LES Free Press featured in Gothamist

Story on The Box’s Adjournment featured on website.

http://www.gothamist.com/2008/09/24/tough_times_for_bar_owners_with_com.php

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Box in Late Bid for Booze License Survival

by Gregory M. White

Sept. 24, 2008

The Box, made famous by Lindsey Lohan’s table dancing exploits and its appearance on Gossip Girl, beat back its booze closure Tuesday night.

Community Board 3 left the Chrystie St. establishment with space to act after area residents signed an adjournment delaying decision on the bar’s liquor license until next month’s meeting.

At last Monday’s committee meeting on alcohol licensing, The Box seemed doomed as residents of the neighboring 187 Chrystie St. called for its closure. Several neighbors cited prolonged complaints against The Box including noise violations attributed to an internal atmosphere that is more cabaret than bar.

But after a unanimous decision by the board last week to deny The Box its liquor license renewal, the bar and its neighbors negotiated an adjournment that allows the nightclub another month to reform, or face losing its liquor license.

Randy Weiner, part of The Box’s ownership team along with Broadway heir Simon Hammerstein, was asked after the meeting last week to negotiate by the neighboring 187 Chrystie St. owner, Charles Cohen.

Cohen said that Weiner was “the only rational, negotiable one,” and that “he has a conversation and honors his word.”

Cohen, who has lived in the neighborhood since the 1960s, said he initiated the negotiations in the spirit of fairness citing improvements The Box has made since it was confronted over noise and environment violations in 2006. Cohen also said that the neighborhood, while much different than when he moved there, still had a reputation for rowdiness and that his residents had to take this into consideration.

Cohen said by applying legal action against The Box, his residents have a greater chance of achieving their goal of a more peaceful living environment.

“If the liquor authority rejected the community board’s decision and granted their license, we would have no bargaining chip,” Cohen said.

Weiner said that the community board acted as a mediator in the process and that Susan Stetzer, district manager, was involved in the negotiations. He said he was pleased with the adjournment and his neighbors’ willingness to negotiate.

Marc Ciolli, a resident at 187 Chrystie St. and attendee at last week’s meeting, spoke in favor of the adjournment.

Ciolli said that the list of grievances was long including overwhelming noise invading his apartment, cars and cabs stacked two deep on four-lane Chrystie St., and the frequent appearance of vomit in front of his building.

“If they can fix it, hallelujah,” he said.

While a majority of the attendees at last week’s meeting signed the adjournment, Mary Anne Inouye, also a resident of 187 Chrystie St, disagreed with the decision. She said at Tuesday’s meeting that the site was, “impossible to fix because of the building’s age,” and that the noise pollution could not be stopped. She also noted the appearance of vomit in front of her building last Friday evening.

Inouye said the decision by her fellow residents was strange.

“I think it’s some kind of polite gesture,” Inouye said, skeptical of the agreement and the parties involved.  “If it was a political thing, I would say follow the money,”

According to the adjournment, The Box has one month to comply with the residents’ demands for reforms. The two parties have “begun working productively together to create a mutually agreeable stipulation to resolve [our] differences,” according to the adjournment. The matter is scheduled for settlement at the October meeting of the full board.

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Box Beaten Back by Boisterous Board Meeting

A concerned citizen raises complaints against The Box.

by Gregory M. White

Sept. 18, 2008

The Box may be cornered into closing, as its liquor license renewal is now in question. Monday’s Community Board 3 State Liquor Committee decided to recommend rejection of renewal of the Lower East Side bar’s license due to ongoing complaints from community members.

The Chrystie Street establishment evoked strong complaint from audience members, many of whom were there to protest the renewal of The Box’s liquor license. With noise violations being the highest 311 complaint in the Lower East Side, with 44.52 calls per 10000 residents in June, many community residents came to the meeting to voice their concerns on The Box and other bars.

Several Chrystie Street residents cited prolonged violations of noise codes from The Box. Those residents who live in an adjoining building voiced the strongest opinions.

