Solomon Alemu had a great New Year’s Eve.
His new shop, South Wedge Subs, was off to a good start. Monroe Avenue was alive, spirits were high, and closing up at 3am he went home to be with his family. Unfortunately, for Alemu, 2014 would soon turn sour.
Two days later a police officer gave him a ticket for $500, a crippling fine for any start-up. It was to prove even worse. This ticket also meant his business plan was definitely not going to work. All businesses must be closed by 2 AM on Monroe Avenue.
I met Solomon a few weeks later at a harder time for him: pleading to the City Planning Commission for extended hours. He needed a permit.
They’re needed for just about everything in Rochester. There are permits for signs, for lights, for events, for entertainment, hell, there’s even a permit for a “going out of business sale.” For these, there’s the City Planning Commission, or CPC, a citizen council board that rules over zoning applications, delegating after public input.
With a lot of technical zoning-y stuff – R1’s to C2’s, historical site approvals, parking lot extensions, and patio applications, it’s a humanization of government where people can present their fair case.
Alemu’s seems like a no brainer.
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. With Monroe Avenue populated every night and the entire street devoid of late night food, he thought ‘Why not?’
He presented why he should be allowed to stay open, elaborating on some confusion over the fine, his need for extra hours, a wish to improve the promising area, and his ability to take some of the crowd from his kitty corner neighbor Mark’s,. He sat down, the floor opening for people to speak in favor of his cause.
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.) Neither of us thought that I would be the only person to speak on his behalf.
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 to remain open past two.
Citing increased crime rates, congestion, people eating on curbs and sidewalks – attracting non-Monroe residents to their area – they suggest eventual reduction in property value, his shop’s presence greatly hindering their ability to attract “quality residents.”
The group was dead set on not allowing Monroe Avenue to return to the time it had with Gitsis’, a 2009 debacle of shootings and late-night fights.
Completely outnumbered, against neighborhood association leaders and extremely concerned home owners, Alemu’s proposal was promptly rejected in the following deliberation.
I over heard Alemu asking one of his most vocal opponents “What about my business, my family?”
“You’ll have to figure something out,” the man responded.
Now two months after starting his new business, Alemu closes ten minutes before two to avoid another fine. He shakes his head to those who bang on his windows and curses at his establishment for being closed for food as he cleans, the popular area settling down. He would obviously love to serve those drunken assholes, though, 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 Year’s, either.
“I just wish everyone was treated equally,” he told me. “Why can Mark’s be open, and I cannot?”
A bigger issue.
Alemu’s story isn’t completely unique. Texas Blues and Barbecue got the same fine South Wedge Subs got last year in what has been said to be in the same style: two days later with a police write up.
Almemu’s neighbor got it too and they’re not even food. **The second hand store’s business permit is limited until 6. In the Summer, after also recently opening, they were busy and pushed past hours optimistically. All of these businesses learned quickly that hours are strictly enforced, their business model will not work on Monroe Avenue and money is going to be tighter than anticipated.
They could all appeal, of course, if denied they could still sue, but how could they afford it while running a start-up?
That’s actually the secret, Lisa Jacques says.
Over the past 17 years, since the creation of the permit, Jacques, owner of Park Ave Pets in Upper Monroe, has been fighting for business hours. It’s where all of the fines are grounded. She, with others, has started a merchants association that spans the city and supported other businesses through their trials. Jacques even organized all-nighters where her pet shop stays open in solidarity alongside other business fed up with the law.
She was very happy to talk to me. She jumped up and down when I mentioned writing an article.
During our interview she laughed. This bubbly pet store gal, who does not look like an “Ave Rat,” late-nighter or head banger at all, was the girl to keep Gitzsis open all night in their 2009 struggle when the city associated their 24/7 policy with the crime on Monroe. They’ve since chosen to close earlier, as pictured in the previous page, but with petitions and news coverage Jacques managed to push their business hours further.
Today she hopes 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 this routine. This is why your corporate backed stores can slide through the laws and remain open whenever. It’s a result of New York State’s very specific guide lines for a municipality’s zoning power.
There is the example of school buildings. 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, McDonald’s, Hess and other late-night 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, convenience stores would move back to a 24/7 status, no diners would close, and in general, people would be out all night and Rochester would be what Jacques likes to call a “city.” This 2AM thing would be over.
