.

Hiring a lobbyist?

What about the “hiring a lobbyist” charge? Though Ofshtein’s charged racism for years, not until recently did Lewis, former leader of the advocacy group New York ACORN and now heading the “action tank” Black Institute, amplify that argument.

Lewis has been known to advocate for those with which she has financial relationships, including Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner, which bailed out national ACORN. She’s been paid—or her organization has been funded—to advocate keeping plastic bags and fight a waste transfer station, both of which raised some eyebrows.

Did Ofshtein hire Lewis? She’s not listed in either the city nor state lobbying databases. Still, something’s murky. As Bklyner reported, “Ofshtein did not respond when asked if he enlisted support from the Black Institute.”

Tom Musich, a Black Institute spokesman said in response to my query, “The Black Institute has not been hired by Woodland or any entity connected to Woodland. We got involved because we've seen other businesses shut down in similar situations. We're concerned with the racial motivations by those urging the SLA to revoke Woodland's license.”

Asked whether Ofshtein sought out Lewis, or about any financial connection between Woodland and the Black Institute, Musich did not respond.

Later, The Black Institute circulated notice of an August 16 fundraiser hosted at Woodland, “Dekad Lifestyle Social Justice IS Luxurious cover party featuring TBI's Founder and President Bertha Lewis,” who is being interviewed in the publication.

And a different lobbyist is getting paid. As of July 1, Ofshtein’s holding company, Prime Six, began a three-month, $7,500/month contract with Mercury Public Affairs--ranked 8th on City & State's Power 50 list--regarding “government affairs and issues management,” city and state databases show.

The named lobbyist is Mercury partner Charlie King, a former advisor to Rev. Al Sharpton and Acting National Director for Sharpton’s National Action Network. That makes it less surprising that the Black Institute was joined by the National Action Network and representatives of Black Lives Matter at the July 24 rally.


Finding discriminatory patterns

The Black Institute’s crusade comes not without foundation. Enforcement agencies have misapplied the (now defunct) Cabaret Law, using evidence of dancing to shut down clubs, as Vice reported in 2017, especially during the mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani.

A recent report by The Black Institute, Cabaret 2.0, alleges that today the city’s Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots (MARCH) operation—involving SLA, Fire Department, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, State Liquor Authority, Department of Environmental Protection, and Department of Buildings— unfairly target nightspots in minority neighborhoods.

They’re not the only critics. Last October, Brooklyn Council Members Steve Levin and Rafael Espinal introduced legislation “to bring oversight and accountability” to MARCH operations, and the Council in February conducted a hearing, as Gothamist reported. The new Black Institute report urges the Council to pass the bill, imposing “transparency, accountability, and oversight” on the MARCH program.

Black Institute spokesman Musich said: “We've long heard that from bars owned by or frequented by minority groups that the NYPD and SLA targeted them with MARCH raids. That's why we decided to look at the numbers and saw that there is little transparency when it comes to these operations. With the situation at Woodland we knew we needed to expedite this report and work on a solution that will benefit all businesses that have been affected by these discriminatory practices.”

(One bar cited is Ode to Babel in Prospect Heights—see coverage in New York magazine, under the headline claiming “Gentrification Threatened Their Bar,” as well as the comments, which complicate that shorthand.)

According to the new report, fewer than half (47.8%) of the 510 noise complaints regarding Woodland, and filed from January 1, 2014 through June 23, 2019 were substantiated by responding officers. Many of those complaints, Musich said, were filed in clusters on the same day.

It’s unclear, however, whether those vindicate Woodland. Musich, when queried, said that other bars nearby have had 37% of noise complaints substantiated: “The larger point is that these complaints are often made anonymously, are often done in rapid succession and go largely unscreened.” The report argues that complaints about actual crimes related to Woodland—see below—are not backed up by data.

"Instead of putting out inflammatory statements," the Black Institute said in response to the earlier statement ("manufacture a race issue") by Lander and Simon, "these elected officials should look at the numbers and the data associated with MARCH operations so they can see the discriminatory practices that they are supporting."

Ofshtein told Witt: “Every time the Department of Environmental Protection enforcement agents came to the restaurant they said the noise level didn’t break the sound levels that merit tickets.” Though not insignificant, the DEP is hardly nimble; it substantiated only a few noise complaints regarding the Barclays Center, but the residential developers around the arena commissioned a new green roof to tamp down sound.

A follow-up Witt article--initially headlined “'No Clubbing While Black' Controversy Grows,” then revised to “Do Nightclubs Get Separate & Unequal Treatment?” --contrasted the Woodland crackdown with a friendly effort by the City’s Office of Nightlife and Department of Health to reach “predominantly white hipster bars in Williamsburg and Bushwick to offer naloxone — a medication that reverses opioid overdoses — and staff training.” That, however, did not allege specific violations at the 250 bars involved.

A recent Sunday; a police vehicle outside
“There is this narrative that Woodland is this crazy place, but when I was there, I didn’t see it,” Council Member Espinal told Witt upon visiting.