“Tenants have a very deep resentment for spending a year and a half with their bull (expletive),” said Charles Cohen owner of the building.

They described a venue where soundproofing was lacking and an overabundance in visitors was forcing them to lose sleep.

“If I’m going to lose sleep I want to be paid for it,” said Ken Rizzo, a contractor.

“I can actually hear the music, I can actually hear their song,” said Chris Henry, an art gallery owner.

Charles Cohen, the owner of the building neighboring The Box, spoke about his disappointment in what the establishment was meant to be and what it had become.

“Sounded like they were going to be a cultural institution,” said Cohen. “They opened it up and it was bedlam, absolute bedlam.”

Councilman David McWater, a board member who owns several bars, questioned Randy Weiner, one of The Box’s owners. McWater called the bar’s existence as a cabaret “a loophole” in laws regarding the difference between a bar and such a venue.

“There is a whole anti-bar movement in this neighborhood because of the illegal cabarets,” said McWater.

He also asked about the complaints from the community and how The Box had sought to deal with them.

Weiner said he implemented soundproofing and had reduced the audio volume thus resulting in fewer complaints. Afterward he said he was skeptical of the complaints of the residents and felt he had taken appropriate measures.

But residents of the neighboring building were not pleased with his response.

Residents felt that by giving The Box a new liquor license without additional restrictions, it would be likely to return to its former ways. Henry who carried a list of 311 complaints he had made on his cell phone, felt that any measure must be legally binding to keep the bar in check.

The committee agreed with residents, unanimously voting for non-renewal. The vote now goes to the full Community Board meeting scheduled for Sept. 23.

The ownership team of The Box includes Simon Hammerstein, son of famous musical director Oscar. The bar is partially organized by a gaggle of celebrities, including Jude Law and Rachel Weisz. It brings performers from around the world to its venue for a mix of what its Web site calls, “the excitement and energy of those concert saloons and burlesque halls.”

Cohen described the atmosphere as one of bottle service and decadent wealth that is, “looking to appeal to celebrity.”

“I think you go in and buy a bottle of Hennessey for $1,200 and that gives you a table,” said Cohen.

The Box has recently been in the tabloid papers and New York Magazine for table dances by celebrity Lindsey Lohan and its appearance on the television show “Gossip Girl.”

Its rich clientele may soon be looking for somewhere else to table dance.

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Orchard and Ludlow Building Mess Baffles Community

Construction mess dominates Orchard St. landscape.

Construction mess dominates Orchard St. landscape.

by Gregory M. White

Sept. 10, 2008

The once cozy tenement streets of Ludlow and Orchard are now in the shadows of emerging tower developments and another is looming. The fate of the building at 180 Orchard St. stretching back to Ludlow St. is rife with speculation and hearsay.

Construction has been held back for at least a month. Samantha Battista of the recently moved Mint Julep when asked if she has seen construction at the site says, “I don’t think I ever have.”

Gabriel Lockey, a server at Max Fish, agreed. “There hasn’t been construction for at least two months,” he says. He continues, “Its weird because they were here everyday for a while and then it just stopped.”

A stop order has been in place, according to the New York City Department of Building records, due to the use of a crane without permit at the site.

Melissa Lowe, a clerk at the neighboring Earth Matters food store and café, says that locals, “complain a lot about the neighborhood noise,” and that they are, “not very happy.”

According to New York City Department of Building records, there has been a permit granted for plumbing and mechanical work on Aug. 28.

And while this work is a return to normalcy, if Masami Tomihisa of the Pink Poney restaurant is correct, the community has a lot more noise pollution to look forward to.

“The foundation is done all wrong. Whoever buys the building will have to tear it down.”

The prospects for what’s to come thereafter might be even more.

Lockey says, “People said it was going to be 30 floors.”

“I heard they have a permit to build 30 to 40 stories high,” Tomihisa says.
Roberto Ragone , Executive Director of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, a non-profit organization for the economic growth of the area, says, “What I had heard was unclear whether the current developer was purchasing aerial rights.”

