EDIT: We accidentally posted an early version of this article. The revision that ran in our magazine is here. It has one additional interview and some phrasing changes. Enjoy!
Solomon Alemu had a great New Years Eve. Monroe Avenue was alive, spirits were high, and the opening night of his shop, South Wedge Subs, did well. He closed up at 3am and went home to his family. Unfortunately, 2014 would not be the year he expected.
Two days later a police officer gave Alemu a ticket for $500. A crippling fine for any start-up, but it was worse. This ticket also meant his business plan wasn’t going to work. All business must be closed by 2 AM on Monroe Avenue.
I met Solomon a few weeks later at a harder time or him: pleading to the City Planning Commission, the filtering system for City Counsel.
A permit is needed in Rochester to do basically anything for business. There are permits for signs, for lights, for events, hell, there’s even a permit for a “going out of business sale.” Alemu needed one for extended hours.
He had moved to Monroe for drunker pastures, having owned East & Alexander’s Rubino’s prior, the business model of South Wedge Subs is to serve the after-hours crowd. It’s a no-brainer. Monroe Avenue has people every night with little late night food, Mark’s Texas Hots to name only one.
He presented his case in rather broken English to why he should be allowed to stay open. It mainly consisted of confusion, his need for extra time and his ability to aleviate some of the crowd from Mark’s, a kitty corner neighbor.
When the floor opened, I chimed in and stated the obvious. His food is great. He’s experienced. There isn’t a sub shop on Monroe or in the area and there’s absolutely no place to get food in Rochester after 2 AM that isn’t corporately owned (or nearly not enough.) I was the only person that spoke on behalf of Alemu.
Following me, eight to ten landlords and homeowners, the type of people who look like they’d keep your ball if it rolled into their yard, screamed at the CPC to deny the right for South Wedge Subs remain open past two.
Citing increased crime rates, congestion, people eating on curbs and sidewalks, attracting non-Monroe residents to their area and, from all this, reduced property value and their ability to attract “quality residents.”
The group was dead set on not allowing Monroe Avenue to return to the time it had prior with Gitzis.
Completely out numbered, against neighborhood association leaders and extremely concerned home owners, Alemu’s proposal was promptly rejected in the following Deliberation.
“What about my family?” I over heard Alemu asking one of his most vocal opponents.
“You’ll have to figure something out,” the man responded.
“Following me, eight to ten landlords and homeowners screamed at the planning commision to deny South Wedge Subs the right to remain open past two o’clock.”
Two months into his new business, Alemu closes ten minutes before two to avoid another fine. He shakes his head to those who bang on his windows for food as he cleans to the popular area settling down. In the extra hour he would like to remain open, South Wedge Subs wouldn’t make enough money to cover a $500 fine. He didn’t on New Years.
“I just wish everyone was treated equally,” he told me. “Why can Mark’s be open, and I cannot?”
A bigger issue.
There’s a reason why Mark’s Texas Hots can be open twenty four hours a day. It’s because they are grandfathered into Monroe Avenue’s laws. In 2003 zoning changed and they remained exempt. Ten years isn’t exactly what comes to mind when the term “grandfathered” is thrown around, but there’s a much bigger issue.
Tickets are a good place to start.
Texas Blues and Barbecue got the same fine South Wedge Subs got last year in the same style: two days later with a police write up. Someone left with a bag at 2:45 AM. They were charged.
Almemu’s neighbor got it it too. The second hand store has to close at six but over the summer, they were busy, stayed open and thought that was a good thing.
All learned quickly that hours are strictly enforced, their business model will not work on Monroe and money they spent on their business may be lost come a move to the suburbs.
The immediate thought is to sue, but how could they afford it?
That’s actually the secret, Lisa Jacques says.
Owner of Park Ave Pets in Upper Monroe, the bubbly, enthusiastic Park Avenue resident was very happy to talk to us. She jumped up and down when I mentioned writing an article.
The business hours issue is one she and Alex White have fought with since the creation of The Business Permit, itself. They’ve created a Merchants Association that spans the city, they’ve supported other business through their trials, Jacques has even organized all-night opens where her pet shop stays in solidarity with other business combating the laws the two see as unjust.
She laughed at herself during the interview. This smiley, blond, who does not look like an “Ave Rat” at all, was the girl to keep Gitzis open all night in their 2011 struggle.
In that case it was petitions and news coverage but today it’s hoping someone big sues.
Jaques explained that what Rochester is doing to local business owners is somewhat illegal and that larger business on Monroe doesn’t get these fines.
It goes to New York State’s very specific guide lines to municipality’s zoning power. She used the example of a school.
Rochester can zone for a school, but they cannot say how the school will operate. The school can employ how many people they want. They can have a sign. They could have a drive through if they wanted. The school can have night classes.