He surely didn’t. But it’s also likely Woodland may be operating with caution at times; that day, the Black Institute was shooting a video.

Managing the issues, ignoring the ownership

Not only has press coverage too often been shallow or misleading, the Woodland dispute—notably the depth of neighbors’ concerns, as well as questions about ownership—has gotten far less attention than it merits.

Instead, the web site Patch suggested in a July 24 “concerns of racial prejudice were why activists from The Black Institute, Black Lives Matter, National Action Network and patrons organized a rally.” More evidence will be heard on August 20—such hearings before an ALJ aren’t webcast—and that judge’s findings will later be presented at a public, webcast meeting of the SLA commissioners.

The coverage reflects the dwindling number of locally-focused reporters, plus—I suspect—the reticence to tackle a topic that doesn't easily fit the tropes. (Remember: after a white owner of the new bar Summerhill in gentrifying Crown Heights misleadingly highlighted “bullet holes” in the space, that provoked protests, and nine articles in Gothamist.) DNAinfo unfortunately was shut down in November 2017.

What about dancing?

New York has recently repealed the Cabaret Law, but dancing is allowed only in particular commercial locations (thus excluding Woodland), and requires a change in the liquor license. Woodland's initial 10-year lease, expiring April 30, 2020, states "No cabaret shall be permitted," according to a previous filing in bankruptcy court.

Responding to SLA charges that Woodland permitted dancing, a Woodland affidavit replied somewhat evasively: “Prime Six does not maintain a dance floor.”

Then again, Yelp has 81 reviews mentioning dancing. New York magazine's photo essay stated "The Flatbush Avenue restaurant hosts a weekend daytime dance party.”

What about bottle service?

In a 2011 stipulation from the Community Board, Woodland, according to the CB, agreed to “No hard liquor bottle service.”

The SLA has charged that "Prime Six… advertises hard liquor bottle service all in violation of community board stipulations.” In an affidavit, manager Yamasaki responded that Prime Six has not had hard liquor bottle service since his tenure began in June 2017. (The Robert P. comment on Yelp from "two years ago" cited “bottle service.”)

A tangled history

Woodland emerged as entrepreneurs recognized that the area near the Barclays Center would draw new crowds and foot traffic.

As the building was being remodeled, the Brooklyn Paper in March 2011 reported that Ofshtein had told locals that Prime Six, as it was then to be called, would be "a local eatery.” Separately, “he told state liquor officials that the two-story, 230-person 'lounge,' will hire four 'security guards,' offer 'bottle service' and have an outdoor 'stand-up bar.’” Facebook and MySpace pages pointed to basketball and a hip-hop crowd, as the Brooklyn Paper reported.

That provoked some purported pushback. In a March 2011 article headlined Flatbush Avenue freakout: How a race-baiting hoax hooked Bobo Brooklyn, briefly, Capital NY (now Politico) cited a purported online petition fighting the club:
The petition, signed by a “Jennifer McMillen,” urged the owner to “embrace indie music” over a “full-on hip hop club,” although there hadn’t been any previous discussion of it being a rap lounge.

“It's not ‘racist’ to equate hip-hop with an elevated crime rate vis-a-vis other types of musical genres - It's just a statistical fact that crime is more likely to occur among urban audiences than among audiences of other demographics,” the petition read.
The sparked a backlash and positioned Ofshtein, “who had never envisioned a ‘hip hop club’,” as a victim of racism, as Capital reported.

But was that instigator real? No one could identify McMillen. At least one online commenter blamed Ofshtein himself, with no proof. Curiously, in an example of online jiu jitsu, posted comments on Woodland-related articles sometimes include purported neighbors poking Park Slope critics, as in “Dear Racist Neighbor.”

Before opening in February 2012, Ofshtein promised the Brooklyn Paper a "nice cozy restaurant," a farm-to-table eatery. That didn’t happen. “We intended it to start out as a restaurant,” he recently told Witt. “We’re glad to have everybody as a customer, but the clientele shifted to African- and Caribbean-American, but since day one the community and local electeds have been nitpicking about anything and everything.”

About the hearing

The protest organized for the July 24 SLA hearing drew some cameras—and contention. A tweet by WPIX-TV’s Andrew Ramos showed a photo of an empty waiting room, saying “As many as 20 Woodland supporters were on hand to attend the public SLA hearing but have been turned away.”

He wrote, “It’s unclear why they denied access to supporters to something that was billed a public hearing.”

SLA spokesman Bill Crowley said the issue was not the capacity of the waiting room, but the hearing room, which was full, given the presence of various lawyers and parties.

He said that such hearings—which typically attract little notice—are open to press and the Aug. 20 hearing may be moved to a larger space, if planned renovations are finished, to accommodate the audience. (The invitation from The Black Institute: “Join us… to testify in favor of Woodland and show the State Liquor Authority that it is a positive fixture in the community.”)