Aerial rights are the rights to build higher in an area. They are subject to zoning rules. Ragone says, “There are no real height limits in the LES. The zoning restrictions are from 1961.”

Ragone says he feels that there is some truth to the rumors that, if the building is to go higher than the original plans, more construction will be necessary. He says, “It sounds like the entire thing would have to come down, that’s my understanding.”

There is real concern about the impact this construction is having on neighborhood businesses and residents. The Ludlow Orchard Community Organization, or L.O.C.O., is combating the construction at the site. They describe their goals on their website as, “We believe that we need to get the people of this neighborhood together, to stand up for ourselves and demand action and accountability, in order to stem the tide of gentrification that is forcing members of this unique community to disperse.”

Ragone says, “When there is a construction site small businesses feel like it’s a Russian roulette of sorts.” He continues, “There is no requirement that developers accommodate small businesses.” Ragone is concerned of “proper visibility” for some the local shops. He says, “With scaffolding there must be a sensitivity to local businesses.”

Ragone also notes that some residents feel, “the block looks like an eyesore.”

The labeled contractor for the site, Palisades Construction LLC, failed to respond to both e-mails and phone calls to comment. Community Board 3 District manager Susan Stetzer also did not comment referencing previous conversations to other media outlets on the issue.

A community board meeting that could potentially cover the subject is scheduled for Sept. 23rd.

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Fashion Week Brings Little Fortune to Orchard St.

by Gregory M. White

Sept. 3, 2008

New York fashion week starts September 5, but the Lower East Side, home to some of the city’s trendiest boutiques, is being left out.

“I don’t think they come down this far,” says Julia Werman co-owner of Moo Shoes on Orchard Street. “Unfortunately they are not about small designers.”

Mercedes-Benz fashion week occurs twice a year and is held in tents in Bryant Park and other sites around mid-town. It incorporates designers from all over the world including American leaders Calvin Klein, Michael Kors and Vera Wang. But the Lower East Side’s designers won’t be represented there.

Hannah Shaw, a designer, says, “I think the merchandise presented there isn’t parallel with what is sold down here.” She continued, “Its department stores, its big names, it doesn’t filter down here.”

Shaw says, “Some of the clientele come down here for a fun experience.” She explained, “but would go to Barney’s to buy a dress.”

There is marked disinterest from some of the designers and boutique workers in the neighborhood in what they view as a much different fashion scene then their own.

Jenny Cooke of Skunkfunk bluntly stated, “I don’t really care too much.”

Curtis Aaron a designer at First Among Equals felt that its, “not really for us, because there are not many men’s wear designers showing.”

Werman says, “Unless people told me it was going on, I wouldn’t even know.”

There are some in Orchard Street boutique community that enjoy the festivities and feel it does bring some attention to the Lower East Side’s community.

Jenny Cooke says, “A lot of people come down during fashion week.” She added, “Its just like parties late at night.”

J.J. Garcia of B Blessing describes the new arrivals in neighborhood as “fashion tourists.”

“You have the shows and then the parties are the bigger events.”

Hannah Shaw agreed, “Yeah that’s probably more of a parallel as this is more notorious for social life.” She added, “This area is getting a reputation to be trendy.”

There was some consensus that the festivities at least have an impact on the amount of browsing done up and down Orchard Street.

Hannah Shaw says, “I think there is some overlap between fashion week and people who come down here.” She continued, “ I think a lot more people are hearing this is the cool area.”

Maggie Heinze, a store manager, says, “ There is peripheral traffic. I remember some models coming in and dropping a lot of cash.”

Patricia Rubinelli, a seller at Hairy Mary’s says, “If nothing else there have been a lot of designers walking around.” She continued, “I have had a lot of people say they are in town for fashion week, so it drives browsing, at least.”

Jesse Whiting, Manager at Earnest Sewn, says, “Occasionally there are a few buyers who come in and buy our line.” He continued, “for the most part people who would be here for fashion week don’t buy retail.”

While there is a great deal of doubt about the role of fashion week in the Lower East Side’s financial growth, there is a lot more optimism about the change in season.

