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State Liquor Authority pulls Woodland’s license, after many years of controversy (and popular "black brunch"); judge calls bar “Public Nuisance No. 1"

Updated with photos from 1/5/20.

Woodland 1/3/20
The controversial bar/nightclub/restaurant Woodland, at Sixth and Flatbush Avenues on the edge of Park Slope, had its liquor license canceled as of yesterday, Jan. 3, by the State Liquor Authority. (See notice below and at bottom.)

That document was issued two weeks after the SLA voted to uphold an administrative law judge who’d sustained numerous charges, after a multi-month hearing process.

The charges included a disorderly premises, offering a DJ and dancing without a permit, serving illegally decanted alcoholic beverages, and becoming a focal point for police attention.

The judge, after hearing testimony from neighbors, police, and SLA investigators, cited “a sustained and continuing pattern of relentless and unreasonable noise, unruly drunken patrons, loud crowds, filth such as vomit, urine, and feces.” (One factoid: noise from Woodland was audible inside the 78th Precinct, more than a block away.)

The SLA even reversed the judge and found that licensee Akiva Ofshtein of Prime Six had improperly made the license available to partners with a felony record, rather than merely hiring them as managers, as the defense claimed.

In that interim period, adding to the bar’s troubled reputation, Woodland was linked to a violent crime on Sunday, 12/22/19. WPIX TV reported that police said a dispute began at around 8:30 pm inside the bar and spilled outside: one man was attacked by a group, and was punched, kicked, and later slashed.

Woodland 1/5/20
Woodland was shuttered yesterday, its website is down, and its Facebook page and Google page say “permanently closed,” though a separate lawsuit remains in state court. If Woodland remains closed, that marks the end of a multi-year dispute, in which many nearby neighbors, backed by Community Board 6 and local elected officials, complained of noise, rowdiness, and unresponsive management.

Impacts from the bar--essentially a daytime nightclub on weekends, even fans said--forced some neighbors to sleep outside their bedrooms to avoid noise, stop having guests, and explain to their young children some very adult activities, according to testimony.

A racial framing adds to the tension

While the venue, with a mostly African-American and Caribbean-American clientele (though not ownership), gained widespread notice for a joyous, raucous DJ-fueled “black brunch,” the two hours of bottomless mimosas and long waits for bathrooms could result in significant externalities, including public urination and defecation.

Licensee Ofshtein, backed by the Bertha Lewis-led “action tank” The Black Institute (which launched a #saveblackbrunch petition with more than 3300 signatures), a lobbyist, and Borough President Eric Adams, attributed neighbors’ opposition simply to racism.

That charge was amplified in some irresponsible press accounts, notably the 7/3/19 Park Slope Progressives: “No Brunching While Black”, the most-viewed 2019 story on Stephen Witt’s Kings County Politics web site. In that and other articles, Witt portrayed Woodland as an island of placidity.

The reality was more complicated, as I wrote 8/19/19, citing neighbors' affidavits in a state court case. Indeed, though the city has a history of selective enforcement, as the Black Institute argued in its Cabaret 2.0 report, other nearby bars with mostly black patrons didn’t prompt the same concerns. And those criticizing Woodland included black neighbors.

As I wrote, descriptions from Woodland fans suggested operations that push the envelope. A happy brunch attendee in New York magazine’s “The Cut” last 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.

That said, there's no reason "black brunch" couldn't resume elsewhere, under different conditions.

The hearing adds evidence

The hearing process took copious sworn testimony not just from neighbors but the State Liquor Authority’s own investigators. That led Administrative Law Judge Rosanne M. Harvey, in an 82-page opinion dated 11/12/19, to call Woodland “Public Nuisance No. 1.” (The opinion is also at bottom.)

The SLA order, page 1
“I find that the record contains substantial evidence to establish Woodland as the most problematic bar in the area and the only one offering a bottomless brunch,” Harvey wrote. (Actually, Piquant offers a 90-minute pour.)

“Finally, I note that these witnesses, who are residents of the surrounding area, all have something that the licensee, Mr. Ofshtein lacks: a right as distinct from Mr. Ofshtein’s mere privilege to hold a liquor license," she wrote. "These residents have a right to the peaceful and quiet enjoyment of their property, undisturbed by Mr. Ofshtein’s irresponsible use of his privilege to operate a bar.”

(Emphases in original)

SLA thinks it's clear


“I have yet to see this many people from a community” testify at a hearing, SLA Chairman Vincent Bradley said at the authority's 12/18/19 meeting. (The Woodland segment starts around 3:02:45 of the video.)