What do the police say

Manager Yamasaki, in an affidavit, claimed Woodland had “a very good reputation with the local police precinct.” Adams, on the recent podcast, said he met with the “police inspector”—the title of the 78th Precinct’s previous Commanding Officer—who “said he’s not having any crimes come from the place.”

In an affidavit, Lewis stated that she'd been to Woodland several times: “To my knowledge, there have not been any serious incidents at Woodland. There is a security detail present at all times so that patrons feel safe.”

By contrast, an affidavit from Captain Jason P. Hagestad, Commanding Officer of the 78th Precinct, stated that officers report that “patrons frequently leave in an intoxicated and rowdy condition” and that they “have seen chronic noise, parking issues, public vomiting, lewd acts, patrons passing out from over-intoxication.”

“Despite the tremendous efforts of the residents, we have seen very little improvement in the level of noise being emitted, the drunken behavior of patrons leaving the brunch, fights, screaming, loud noise and other quality of life issues,” he stated. “This has been a topic at most monthly Community Council Meetings since my appointment.” As I wrote in May 2018, one attendee reported seeing a drunk man exit the bar around 5 pm, urinate on a car, and then drive off.

Then again, the Cabaret 2.0 report states that, at a previous SLA hearing, a NYPD rep cited “several crimes rumored to have taken place but offered no evidence, police reports or arrest records or anything that tied any incidents back to [Woodland] directly.” That obviously must be evaluated by the ALJ.

I’d note that, in October 2016, DNAinfo reported on two arrests: a fight outside Woodland after a customer was escorted out, and a customer who tried to fight a bouncer. In September 2017, Bklyner reported on a "large brawl on the sidewalk in front of Woodland and Bleachers" on a Thursday night, and a stabbing at 3 am on a Sunday one block from Woodland, though it wasn't clear where the incident began.

Deteriorating discourse

The discourse, often based on secondhand or slanted information, had deteriorated. Former Council Member Sal Albanese on July 28 tweeted, “in case u missed it, the chutzpah award has to go to @bradlander 4 trying to close a café in Park Slope owned by an African American & frequented by mostly black patrons. He accused owner of using race 2 stay open. That's coming from a white guy who's a chronic race panderer.”

That prompted Lander to tweet to “correct this total lie: Woodlands has a WHITE owner, who has hired a lobbyist to manufacture a race issue rather than just clean up his act & be a good neighbor after 4 years of complaints.”

Albanese acknowledged error, but said he’d take the word of Bertha Lewis—“an African American Woman who champions black businesses in NY”— “over yours.” A few others defended Lander.

Things quieted down until Kings County Politics interviewed Adams and turned his comments, unrebutted, into an article. (The controversy was cited in capsule summaries in City & State New York's 2019 Brooklyn Power 100, published yesterday, regarding Simon and Lewis.) Given the hearing tomorrow, expect the Woodland discourse to revive.

A bitter battle in court

Dueling documents called affirmations paint a bitter battle in state Supreme Court between lawyers for the SLA and those representing Woodland regarding the temporary restraining order staying the SLA’s action.

Lawyers for Woodland aim to disqualify SLA attorney Margarita Marsico. During an oral argument, Marsico, according to her affirmation, stated that her adversary Carone told the judge he’d been to a function at Woodland, found no problems, and thought there was “a racial animus” to the neighbors complaints.

By contrast, Marsico continued, SLA representatives had observed loud music while visiting Woodland, as had she, while walking by. “I later saw people walking down the street while holding plastic glasses and I saw a person urinating in public in the rear of the premises.” She contended that was a “fair and necessary rebuttal” to Carone.

“I further informed the court the Petitioner owes the New York City Department of Buildings and the New York City Fire Department over $40,000 in fines and has not cleared any of the violations,” she said, adding that she thought Ofshtein, a lawyer, “should be held to a higher standard in complying with fire safety laws.”

After the oral argument, she reported, Carone called her "a fucking liar” and continued to curse her.

Carone, in response, said he called her a “liar” after she “slandered my client not as a licensee, but in his capacity as an attorney.” (He didn’t address the other alleged language.) “My client’s role as an attorney has nothing to do with his status as a licensee.”

He said Marsico’s effort to serve as witness and attorney would prejudice the case against his client, especially since her claim to see intoxicated patrons contrasted with an SLA investigator’s statements.

(Adams, in the podcast interview, showed uncanny familiarity with the case, saying the SLA was “taking it personally, the lawyer,” and pursuing “the destruction of a legitimate business.”)

As to his general comment about Woodland, Carone said he hadn’t vouched for the premises as safe but rather argued “there was no emergency warranting a pre-hearing shutdown,” based on Prime Six’s legal submissions.

As of now, Judge Peter Sweeney hasn’t ruled on the motion for disqualification.

Comments

  1. Anonymous9:18 AM

    As an African American resident in this neighborhood and can validate the concerns of the community regarding Woodland's bad acting. Their operation is comically out of control. Sex on streets, defecation on porches, fighting, drug dealing. The list goes on. Eric Adams seems to be compromised as a public figure. Something smells here.

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