Cultural Center Tries to Give Lobby Bar the Heave-Ho, Bar Says Hell No

.Mary Reinholz Drew Figueroa

A dispute is heating up between a city-supported non-profit and the for-profit bar that occupies its ground floor. The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural & Educational Center wants Drew Figueroa, a former program director and board member, to shut down the lobby bar he has operated for over a decade, but he isn’t going without a fight. Tonight, Community Board 3 will issue its final word on the matter, voting on whether or not to recommend The Suffolk for a liquor license renewal.

Founded on the Lower East Side in 1994, the cultural center, which has hosted events ranging from Latino puppet shows to Shakespearian drama, seems to regard Mr. Figueroa as a subtenant from hell. It has tried to evict him for rent arrears, and now it’s trying to keep him from selling alcohol.

Earlier this month, Jan Hanvik, the center’s executive director, called Mr. Figueroa a “rogue tenant” during a meeting of Community Board 3’s liquor licensing committee and urged it not to support a renewal of The Suffolk’s beer-and-wine license, which expires at the end of next month. Mr. Hanvik claimed that the bar had created a “laundry list of problems” that jeopardized the center, including noise complaints from neighbors, a violation for accepting fake IDs from minors, and purported incidents of violence, one involving a bloody shirt found in the bar’s toilet. (City 311 data shows 29 noise complaints at 107 Suffolk Street since 2010.)

Mr. Figueroa denounced all the charges as falsehoods. He said earlier the shirt got bloodied when he bit down too hard on a Cuban sandwich and broke a tooth.

IMG_9221Nicole Guzzardi Clemente Soto Velez.

“I had a lot to do with this building,” he said to Mr. Hanvik at the meeting. “I put in two art galleries. The building is here because of me. I used to have your job. You have a job because of me.” Mr. Hanvik, who serves as chair of Community Board 3’s subcommittee on arts and cultural affairs, looked a bit startled but did not back down.

The liquor licensing committee, after considerable debate, voted to recommend a denial of Mr. Figueroa’s application, claiming that The Suffolk, a commercial operation, was out of place in the non-profit space and had become “disruptive” to its mission as an arts incubator. The full board is expected to issue a final vote on that resolution tonight, and Mr. Figueroa plans to come to the meeting with supporters in tow. He said he would take his fight all the way to the State Liquor Authority, if necessary.

Mr. Figueroa’s bar is hidden from the street, tucked into the first floor of a former public school building that contains 43 visual art studios, three art galleries and four theaters. “Part of our charm is that you have to find us,” he said last Saturday night, welcoming a visitor in jeans and a backwards baseball cap while the first of several bands began setting up in an adjacent gallery. Inside the 450-square-foot barroom, some patrons in their 20s and 30s played pool while others sat sipping drinks on frayed leather couches as canned music boomed in the background.

The Suffolk, Mr. Figueroa explained, helps support his movie production company, Moxie Films. In 2004, he produced an award-winning documentary, “Farmingville,” about a flashpoint in Latino immigration in Long Island. He’s now working on a film about immigration issues in Arizona.

Starting last year, he said, the cultural center became “super aggressive” and sued him for about $13,000 in back rent, which he attributes to the non-profit’s “bad accounting” (the case was recently settled). Mr. Hanvik said the center recently evicted Mr. Figueroa from a studio for “illegally” subletting it and also contended he had improperly obtained a contract in 2002 for a ground-floor cafe “without checking with the board or checking with the city. So it’s an invalid contract but it’s also a valid contract because we entered into an agreement with him that we didn’t have an ability to enter into.” He said Mr. Figueroa shouldn’t be running a commercial operation in a non-profit space.

“He’s lying!” exclaimed the bar owner upon hearing these allegations. He said his ground-floor lease was approved by one of Mr. Hanvik’s predecessors and also by the board ten years ago, and that he “gave up” his studio as part of the settlement deal in housing court. He has also sued the center for $20,000 in back pay from his previous tenure as a program director.

Mr. Figueroa believes the center wants him gone because he’s sitting on a valuable piece of real estate. The non-profit recently received some $2.1 million from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs in order to upgrade its interior. The center’s board of directors, he speculated, might be seeking to install a larger liquor-serving concession covering both the ground floor and part of the basement once the interior renovations are complete.

The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center is hardly a stranger to internal disputes. For years, a faction of visual artists called Artists Alliance feuded with the institution and its performing artists over who would control the building.

Alan Gerson, a city councilman at the time, helped to settle some of the disputes and worked to obtain $8.8 million dollars from the city’s capital renovation funds to restore the center’s exterior. The renovations were completed late in 2012 and scaffolding covering the building was finally removed.

Before that happened, “there were problems and disputes, internal lawsuits and money put in escrow — it was a mess,” said Mr. Gerson. “We worked closely to resolve the issues as prerequisite to saving the building. There were a lot of governance issues that we helped to negotiate.”

Mr. Gerson recalled Mr. Figueroa, who was then program director and a member of C.S.V.’s board of directors, as being a “very active player” in the negotiations. He expressed surprise that the center had gone to Community Board 3 to block renewal of his license.

“It’s a shame it would have to come to this over a noise issue which can be easily dealt with through soundproofing,” he said. “But if there are other issues, that’s another matter.” He observed, however, that Community Board 3 had no “direct control” over Mr. Figueroa’s license and could only make recommendations to the State Liquor Authority.

Mr. Hanvik is hoping the liquor authority sees things his way. “People here just can’t do whatever they want,” he said. “We now have bylaws and building rules. We got $2.1 million this fiscal year from the city for renovations. We’re artists subsidized by the city and we need to follow rules. If people can’t follow rules, then they shouldn’t be here.”