Activists cautiously hopeful on ‘N’life Mayor’: But boss Menin gives confidence

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | Lower East Side, East Side and Chinatown community groups are cautiously hopeful about the city’s newly appointed “nightlife mayor,” Ariel Palitz. Their hope, however, stems more from her boss, Julie Menin, the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, than Palitz herself.

The fiery debate on nightlife between a myriad of neighborhood stakeholders extends back at least two decades. It’s also the type of conflict that the new Office of Nightlife was instituted to mediate. But for these Downtown neighborhoods, Palitz as the office’s senior executive director reignites flames of when she was on the State Liquor Authority Committee of Community Board 3. Many see her as a figure responsible for an oversaturation of bars and clubs in the Lower East Side and East Village, and often point to her history as an owner of the now-closed Sutra Lounge, formerly at First Ave. and E. First St., a bar that was criticized for receiving excessive 311 complaints. Palitz has contended the complaints came from one person, yet at that bar, she also racked up $30,000 in fines, the New York Post reported Tuesday.

Former East Village bar owner Ariel Palitz is the new head of the city’s Office of Nightlife.

In a conference-call interview with The Villager, Palitz and Menin said that, in the coming months, they plan to listen to those skeptical of whether the former bar owner will be evenhanded. The office will schedule a town hall in each borough, as mandated by the position’s founding legislation, and dozens of smaller meetings around the city with all stakeholders.

“I’m also really considering every day as part of my listening tour,” Palitz said. “Quality-of-life concerns will always be front and center for our office, as well as what the industry itself is needing in order to help it stabilize and to provide more of a cultural contribution to the city. But whether it be within the town halls or the smaller meetings, all stakeholders have a seat at this table at MOME.” Her first public outing so far was in Bushwick by way of the NYC Artist Coalition.

Palitz recognizes she has some critics in the community.

“Obviously, their concerns are important to me,” she said. “All I can really say is that my intention is to address their concerns by coming up with viable solutions and addressing all concerns and making positive and meaningful change for all stakeholders.”

She said she could promise this all day long, but the best way to change skeptics’ minds “is to give me the opportunity to show them that this is going to be a meaningful office.”

Community groups are waiting to see when Palitz will come and speak to them. Though Palitz was appointed less than one month ago, Diem Boyd, director of the Lower East Side Dwellers, is waiting to see if Palitz — who lives in the East Village — will face community groups on her own turf.

Boyd feels the community’s concerns have been ignored, specifically, regarding the oversaturation of bars and clubs. Her group coined the moniker “Hell Square” for the nine-block area between Houston and Delancey Sts. and Allen and Essex Sts. that boasts 62 full liquor licenses, according to the Dwellers. Boyd wonders how Palitz will address the area’s excessive 311 complaints, traffic and sanitation problems, such as vomit and urine from overserved partygoers.

“It’s just a free for all,” Boyd said.

Since many of these partygoers don’t live in the neighborhood, they don’t consider the consequences their overnight behavior has on residents, she said. Watchdogs charge laws preventing this oversaturation don’t seem to be enforced, including ensuring that bars are not located within 200 feet of schools and churches and restricting a fourth bar from opening within 500 feet of three others.

Even Councilmember Carlina Rivera said she had to stop walking her dog in “Hell Square” because of sanitation issues, specifically, the increasing amount of trash and vomit left behind on Saturday and Sunday mornings. But, Rivera — who represents District 2, covering the East Village and part of the Lower East Side — said solutions are not necessarily simple.

“It’s not just pushing bars down the street or telling people to go smoke somewhere else,” she said. Instead, communities need responsible nightlife operators who work to “perpetuate a more responsible culture,” she said.

Rivera said she doesn’t think the nightlife office will affect the process of the city’s local community boards at all. She has high hopes for Palitz. The two served together on Community Board 3, which covers the East Village and Lower East Side, and Rivera said she considers Palitz a friend.

“She knows that I’m watching her, but also supporting her,” Rivera said. The goal of the new department is to focus on conflict mediation and promote the industry, according to Rivera. “We know it will certainly be challenging to do both, but I certainly think it’s possible and I’m looking forward to working with her.”

Menin met with various groups from the Lower East Side, East Village and Chinatown for an impromptu meeting on March 14. Menin’s history of finding a balance between promoting on-location filming in the city and avoiding nuisances for residents during her tenure as chairperson of Lower Manhattan’s Community Board 1 and then as head of MOME, is reassuring for Boyd and others.