SLA order, page 2
“It's obvious that this place has negatively affected their lives ever since they started using DJs and did bottomless brunches," Bradley said, "and it was obvious that the owner, as well as the managers, were made aware of it on multiple occasions by the police and the residents, and basically stuck his nose up.” Another sustained charge involves regular use of Woodland's back exit, onto residential St. Marks Avenue, for non-emergencies.

“I just don't see any reason why this place should continue operating when it's obvious that he has absolutely no respect for the community, his neighbors, or us for that matter,” Bradley said.

These findings likely will remain contested—Woodland’s lawyer told the SLA his side was denied a fair hearing—but the decisions and evidence so far validate not just the neighbors but the stance taken by Council Member Brad Lander, Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, and state Senator Velmanette Montgomery. They also represent a rather belated response by the SLA, given that, for example, DNAinfo published a damning article 2/1/17.

(Council Member Rafael Espinal and Assemblymember Walter Mosley have backed the Black Institute's report alleging discriminatory enforcement, while Adams has long defended Woodland.)

For now, Woodland’s parent, American Standard Hospitality Group, no longer lists Woodland or any restaurant on its website, but rather now highlights catering and events. That may mean the licenses of the other American Standard Hospitality Group restaurants, Forno Rosso Pizzeria and Wallabout Seafood, have been jeopardized, given that Ofshtein was also the licensee. The State Liquor Authority’s web site indicates those licenses are active as of now.

Woodland’s defense

At the hearing, Lee Jacobs, attorney for Prime Six, contended that the penalty “cannot be assessed” because the hearing was adjourned--after several days of testimony by prosecution witnesses--in violation “of my client’s due process rights.”

He said that he was unprepared to go forward on the day he was supposed to present his case before the administrative law judge because the three witnesses that had been scheduled to testify instead preferred to present affidavits, and he hadn’t had time to address that because of a last-minute upheaval at his law firm.

It was known, Jacobs said, that the manager of Prime Six, Pedro Yamasaki, was expected to testify, but at another hearing date, given that Yamasaki was out of the country when the bar was expected to first present its case.

Woodland 1/5/20. Van from
American Standard Hosp. Group
Jacobs said that, had he been able to go forward, he would have submitted news reports and blog posts that said that the noise and community concerns were not triggered solely by Woodland, and that one Woodland patron and two representatives of the Black Institute would have attested to the positive impact of the venue. He noted that the SLA called 12 witnesses at four separate hearing dates.

Was his client Ofshtein present when the judge refused the adjournment, an SLA member asked.

Yes, Jacobs said.

“Why not put him on?”

“He did not want to take the stand,” Jacobs responded. “It was not part of our—the case strategy at that time.” He noted that the manager had been expected to testify.

Bradley said that the situation, partially the law firm’s own making, “doesn't relieve you of your obligations.”

Managers, or owners?

The SLA Commissioners sustained almost all of the judge’s findings, except it overturned her finding that the evidence was insufficient to sustain the charge of availing, or Ofshtein making the license available to twin brothers Robert and Zhan Petrosyants, who in 2014 pleaded guilty to money laundering. (People with felony records can't get a liquor license, but can work at a bar.)

Harvey said the record revealed that Ofshtein hired them to manage the bar $10,000 a month, but did not establish ownership interest.

The SLA Commissioners examined the evidence themselves. The management agreement put into the record gave the Petrosyants “control of every aspect of the business,” one SLA member said.

“The management agreement states what the management agreement states,” Jacobs responded. “But if Mr. Yamasaki was to come to the stand and testify, he would have testified otherwise.” He said the agreement was out of date.

Judge Harvey didn’t uphold the allegation, noting that charge of partnership relied, in part, on uncorroborated allegations in a court file, as well as a DNAinfo article for which the proper evidentiary foundation had not been established.
From NYC Campaign Finance Board

(That seems to me a bit of Keystone Kops performance by SLA prosecutors, because, rather than quoting the article, the SLA could’ve just searched the city’s database to see that a 2013 contribution to Adams’s Borough President campaign from Robert Petrosyants cited him as Woodland’s owner, as shown in the screenshot at right. Adams has held a fundraiser at Woodland, and also at associated restaurants, DNAinfo reported. Moreover, I found a page, since vanished, on the American Standard Hospitality Group web site, excerpted below, that indicated that the brothers established Woodland as their first venture.)

