June 9, 2014 By Christian Murray
A group of about 25 Long Island City residents attended Community Board 2’s monthly meeting last Thursday to express their desire for the board to be more flexible in allowing Vernon Boulevard restaurants to open up their backyard space.
The discussion was tense, with several people—including board members–raising their voices.
The board was resistant to the group’s goals, although Patrick O’Brien, chairman of the City Service/Public Safety Committee, said his committee was working on guidelines that would help determine whether an establishment should be given the right to use its rear yard space.
Jeff Blath, the owner of Vernon Blvd-based Alobar, was the first proponent for a more flexible policy to speak. “I am here to talk about the moratorium on backyard seating on Vernon Blvd,” he said.
Blath said that he had spoken to some of the restaurant owners in the area and that they had put together some guidelines of their own–which they all believed to be fair.
Blath said the owners were willing to compromise as to hours, enforce a no-smoking policy, and ensure that there wouldn’t be any speaker systems in the backyard. Furthermore, he said, the owners would all be in compliance with the Buildings Dept.
“We are not looking to party all night in our backyards,” Blath said.
However, Joe Conley, the chair of Community Board 2, took exception to Blath’s statement about a moratorium on rear yard seating. “There is no such thing as a moratorium on outside cafes in Long Island City. Are we clear about that?”
Conley said Dominie’s Hoek and L.I.C. Bar, which are both located on Vernon Blvd, have outdoor space. He said that both establishments have to go before the board every two years as part of their liquor license “renewal” and get their outdoor space approved.
Conley said the board listens intently to every application. “We listen…to those [people] who live below it and above it [the establishment], and that has been the process,” Conley said.
“This whole movement [claiming there is this] corrupt community board putting on a moratorium…and is hurting businesses… is ridiculous and it has to stop,” Conley said, as he thumped his fist on the table.
However, proponents for outdoor seating argue that it is the “new applications” on Vernon Blvd that are being rejected and that there isn’t a level playing field. They say the new businesses that are coming to Vernon Boulevard are at a disadvantage.
Prior to the meeting, the proponents cited how Woodbines and the L’inizio, the new pizza store about to open on Vernon, had to forgo the use of their backyard in order to get a liquor or beer/wine license. Furthermore, they cited how Blend was unable to use its yard.
Currently, the 51st Street Bakery & Café, located at 5-33 51st Avenue café , has been waiting to hear whether it will be permitted to sell beer and wine in its yard until 8 pm. The owners have been told that they will have to wait until the guidelines are drafted.
Several speakers turned out to Thursday’s meeting to oppose the opening of backyard spaces on Vernon Blvd.
David Haase, who lives next to Alobar, commended the board for being considerate to adjacent home owners. He said the rear yards are like echo chambers and that he could hear everything from the music to the cutlery.
“My apartment opens to the back garden,” Haase said. He said that the board blocked Alobar from using its backspace but compromised by allowing Blath to open the windows.
Paul Short, who lives next to Alobar, said the use of the garden would be a disaster. “There are plenty of restaurants with no outdoor seating and they are doing fine,” he said.
Other speakers spoke about how they don’t mind dealing with the day-to-day noise of city living, but loud establishments are a step too far.
Brent O’Leary, the president of the Hunters Point Civic Association, said he was in search of compromise, citing his disappointment that the Community Board would only allow new establishments to get liquor licenses if they agreed not to use their rear yard.
“A large part of the community would love some outdoor space…and people who live there want peace and quiet. I am glad I heard the word compromise.”
Conley said :“Wait you are wrong,” and said rear yards have been approved on Center Boulevard and gave Shi as an example. He also discussed the sidewalk cafes in the area.
O’Leary who was pleased that guidelines were being worked on asked if he could participate in the process.
“I think it would make sense that there be a representative [from both sides] to see if compromises can be reached. I want this to be cordial…throw some ideas around,” O’Leary said.
“You are talking about a hearing,” O’Brien told O’Leary, “This is an exploratory meeting,” where the public can attend but not speak.