We’re not New York City
While Jacques and others of us see a functional, 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 Rowe said. He’s recently retaken the position of Director of Planning and Zoning. He sat in on the meeting where Alemu was denied. Roe 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.”
Rowe 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.
For his view, however, he spoke on behalf of the counter point to this issue.
“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.
The squeaky wheel…
After hours of searching online, going door to door in businesses and asking around, the phone numbers for any Monroe Avenue neighborhood associations didn’t work. Online websites were very outdated. The only lead I follow was the local home owner who has a problem with everything at public hearings. Not wanting to bother a man at his house, I observe his concerns.
Living by Monroe Avenue can be loud. Street parking gets taken, cans are left around. The area is a massive web of pedestrians traveling to patronize a business somewhere else. And sadly, from perception to fruition, late night activity brings down property value. Thus, the complaint by homeowners and landlords is one easily empathized with and supported.
Then, there’s the other side.
I was told by many businesses that it doesn’t feel like they’re in a balanced system and it certainly didn’t seem like it at the meeting I had attended.
Alemu’s time at the CPC came off more like a hanging than a hearing.
Historically, what has been seen at the average CPC is that there are always people to speak for closing businesses and rarely people to speak in their favor. Of course, this is multi-faceted.
One reason is simple. When the City sends postcards to inform neighbors about CPC hearings that affect their neighborhood a large population is overlooked. Renters rarely receiving mail at their apartment, and business owners, many living in the suburbs, are less likely to be notified properly. Patrons rarely hear that businesses have a permit hearing, due to infrequency of visits.
Secondly, arguing late-night activity is hard to do. The average citizen to advocate an all night affair is most likely someone who partakes in late night activity nightly. Their schedules fluctuate, they don’t live next door to the business, and they aren’t versed in public hearings.
Those who organize complaints, however, are the opposite.
Neighborhood associations and community groups, for example, are trained in the art of rallying people to support them. They have a large investment in the city. They have the time and experience to prepare cases against businesses, ability to cite property values, and reference buzz words like “Lowering Crime.” They even get more time for their voice to be heard.
When neighbors gather eight to one, it’s easy to see why the CPC sides over and over against business and how general policy was created to quell squeaky wheels.
Alex White was there for the start of the business permit, as well. He called it the “the identity theft of business.” White, a Monroe business owner and vocal citizen was actually approached to help solve disputes. “What can we do to make everyone happy?” he was asked.
He offered four points. Business owners could 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.
Now, with the ability to regulate, create standards, require permits, and fine, what was once just a business owners’ choice of when to turn over their open sign is now a drawn out procedure. Each case is handled separately.
“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 drvier’s licenses. 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. None-the-less it is, and with new laws there was a lot that needed to be done to get here.
Simply from statring paper work, new industry standards began, codes of conduct were created, all needed to be enforced by new laws and regulations and so on. Problems arose.
The first and 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 them.
Then there’s check boxes. Business now have to be categorized, a problem that has repeatedly been an issue for business that doesn’t fall into specific areas. It comes up if a restaurant wants to sell tobacco or a toy store wants to be a coffee shop, too. There’s no permit for either of these.
How late should their hours be? Retail is until six, but coffee can be later, and what if there’s food? These are the things that zoners bore their families with at the dinner table, but as Roe as said, he isn’t the one to make a final ruling. That falls to the City Planning Commission.
There are also unforeseen consequences. I witnessed setbacks after the hearing 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 and that they couldn’t rule from them. Why would they? Appointed by City Counsel members, Rochester citizens are given the job to preside over business. It seems like this would be a good idea, but the technical training required to decipher luminosity, awning overhangs, noise levels, to calculate traffic, and of course, appropriate for business hours, is dense.
All are issues that arise for city zoning officials and not an everyman’s skill set. White has suggested rewriting the laws to be based on $0.99 aps for iphones. Police could have a decibel meter 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.)
Ironically, the biggest problem with the city’s method of permit hearings is the hearings themselves.
Neighbors are now able to weigh in against anything they see unfit in their neighborhood. South Wedge Subs got it bad, but I can only imagine what happens when corner stores attempt to remain open. There suddenly becomes something called “problem business,” a blanket term for anything that attracts an unwanted crowd.
The two think this concept is a ridiculous factor, and flawed.
“What is a “problem business?” Jacques asks.
“Unless a business is selling drugs and guns, which are already illegal, there is no problem. Crime brings crime, not business.”