But the management agreement was apparently dispositive. “It seems to me in that agreement, the owner gave away pretty much every obligation that an owner has to those two brothers,” SLA Chairman Bradley said. “Whether that happened or not, they have that right under the agreement, which, in the face of the law seems to me to be illegal… I think that management agreement is not a management agreement. It amounts to a partnership agreement.”

From previous American Standard
Hospitality Group web site
(Note: my query to defense lawyer Jacobs did not get a response.)

More on the hearing

Harvey's ruling cited hearing dates in May, June, July, August, and September. Besides residents, those present included representatives of two law firms representing Prime Six, representatives of the Black Institute, and representatives of elected officials Lander and Simon.

The standard of review in such an administrative proceeding is “substantial evidence,” which is less than the civil litigation standard of “preponderance” of the evidence, much less the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Harvey’s opinion quoted several residents, in sworn testimony or in affidavits, concerning the disturbance Woodland creates: loud music that could be heard in every room of an apartment; noise that forced one family to change their sleeping pattern, moving to one end of the apartment; and post-closing shouting by employees.

Disorderly and drunk patrons were common, and identifiably from Woodland since they carried doggy bags with the Woodland name, or verbally confirmed it. Residents observed vomiting, urination, and defecation, as well as regular pot smoking. One resident put a chain on her stoop, because, "when she has asked [those sitting] to leave, they became aggressive and threw garbage at her,” according to the judge. (Another resident, when questioned, said Woodland patrons were not confrontational.)

One resident reported being reluctant to entertain family and friends because of feces and vomit on sidewalk. Three daughters, under 11, talked constantly about the bar fights, and people vomiting and getting so drunk they cannot stand, a parent reported.

One neighbor said a nearby restaurant had put up a sign blaming Woodland patrons for breaking the toilet. An owner of nearby Brooklyn Larder said non-customers often sought to use their toilet, many of them drunk and leaving “disgusting messes.”

According to the judge, one resident reported that Ofshtein responded that neighbors couldn't prove that Woodland causes the problem and said he couldn't control actions of people outside the bar. Residents, queried on cross-examination, did acknowledge they live adjacent to a commercial area and there are other businesses and bars nearby.

SLA investigators and NYPD

Perhaps the most clear evidence came from two SLA investigators, Latasha Clanton and Matthew Davis, who visited the bar.

They both described very loud music, audible across broad Flatbush Avenue, a bar so packed it’s difficult to move, a DJ and dancing, pitchers of drinks, and no effort by Woodland staff to cut off patrons who were visibly drunk.

Davis cited a strong odor of marijuana inside, and a wall-to-wall crowd. “While awaiting his order," the judge wrote, "he observed another long line, this time within Woodland, and consisting of many patrons waiting to use the restrooms, many visibly drunk, displaying slurred speech, red eyes, unsteadiness, and an inability to stand without support from another.”

“He also observed the wait staff constantly refilling the patrons’ same small cups, and no one declining a refill, even though in his estimation, they were visibly drunk,” according to the decision. He described difficulty exiting the establishment and a line of patrons extending toward Fifth Avenue on St. Marks Avenue, with would-be patrons sitting on stoops, smoking and talking loudly.

Davis received an email from neighbor revealing that a Woodland employee had used a tree pit in front of her home to defecate at least 15 times, attracting flies and foul odors. The resident filmed the worker before reporting it to police.

Sgt. Anthony DiMichele, Neighborhood Coordination Officer for the 78th Precinct, observed large crowds, intoxicated patrons leaving, fights, disorderly groups spilling into the streets, and patrons in the street arguing and fighting.

The precinct has four cars for patrol, so devotion of one car to be stationed at Woodland has caused a depletion of resources, police said.

SLA Cancellation Order Woodland by Norman Oder on Scribd



Comments

  1. Anonymous1:53 PM

    i used to live upstairs from this place. i have to say, even though i don't live in the neighborhood anymore, i'm glad it's shut down. between the drunken fights out front every weekend (due to consistent overservice), the vomit on the sidewalk, and the over-the-top noise, they were terrible neighbors.

    They used to have a DJ and really loud amplified music in the backyard on weekends, which was a violation of their license. When we'd call and complain (b/c it was seriously, seriously loud), they responded by...turning it up.

    Sugarcane two doors down could get loud but if it got really bad and a neighbor called to let them know they'd actually, you know, do something about it. They were a great bar to have in the neighborhood. But this place just crapped all over the street, sometimes literally.

    You'll note that the decision to shut it down only mentions one count of pissing off the neighborhood. The rest are a litany of license violations, including stuff like the owner adding convicted felons as co-owners.

    ReplyDelete

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