A small, but angry, group of Williamsburg residents, claiming that the neighborhood is oversaturated with watering holes, picked an odd way of making its case on Thursday night by vehemently protesting a liquor license for an upscale wine bar while not making a peep as 19 other bars in the same neighborhood were approved for the same licenses by a Community Board 1 panel.
About a dozen opponents focused their assault solely on the owners of Custom American Wine Bar at the CB1 Public Safety Committee hearing, clashing with at least 30 supporters of the upscale bar, which will be on relatively quiet Driggs Avenue near Metropolitan Avenue.
Opponents say the wine and tapas bar will attract binge drinking frat boys and gang violence, but co-owner Stefan Mailvaganam, who also co-owns Bar Carrera, a tapas bar in Manhattan, fired back, presenting a petition with more than 300 signatures, including one from an NYPD detective from the neighborhood.
His supporters questioned the opponents’ motives.
“Custom American Wine Bar will attract the opposite of gangs and frat boys,” said Yann de Rochefort, who owns Boqueria tapas bar in Manhattan. “The community board should encourage places like Stefan’s.”
But the Public Safety Committee did not fully agree, sending a mixed message in the form of a tie vote — the only non-approval of a very long night of rubber-stamping liquor license applications. The full community board will settle the issue on Wednesday night.
The saga to get a license has consumed four months and $20,000, said Mailvaganam and his co-owner Dan Lathroum, who particularly objected to opponents’ claim that “outsiders” have ruined Williamsburg because he lives on N. Fourth Street, not far from his proposed bar.
“If [CB1] is looking for the voice of the community, then they should listen to our supporters, not the three protestors,” he said.
Typically, it does — or, more accurately, doesn’t need to because liquor license controversy is extremely rare, said Committee Chairman Mieszko Kalita. “This is the first time there has been such a roar [about a license],” he said.
It is unclear what the opponents find specifically objectionable about the wine bar. Opponents would not talk on the record, but they did circulate an unsigned e-mail that began, “The fight against the bars continues.”
“The issue is not whether the bar owners are nice and willing to negotiate with the community, but that there are already five establishments with full liquor licenses within 500 feet [of Custom American Wine Bar],” it said. “We can’t be distracted by the owners’ statements that they want to be a part of our community and improve it! Those statements are both vague and a bit patronizing. We have the right to chose what constitutes improvement and livability.”
The e-mail wrongly suggested that the State Liquor Authority’s “500-foot rule” requires that bars be separated by at least that distance. In fact, the rule merely gives the State Liquor Authority greater oversight if a bar wants to open within 500 feet of three existing establishments with liquor licenses.
And many wine bars skirt such issues by applying only for beer and wine licenses, not full booze permission.
The opposition is being spearheaded by Nancy Wechter, who, ironically, lives in libertine writer Henry Miller’s childhood home on Driggs Avenue. When it came time for her to speak at the hearing, she addressed the wine bar’s co-owners: “I respect your professionalism, but I am here to prevent yet another bar from depriv[ing] us from sleep. I don’t want to be run out of my house.”
To counter that, the wine bar owners produced letters from a Manhattan community board and one from Bar Carrera’s landlord — both testifying that Mailvaganam and Lathroum had never received a noise complaint or had problems with neighbors.
The hearing was frequently heated, with the owner of the building, Dobrivoye Filipovich, getting tossed after calling a staffer for Councilwoman Diana Reyna “a drug dealer” and branding Wechter a “criminal.”
Later, his son, Greg Filipovich, said that he trusts the wine bar owners and, besides, he needs a stable tenant to fill his empty space.
“My taxes have doubled from $20,000 to $40,000,” he said. “If we can’t get this liquor license then I will have to open a 24-hour bodega that sells beer, and maybe even wine. Then, [the neighbors] will really get a crowd of kids hanging around.”