“I have yet to see a business be arrested,” White added when asked.
The entirety of the city’s regulation has led to emptier streets, less business, and in turn, a new found risk as late-nighters lose places to go. Jacques is especially irked by this 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.”
In fact, she sees the reversal of this law as salvation for our city.
“Rochester has the highest crime rate, poverty rate and unemployment rate in New York State,” she stated. “Allowing business to remain open 24/7 would have “Help Wanted” signs in every store front and food shops across the city over night.”
It all comes around.
Though it’s merely the glaze on a twelve story cake, the issue of hours, signage, patios, music and more came as a result of neighbors being woken up repeatedly by drunken yells at 2:15 AM – a feeling of danger in an unruly and growing city.
Someone was going to be at fault.
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. Business takes the fall for our own actions in Rochester. Think of the last time you got a fine for yelling on the sidewalk and think of the last time a bar got a fine for you yelling outside.
“We continually suffer from a set of laws that would not hold up in other case[s] and [the city] continues to insist that we follow them,” White said. I asked White what he would do to rectify this issue. “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.”
White actually isn’t concerned about the situation right now. He’s worried for the future.
“The people who are here right now that 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?”
Jacques, 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,” the customer 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 [Bar],” said Jacques. The manjokingly snored, admitting to be a partier, bartender, and all around wild man in his day. I asked if he felt 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.”
An attempt at closure.
Coming to grips, I made my way to the North East Neighborhood Service Center to meet with Nancy Johns-Price. She not only issued all of the tickets for the Monroe violations, but is also the person to see prior to opening a business in Rochester’s North East Side.
Price falls in as the enforcer, and a nice one at that. She explained that every business ticketed on Monroe was warned multiple times by police officers, through phone calls, and that all were not only in violation of the law, but we’re audacious in that they knowingly broke the rules.
She didn’t seem happy to fine a small business, and, in fact, is more interested in bolstering rather than squelching it. Price explained that her job is more about cultivating creative communication between police and business owners, and basically keeping everyone on the same page. Price wished Alemu would have come to her prior to opening. She has a book of places that are allowed to be open all night. Though I couldn’t find any on her list that weren’t grandfathered in, she assured me they exist.
It’s an interesting twist that these businesses actually knew of their faults, but I was there to chase a lead for the Good Neighbor Agreement. White had told me to look into this document that all businesses are asked to sign. He said it would clear everything up.
I was only able to get this piece of paper through a meeting, and of the several templates offered I was handed one for a corner store. It’s two pages of ten points explaining what is expected of business in Rochester.
Price summarized it in business terms – there’s a standard to uphold, and it’s definitely about outsider perceptions.
The Good Neighbor Agreement insists that people should feel safe coming into a business. Windows cant be blocked for community interactions reasons. Signs should be correspondingly appropriate to the size of the building. You shouldn’t allow your business to get too loud. You should shovel the sidewalks; you should pick up trash. Loitering is not encouraged and should be handled by the store workers. Business must operate in the hours they’re allotted.
Most of these points are embedded in city code between trash pickup and banner regulation. It’s the tenth point that really breaks everything down. \
Section 10 in this optional (yet enforced) agreement (for corner stores) states that “the city discourages the sale of items commonly bought by drug dealers and users.” This includes, but is not limited, to glass pipes, rolling papers, cigar wraps, Brillo pads, bandanas, and so on. They also request cigar options be limited to two flavors.
Like I was told, it’s about expectations.
If a business sells those products, the store attracts a “different clientele.”*** It was stressed to me that stores that sell blunts often have tobacco thrown on the ground with litter. People hang out, people see this and the crime rate increases.
It’s clear. Business gets blamed for crime.
Cut paraphernalia sales, cut drug users. Cut hours, cut crime. Why is there no more late night food? It all comes down to property value and zoning, control and you and I. But mainly, it comes down to the perception of our neighborhoods. Until we say otherwise, the city thinks it’s good for Rochester to be in bed by 2.
** Since this article the Consignment shop had a hearing and was denied longer hours. The same people who had yelled to close South Wedge were present to close his neighbor. They believed that having another pawn shop increased crime on Monroe. What’s funny is that he sells games and collectibles. It was clear that no one who was speaking against him had ever been in his store.
*** “Different Clientele” was the exact phrase used repeatedly to me in the interview, possibly even once with a gestured quotations.