Should a Good Neighbor Get to Sell Beer on a Quiet Block? C.B. Debates

khufuDaniel Maurer Lisa Burriss and Cafe Khufu owner
Paul Said.

A longtime East Village resident’s request for a beer-and-wine license sparked a crisis of conscience among Community Board 3 members last night, who wrestled with whether to give a good neighbor the benefit of the doubt or remain committed to a hardline stance against new booze-selling establishments on quiet streets.

At last night’s board meeting, Lisa Burriss, 32, a public housing advocate and native resident of the Lower East Side, asked the board to support her application for a beer-and-wine license at Cafe Khufu, the hookah lounge and cafe on Third Street between First and Second Avenues that she manages. In 2009, the board recommended that the State Liquor Authority turn down the cafe for wine and beer, noting in its decision that “Community Board #3 has taken the position that it does not want the City to permit eating and drinking establishments on side streets where they are not zoned or to extend such noncompliant use to eating and drinking establishments.”

Earlier this month, the board’s S.L.A. Licensing committee once again recommended that Cafe Khufu stay dry, but at last night’s meeting of the full board, personal considerations trumped policy. Testimony by several members turned the tide of opinion in favor of Ms. Burriss, a former director of organizing at Good Old Lower East Side

khufu1Daniel Maurer Cafe Khufu.

Board members in favor of the license, such as David McWater, said that giving a vote to Ms. Burriss was a vote in favor of the “old Lower East Side,” one filled with charismatic residents and involved community members, and one that many feel has started to slip away in recent years.

“This is exactly what we want the Lower East Side to be,” said Mr. McWater.

The debate over the license, which extended well into the fourth hour of the meeting, brought to light a deeper question about C.B. 3’s influence over official policy. As a purely advisory entity, the board can only make recommendations to help influence the State Liquor Authority’s final decisions. Last October, The Local found that the S.L.A. regularly granted beer-and-wine licenses to bars and restaurants even when C.B. 3 recommended denial.

“It’s a beer-wine, so we’ll get it anyway, I think,” said Mr. McWater, citing The Local’s study.

Joyce Ravitz, an outspoken board member typically against the granting of liquor licenses, also spoke in favor of Ms. Burris.

“If I had been told last year, or last week or yesterday that I would stand before you to speak on behalf of a beer and liquor license, I would have thought you were crazy,” she said, but later added, “I am one of the people who have known Lisa for a really long time, and know that she is a really important fabric on the Lower East Side.”

Still, other board members, including Carol Kostik of the S.L.A. committee, argued it was more important to make recommendations that supported consistent policy.

“If somebody is a sympathetic figure, it’s not a reason to break a guideline,” she said, emphasizing that her decision aligned strictly with S.L.A. policy, which states that the board “will not approve additional eating and drinking establishments in residentially zoned districts.” That policy also notes that “if there is a ‘grandfathered’ commercial site [such as Cafe Khufu], that is not currently an eating/drinking establishment, and it is inappropriately located in a residential district, Community Board 3 will not approve a license to allow the ‘grandfathered’ non-residential use to become an eating or drinking establishment.”

“We need standards,” said Ms. Kostik, “or we’ll be writing ‘War and Peace’ every month.”

Board Chair Dominic Pisciotta – who would vote to deny the application, but in a second round of voting, chose to abstain – also spoke out against reversing the committee’s decision.

“This is going to send a very confusing message to the community,” he said. “Applicants won’t know if they’ll be approved or denied and part of the policy is to try to have consistency. It’s tough. I thought we all agreed on no new licenses on residential side streets, so I’m a little confused right now.”

At 9:30 p.m., the board voted to support Café Khufu’s application based on the stipulation that the business would not play live music after 9 p.m., and would pare back weekend hours to 2 a.m., rather than 4 a.m. Ms. Burriss, eager to please the Community Board, had already extended the business’s daytime hours in 2009.

Outside of the gymnasium at the Henry Street Settlement Youth Services building where the meeting took place, Ms. Buriss told The Local, “I’m still invested in this community and I’m invested in this business. Now I’m feeling the challenges: Starbucks is on the left, The Bean is on the right, and people that come into our business are people from the Catholic Worker. Dorothy Day’s granddaughter comes into our café; she feels comfortable here.”

She added, “We have paninis and bagels and pastries. We have food here. The alcohol is ancillary to our food operations. But people want liquor.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 25, 2012

An earlier version of this post stated that Board Chair Dominic Pisciotta voted in favor of denying the application without mentioning that, in a second round of voting, he chose to abstain.