Corporations know this law.
If Rochester was to expose Rite Aid, McDonalds, Hess and other larfe business to the routine local business gets, at some point one corporation would sue and set precedent.
With a big win for business in Rochester, there would be a rising for locally owned convince stores becoming 24/7, diners wouldn’t close, in general, it’s what people like Jacques call a “city.”
We’re not New York City
What Jaques sees as a functioning, multi-cultural environment, in some people’s eyes, creating a 24/7 city is to unleash the gates of hell. Bodegas on every corner, people sitting on benches, traffic congestion and horns blaring, drunks all the time – pandemonium.
Is this a neighborhood issue?
“I’d say that’s fair to say,” Mitch Roe said. He’s recently retaken the position of Director of Planning and Zoning. He sat in on the meeting where Alemu was denied.
He saw that the CPC made their decision by ruling that the Monroe neighborhood already offered options for late night meals and that the resources to maintain the peace with another would be too much.
But, he doesn’t make the rules. That’s City Counsel’s job.
He seems like a good guy.
“I don’t want to sound like a bureaucrat,” he laughed, “[but] it’s not appropriate [for me] to tell them how to vote.”
Roe is on what he calls his “second tour of duty” in Rochester’s government. He previously held this position and even spent some time as a code enforcement officer, as well. He explained how these issues come about.
“A lot of these times are complaint driven,” he said. “Somebody probably called [South Wedge Subs] in.”
He also assured me that that inspectors try to work with property owners, offering warnings and time to comply. At least, that’s how it was when he had the job.
“New York City has half of the crime rate we have and it’s because people are on the streets. With more people to see crime, there’s more to call it in. Our closing policy right now is actually part of what makes our streets unsafe.”
For his view, however, he spoke on behalf of the counter point to this issue many in Rochester have been fighting to maintain.
“Rochester is not New York City,” he said.
Downtown is the only 24 hour district here. For other business owners “I don’t see that changing,” he said. It’s about keeping a balance.
A Squeaky Wheel Off Course
After hours of searching on line and door to door in businesses asking around, the phone numbers for any Monroe Avenue neighborhood associations didn’t work, online websites were very outdated the only lead I could get was to the local home owner who has a problem with everything at public hearings.
I was just told there will always be squeaky wheels in a city. Though that sounds like a write off, it is where much of the problem comes from.
The complaint by homeowners is one easily empathized and supported, but I was told by businesses that it doesn’t feel balanced, and it certainly didn’t seem like it at the meeting I had attended.
What has been seen historically is that there are always people to speak for closing business and rarely people to speak in favor.
Of course, this is multi-facited too.
One reason for this is simple. When the City sends postcards to inform neighbors about CPC hearings that affect their neighborhood, a large population is over looked. Renters, rarely receiving mail at their apartment and business owners, many living in the suburbs, are less likely to be notified properly.
Neither will the majority of patrons, not frequenting the business weekly.
Secondly, arguing late-night activity is hard to do when the patrons of these businesses don’t have the time, experience or ‘look’ to be taken seriously at public hearings.
Those who complain, however, have the opposite.
Neighborhood associations get more time to speak than average citizens. They are trained in the art of rallying people to support them. They have large investment in the city and, generally, are white, educated and moderately retired. They also live and breathe neighborhoods.
With time and experience to prepare cases against businesses, ability to cite property values, provide faces of the victims and reference buzz words like lowering crime, it’s easy to see why the CPC sides with neighborhoods over and over and how an over all original policy was created to quell squeaky wheels.
Alex White was there when the legislation against business started in 1996, as well as, when rezoning hit the fan in 2003. He called the first move “the identity theft of business.”
To rein in controls of areas, the business permit was suggested.
White, Monroe business owner and a a vocal citizen disputing new regulation, he was approached. “What can we do to make everyone happy?” he was asked. He offered four points.
Business owners would join a registry, put up a permit ten feet from the entrance, request hours of operation and these rules would apply to all business in the city.
It’s changed a lot since then.
White claims that the city has done everything they can to increase their influence over small business since that day.
Between things like the Better Neighbor Agreement, a documents that all store fronts are bullied into signing prior to opening, strict legislation on signs and a growing support of “quality neighborhoods,” the city has taken what was a document intended to smooth over relations between all parties, and adapted it to be the the ammo to all those that have ever had an issue before.
“The problem isn’t what we agreed upon, and I know what I agreed upon. I wrote it,” he said.
It’s rather hard to believe that prior to 1996 business permits didn’t exist, but it’s true. Jacques compares business licenses to a drvier’s license. It would be ridiculous for Rochester to require a secondary card to drive in the city limits (something that has been attempted before). – It’s not like this everywhere and there is no standard template to regulating a city.