The new Office of Nightlife is under the umbrella of Commissioner Julie Menin’s Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, or MOME.

 

Menin’s experience, in Boyd’s view, “shows she has the ability to thread the needle between the quality of life and public safety of residents and business interests.”

Threading the needle, or finding that balance, is what Palitz and Menin hope to do.

“We’re going to listen to concerns and where there are hot spots around noise,” Menin said. “We want to be able to intercede in a really value-added way by immediately reaching and speaking with community stakeholders, speaking with enforcement agencies, and speaking with the nightlife industry.”

“We are really approaching this in a holistic way,” Palitz added. “That is the way this office is designed. In order for us to come up with any comprehensive plans or ideas, that listening tour really needs to take place.”

The intention is that, through the listening tour, they can gather more information to present a strategic plan. People may want that plan now, she acknowledged, but it’s a process that needs to be gone through.

“It’s going to take some time for us to really build or create that based on what we’ve learned,” she said.

The March 14 meeting with Menin was an assurance of “checks and balances,” for Jan Lee, the director of The Chinatown Core, a quality-of-life group. Lee worked with Menin in the past on a film-shoot issue on Mott St., but he said his group cannot speak in regard to Palitz and only knows what other groups have said about her. But his organization is no doubt concerned about the continuing proliferation of bars in Chinatown.

“She came personally and she was ready to take what the neighborhood had to throw at her, and that’s really what we want,” Lee said of Menin. “We wanted to know that someone who has a history of being favorable to bars,” he said of Palitz, “and who has a history of being very outspoken about the liquor and hospitality industry in favor of it — that there is some checks and balances that we could voice to someone who has a longstanding history dealing with community issues.”

But despite the deep-rooted caution some groups have about Palitz, there are others in the community who believe she is a great choice.

“She has a great deal of integrity and is a hardworking person,” said Robert Perl, president and C.E.O. of Tower Brokerage.

“She’s not two-faced in the least.”

Palitz worked as a commercial broker with Perl for the past two years at his East Village-based real estate company. Although she left the company after getting appointed to her new $130,000-a-year position, she still has a few deals in the works, he said. He said these were made before she was given the “nightlife mayor” position, they’ve been fully disclosed to the government, and all she will likely do is pick up a check from Tower’s office once the deals close.

Her critics, including the Dwellers, are just a “handful of people,” he shrugged.

David McWater, former chairperson of C.B. 3 and an East Village bar owner, also called Palitz an “excellent choice” for the position. McWater worked with Palitz for years while on C.B. 3.

“I think she wants to do a good job,” he said. “It means a lot to her. … She can look at a situation and know what the problem is.”

As for the problematic nightlife operators, McWater added, it’s just “one percent that do ridiculous stuff that alienate segments of the population.” Between the tourists and the residents living upstairs above the bars, it is an ongoing “tug of war” in the city, he added.

The Office of Nightlife has plans to gather feedback from other cities with so-called “nightlife mayors.” For instance, Menin said she met with Amsterdam’s nightlife mayor a few months ago. The office there was able to help reduce noise and nuisance complaints, as well as reports of violence, according to Menin. But New York City is so unique, it faces its own specific challenges and opportunities, she noted.

“You can look at a lot of other cities, but there is obviously no city like New York,” she said. “There is no other city that’s comparable to New York.”

For Palitz, her position as nightlife mayor has pushed her to work on a citywide level, which is a change from her previous experience in the private sector. She looks forward to serving all boroughs, she said, describing herself as “New York-centric not Manhattan-centric.”

“I am looking forward to taking what we’ve learned in Manhattan and applying it to the boroughs,” she said, “to have more strategic planning and ideas to prevent some of the community conflicts that may have arisen, and really learn from the successes and failures.”

She wouldn’t detail the failures she may have learned from during her stint at C.B. 3. But she later added in an e-mail that one problem-solving success she had was alleviating noise from morning deliveries and customers at Freeman’s Restaurant, on Rivington St. The restaurant sits at the end of a cobblestoned alley, so noise would echo up toward residents.

“My suggestion was to change the delivery trolleys to have rubber wheels and remove the bench,” she said. “It’s not a systemic solution, but my goal was to recommend achievable improvement.”

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