Union Hall and Neighbors Wonder, Why Can't We Be Friends?
If only the competing needs of bar owners and aggrieved neighbors could be satisfied as easily as the urges of a liquor-primed patron.
“I have women outside my window screaming, ‘Fuck me! Fuck me!’ at three o’clock in the morning,” said Union Street resident Roberta Lehrman. She attributed the salacious ruckus to intoxicated pedestrians leaving Union Hall, the popular bar and entertainment venue across the street from her at 702 Union Street near 5th Avenue in Park Slope.
Lehrman and other Union Street residents voiced their complaints last Wednesday in Brooklyn during a special hearing of the Landmarks/Land Use Committee of Community Board 6 concerning Union Hall’s application for a liquor license renewal. One woman even claimed that sleep deprivation caused by living near the bar had triggered her autoimmune disorder. To the surprise of many in attendance, the committee approved by 6 to 2 a motion, curiously introduced by a local bar owner, not to recommend the renewal of the liquor license unless Union Hall takes measures to alleviate noise, such as ceasing alcohol sales after midnight.
In other words, the committee endorsed what Lou Sones, owner of the Brazen Head on Atlantic Avenue and the chief proponent of the measure, called “the nuclear option.”
Tonight, the ballistic motion goes before the general community board for consideration. If passed, it would be transmitted to the State Liquor Authority and potentially taken into account when the agency officially decides on the license renewal at the end of this month. But even in a climate that encourages more community board input, renewal rejections by SLA remain rare, except in the case of grievous violations, such as rampant underage drinking, frequent bar brawls and conspicuous bullet holes.
Which means that the nearly two-year long, frustrating quality-of-life battle between Union Hall and nearby residents looks apt to go on longer than the most arduous Brooklyn bocce match.
“It is conceivable that you could have a business that operates within all the laws but still manages to raise concerns for some members of the community,” observes Craig Hammerman, district manager at Community Board 6, which in the past year has acted as a mediator between Union Hall and the Union Street residents. Meetings have been held between the residents, the bar, NYPD's 78th Precinct, the State Liquor Authority and local and state officials.
For their part, at last Wednesday’s meeting, the Union Hall owners enumerated the measures they have taken to accommodate the community. Their steps have included installing soundproofing and audio monitors, hiring additional staff, and posting signs that ask patrons to be courteous of neighbors.
“My feeling walking away from that meeting was that our efforts at communicating with the neighbors and meeting with the neighbors were not taken into consideration,” said Union Hall co-owner Jim Carden when reached yesterday for comment. “We’ve taken numerous steps to have a give and take at communicating but that just has been ignored.”
While residents acknowledge the measures enacted voluntarily by Union Hall, they say the initiatives have not been consistent. More fundamentally, they express outrage at their lack of input into a process that they claim misrepresented the bar as a restaurant, and improperly placed it on a residential street.
“This has been the civics lesson we never wanted to learn,” said Jon Crow, a Union Street resident and de facto opposition spokesperson during the public portion of last week’s committee meeting. “What we’ve learned is that residents are screwed.”
A significant amount of neighbors’ distress, and now the bar owners’ headaches, can be traced to the perceived illegitimacy surrounding the community notification process when Union Hall originally applied for its liquor license in February 2005. SLA requires that establishments applying for a liquor license notify the community board, which the attorney for Union Hall did, sort of.
In an error the attorney later attributed to data from the Brooklyn Borough President’s Office, the notification was actually sent to CB 7, the wrong target. There, District Manger Jeremy Laufer said it is standard practice to forward the notifications on to the correct community board, but CB 6 adds the point is irrelevant because at that time in 2005 it did not review such notifications, anyway. When reached for his perspective, a spokesperson at SLA said that he was unaware of this problem, and he has yet to respond to a question asking why the agency would approve a liquor license application given the notification mix up.
The sobering result is that Union Street residents feel they were denied a chance to go on the record about how Union Hall would affect their lives, and the kind of family friendly neighborhood many of them want to experience.
“People are pregnant all over the place,” explained Union Street resident Linda Littlefield at the meeting. “There’s a reason for that. This is where they want to be.”
That’s not to say Union Hall lacks for support among area residents. In fact, proponents of the bar outnumbered opposition speakers in the public comments portion of last week’s meeting in the basement room at the CB 6 offices on Baltic Street. Fans of the establishment cited its contributions to local charities and value as a social space that provides access to high-quality entertainment like the “Secret Science Club,” which has brought three Nobel Laureates to speak.
“Other bars have scenes,” said one booster who seemed to sheepishly strike the tone of the “Cheers” theme song. He added, “Union Hall is more like neutral territory.”
And of course, there stands the biggest scientific inquiry of all: How much of the Union Street noise reported in 38 calls to 311 between May 2007 and May 2008 actually stems from Union Hall?
Sergeant Spezio, the community affairs representative for NYPD’s 78th Precinct, wielded year-to-date statistics at the meeting showing 13 tickets issued in and around the three block radius of Union Hall. The area also includes bus stops, a firehouse, and other youth-magnet nightspots.
“We don’t know whether it’s coming from Union Hall,” he said. However, he added, “I believe what they’re doing is helpful and we still need to get everybody together to a happy medium.”
Marian Wood, the district director for City Councilmember David Yassky, wisely echoed this advice at the meeting.
“I think the situation is they’re kind of stuck with each other,” she said.
For more about Union Hall's community board trouble, see the second item in Annie Fischer's column in this week's Voice.