“Just in general that when the new collections come in so sales go up,” says J.J. Garcia. Heinze also agreed that the fall season, “has a bigger impact,” than fashion week on area sales.

Rose Szatkowski of Arivel Furs felt the season change was much more the issue than fashion week. She says, “September always boosts sales.”

Fall brings mid-town photo shoots, but sales to the Lower East Side.

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Speech Marks More than Democratic Acceptance for Women’s Group

The surging crowd at Skinny Bar stand in waiting for Obama's speech.

The surging crowd at Skinny Bar stand in waiting for Obama

by Gregory M. White

August 29, 2008

Expectations were high Thursday night at Skinny Bar, but not for a band or DJ’s performance.

The Lower East Side haunt played host to the NARAL Pro-Choice America event for Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. It was hard to move in the concert like atmosphere.

The crowd, mostly female and younger than fifty, had high expectations for the candidate and, on occasion, a dose of cynicism.

NARAL Field Director Sabrina Shulman took an optimistic tone. “I hope that he does a blow out speech,” continuing, “He needs to be able to push and pull people along as much as he can.”

Thomas Giglio, an attendee, struck a more negative tone. “I would like to see him not be arrogant.” He continued, “I would like to see a short speech, short and concise.”

Also less than convinced beforehand was Jenny Zhang who felt that, “He needs to really make me believe this change is going to happen.”

Lalena Howard, Community Organizer for NARAL, emphasized the importance of women’s issues place in the speech. “I hope that he acknowledges his strong record as a pro-choice candidate.” She was also adamant that, “he sticks to what he believes in and doesn’t cater to the right or moderates.”

As the evening went on, the crowd grew and their cheers expanded, dotting every talking point with applause and pointed affirmations. When women’s issues were mentioned, volumes reached Madison Square Garden levels particularly with Obama’s remark, “We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.”

After the rapturous applause had subsided, and confused passers by on Orchard Street stopped filing in, there was a sense of possibility emanating throughout the Democratically dominated dive bar.

Nora Niedzielski-Eichner was particularly impressed by the bipartisanship of the speech. “I loved the talk about bridging, about bringing people together, about finding common ground.”

And while she felt the speech was a bit short on women’s rights, the national unity aspect was to Niedzielski-Eichner’s liking. “I think he pulled the rest of the country together.”

The passion of the speech was also appreciated, as Rainy White remarked, “ I think it was the first time he was speaking in an aggressive way, which was nice.’

Barney Tam was also in support of the vocal aggression saying, “Finally Democrats were on par with Republicans with that.” “He was able to verbalize what the Democratic Party stands for.”

There were some disappointed by the candidate himself. Polly Lai felt that this didn’t change much with the speech. “I think Obama is lightweight compromise.” Though, she admitted, “Even though I’m not happy about the candidates, I don’t want to vote for Nader either,” referring to Ralph Nader, independent candidate for president.

Disappointment over the speech was limited, but there were some. “Too long. Wrap it up. Enough sob stories,” said Giglio.

Most people who had their problems with the text understood, including Lila Garnett, “I do feel he has a job to do and the job involves a certain amount of marketing and it involves the avoidance of certain ambiguous positions.” Though she concluded easily, “I think he delivered.”

Still others questioned the list of policy proposals, Zhang stating, “I don’t know what his priorities are.” She continued, “What are his top three things?”

While there were complaints and conflict, a feeling of support ran strong within the room. Howard stated, “I thought he spoke really well about the economy, about the needs of the people over the needs of big business.” She concluded, “This speech was largely to woo people on the ledge.” White was in agreement, “I really felt like he was able to show what he could show after he was elected.”

Shulman wasn’t too worried about the lack of emphasis on women’s issues that others complained about.
“I think the bottom line is all these issues are women’s issues.” She concluded, “I thought it was pretty spot on.”

As the supporters, now sweaty from the cramped confines filed out the front door, the barman queued up the film Battle Royale, a timely choice for a campaign that is fast becoming one.

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