Residents Speak Out Against Keybar’s Move; Death & Co. Gets a Pass

Picnik collageDaniel Maurer; Japa Dog Japa Dog’s construction and future incarnation.

At a meeting last night of Community Board 3’s S.L.A. and D.C.A. Licensing Committee, tensions erupted between local residents and the owners of Keybar during an hour-long debate over whether or not the bar could serve alcohol at a new location. Meanwhile, Death & Co.’s request for an extension of operating hours got a thumbs-up from the committee.

Gyula Bertrok and Attila Draviczki have owned and operated Keybar, on East 13th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A, for nine years, but said they were leaving their current location because their landlord was tripling their rent. At last night’s meeting, they sought the licensing committee’s support in having the inactive license at their desired location removed – the first step in obtaining their own license for a new location at 14 Avenue B.

Mr. Bertron and Mr. Draviczki are having trouble gaining support from residents near the new Avenue B location based on past experience with the former tenants, a bar called Butterfly, Butterfly. That bar, which closed in 2007, was notorious for noise violations and general rowdiness at all hours of the evening.

“Avenue B is already inundated with bars,” said Tonya T. Melendez, who spoke at the meeting on behalf of Casa de Esperanza, an association in a neighboring building. “For the years that the previous bar was in that location the residents were constantly having to call the police precinct and 311 because they were unable to deal with the patrons and the loud music coming from the bar.”

Residents near the new location, who were represented at the meeting by the East Fourth Block Association, worried that a new bar would cause the same problems Butterfly, Butterfly had. They were supported by committee chair Alexandra Militano, who said she lived through the horror that the previous establishment caused locals four years ago.

14 Avenue B is located in a resolution area, meaning there is already a high concentration of liquor licenses in the area with a documented history of disturbing the quality of life for residents. Generally the committee is reluctant to grant new liquor licenses unless there is strong community support. But committee members Ariel Palitz and David Conn supported Keybar’s application and suggested that its owners withdraw their application and try another round of negotiations with the block associations, over issues such as hours of operation and how often the bar would have a DJ.

“I think that you have a lot of things going for you,” Mr. Conn said during the meeting. “The one thing I struggle with is, I think you need to try to work harder to make a deal with the block associations.”

Four of Keybar’s current neighbors came to the meeting to say they rarely had problems with noise at the bar, and when they did early on, the owners took care of the problem immediately.

Despite this support, Ellyce di Paola, who spoke on behalf of the East Fourth Block Association, said she thought she could no longer gain approval from other residents to negotiate because Keybar owners had been dishonest with them about their complaint history.

Community Board 3 district manager Susan Stetzer said that the owners failed to mention in their application five 311 noise complaints made against the bar between December 2009 and December 2010. This sparked an internal debate between Ms. Stetzer and Ms. Palitz over what qualified as a legitimate complaint.

“That’s not a clean record in our community,” Ms. Stetzer said.

Ms. Palitz, owner of the popular East Village club Sutra, thought that the failure to mention 311 complaints did not constitute dishonesty. “311 is not a legal violation,” she said. “Only five in a year, and that was a year ago? To me it’s a no brainer.”

The committee ultimately voted 5-1 to recommend a denial of Keybar’s request to remove the inactive license at their new location. Mr. Bertron and Mr. Dravinczki said they would look to the State Liquor Authority for a final decision.

“I don’t want to move because I want to grow or make more money,” Mr. Bertron said. “I would just like to do my same business, but my landlord is making it impossible.”

Japa Dog’s appeal for a wine and beer license offered no such drama. Accompanied by the restaurant’s manager Toshiaki Tanaka and his friend Asaki Tsukano, who served as a kind of translator, company president Noriki Tamura withdrew his application at the suggestion of the S.L.A. committee, which was unwilling to offer its approval on a resolution area restaurant before it had even opened.

“It makes sense,” said Mr. Tamura, clutching a brightly colored Japadog menu. The group will try its luck again after opening in January.

Not everyone left the meeting disappointed. Death & Company, David Kaplan and Ravi DeRossi’s cocktail lounge on East Sixth Street, received a new lease on life when the committee voted unanimously to approve an application to extend the bar’s hours of operation till 2 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and till 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Mr. Kaplan, 29, was joined by his attorney, Kevin McGrath, and his general manager, Frankie Rodriguez, who helped secure 64 petition signatures (45 from the local community) in support of the bar.

Victories like these have been few and far between for Mr. Kaplan and Mr. DeRossi since they opened their establishment more than five years ago. In 2006, a flurry of noise complaints forced them to close down by 1 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays – the kind of restrictions that usually spell doom for an East Village lounge (even one as in touch with its own mortality as Death & Company). Mr. Kaplan and Mr. DeRossi responded by removing the sound system from the bar’s walls, hiring a bouncer to patrol the door, and consulting with the local police precinct on crowd control.

According to Mr. McGrath, only their menu violates the terms of the agreement. “One of the stipulations was that we would have American and French plates,” he said. “Basically we have American, with a few French plates.”