None-the-less, Law went through. There was a lot to be done.
Simply from staring paper work, new industry standards began, codes of conduct were created, and all needed by be enforced by new laws and regulations and so on. Problems arose.
The first is the most obvious was money.
White says that from Rochester’s own records, the average cost of a permit, from submission to approval is $750. The $25 permit application fee doesn’t make a dent in the pot. This means fines and everything that comes with it.
Then there’s check boxes. Business now have to be categorized, a problem that has repeatedly been a an issue for business that doesn’t fall into specific areas. It comes up if a restaurant want to sell tobacco or a toy store wants to be a coffee shop too. There’s no permit for that.
A retail store is open until six but a restaurant is open till 11? There are rulings and hearings and in the process delaying cases, delaying business. Every case is handled separately. These are the things that zoners bore their familys about at the dinner table. Unfortunately, as Roe as say, he isn’t the one to make final ruling. That falls to the City Counsel and CPC.
I watched this in the deliberation of South Wedge Subs. Another case had arisen that dealt with noise violations from outdoor music.
Given a paper with decibel readings on it, the planning member admitted to not knowing what those numbers meant. Why would they?
Citizens, appointed by City Counsel members, are neighborhood people given the job to preside over business. It seems like this would be a good idea, but the technical training to decipher luminosity, awning overhangs, noise level and other intrequesies of city zoning code and neighbor’s complaints is overlooked.
White has suggested on countless occasions to rewrite the law to be based of $0.99 aps for iphones. Police could have a decibel meeter as well as a light meter on them at all times. If there is a sign that’s “too bright” or a business “too loud,” standing outside with this app is an easy way to know. Screenshot and done. (Though, that’s also giving into the idea that there should be regulation at all.)
White and Jaques, and, watching Rochester politics for some time myself, all of this seems like a problem with crime and wrongly pointed figures.
The things that come to CPC are commonly with”problem business.
The two think this concept is ridiculous factor and flaw.
“What is a “problem business?” Jaques asks. “Unless they’re selling drugs and guns, which are already illegal, there is no problem. Crime brings crime, not business.”
White added. “I have yet to see a business be arrested,” he said.
Though, the thing that really irks the two is the biggest irony in the law, itself.
Jaques finds it especially to swallow.
“Rochester has the highest crime rate, poverty rate and unemployment rate in New York State,” she sated. “Allowing business to remain open 24/7 would have “Help Wanted” signs in every store front and food shop on Monroe over night.”
Additionally, it’s not a safety issue.
“New York City has half of the crime rate we have and it’s because people are on the streets. With more people to see crime, there’s more to call it in. Our closing policy right now is actually part of what makes our streets unsafe,”
These points don’t fall well when discussing with City Official and neighborhood associations. They, historically, look at bogegdas, late night food and pawn shops are creators of crime. They tend to obelieve these types of business attract and create criminals and those out past 2AM are up to no good.
Just think of the last time you got a ticket for yelling in public, then think about the last time the bar probably got a ticket for you yelling outside of it.
It all comes around.
The issue of hours came from signs and noise. The signs, being notably a business side and noise notably being a patrons. The problem is who to blame.
To neighbors woken up repeatedly by drunken yells at 2:15 AM, a business is most commonly accountable.
If people leave the bars and go to get food, they are still around making noise. If there are coffee shops open on the corner, there are kids roaming the streets.
Neighbors complained, the city is rather powerless to major corporations, they pass regulation against business to support neighborhoods, some business remains and 2AM becomes a free for all.
“We continually suffer from a set of laws that would not hold up in other case and [the city] continues to insist that we follow them,”White said.
Eliminating the law as a whole is obviously not going to happen. I asked White what he would do first if he could.
“I’d close The Department of Municipal Violations,” he said.
Currently, business pays fines like people pay parking tickets.
“If that was closed we could go to city court. Then we’d see a judge.”
With this, White actually isn’t concerned right now about the situation. He’s worried for the future.
“The people who are here right now weren’t around when these laws passed…what’s going to happen in another 10 years when there are new people who don’t know why these laws were made at all?.. What will they think is illegal then?”
Jaques, instead is an optimist. At the end of our interview she joked with one of her customers about how much she loves people being out and about.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” he said getting serious. “You live by those Park Ave Yuppies.” He lives at the corner of Monroe & Rowley (the worst street for bar noise/neighborhood interaction)
“I have Magpies,” she said.
He jokingly snored. The man admitted to be a partier, bartender and all around wild man in his day. I asked him if he thinks that business should close around his area late at night.
“Hell no,” he said. “People just need to conduct themselves better.”
“When you leave the bar, shut your mouth.”