On the Rocks | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

On the Rocks 

At first, Aggie Brose and the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation were optimistic about plans for a new restaurant to settle in at the site of the former Horoscope Lounge. The bar, at 5431 Penn Ave., had caused the group 15 years' worth of headaches. The Horoscope had been a shot-and-a-beer place. But then it started attracting an "all-day drinker" clientele, observes the BGC's Rick Swartz. Drug dealers, prostitutes and violent patrons eventually marred the bar's name and community standing.

"That whole corner fell into a complete abyss," says Swartz. Eventually, under pressure from the Allegheny County District Attorney, the Horoscope Lounge closed in 2006, and the building was padlocked.

So when Michelle Jimenez, a former New Yorker, approached the BGC about opening a Latino restaurant at the site, Brose says she was excited. The group thought it had found a cure for the community's hangover.

"We were trying to explain what a nuisance that place was and she said, 'Yes, I understand that but it's such a great location,'" recalls Brose, deputy director of the BGC. "I was really impressed with her."

But the BGC has since learned the hard way to take a look at liquor licenses that come into its neighborhood -- in large part because no one else will.

"We've got to police it. We can't allow other forces to determine what should be in our neighborhood," Brose says. "The LCB [Liquor Control Board] doesn't have the self-interest to investigate it."

The BGC grew suspicious of Jimenez's operation when it received an anonymous tip that the business name proposed on her license application, Belvy's, was the nickname of a former Garfield man, Terrald Bennett, with ties to Jimenez. As the BGC later reported in its community paper, The Bulletin, Bennett had previously faced drug charges. "It is going to be difficult for the [BGC] to support the application," Swartz was quoted in the paper saying.

Swartz says he later saw Bennett on the building's premises and that Bennett admitted his involvement but felt unfairly maligned by publicity.

"We thought we had come so far on Penn Avenue. This was a major step backward," Swartz says today.

The story was later picked up by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Jimenez withdrew her application for a liquor license; the BGC has since confirmed a sales agreement to purchase the Horoscope building. Jimenez declined to comment for this story, but her attorney, Lou Caputo, believes things got rough when the community started getting personal.

"Who are you to judge?" asks Caputo, a Downtown-based liquor-license attorney who also represents owners on the city's nuisance-bar list. "They're speculating, and speculation doesn't count. You deal with that owner. You don't deal with the owner's friends, the owner's brothers.

"I think with these community groups, it's kind of all or nothing," he adds.

click to enlarge Aggie Brose, deputy director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, speaks with Lt. Kevin Kraus of Pittsburgh Police Zone 5, during a code sweep by the BGC's public-safety task force on June 10. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Aggie Brose, deputy director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, speaks with Lt. Kevin Kraus of Pittsburgh Police Zone 5, during a code sweep by the BGC's public-safety task force on June 10.

The BGC has also taken on the Brian & Cooper Food Mart in Bloomfield. A crowd of 70 residents at an April 8 community meeting argued that the establishment -- a convenience store which sells beer and other malted beverages -- was responsible for a whole slew of neighborhood problems. But liquor-enforcement officials on hand stressed that there was no evidence of illegal activity there, and the building's owner, Nick Redondo, eventually erupted, "We go through this ritual every year!"

In Jimenez's case, Caputo acknowledges the Horoscope's troubled past. But, he says, "We're trying to deal with new people. ... If I was standing up here with TGI Friday's, would I be getting the same push back?"

Brose says communities are merely doing due diligence -- and bars that pass muster will be embraced by her organization.

"I can be your best friend," she says, "or I can be your worst nightmare."


Theresa Kail-Smith says she knows how hard bar owners have it. Her grandmother once owned Aces/Deuces in Uptown -- and, at the age of 76, had to force an unruly patron out with a pool cue.

You can see some family resemblance as Kail-Smith, a city councilor representing the city's western neighborhoods, walks into Molly O's, a Sheraden watering hole. It's 9:30 p.m. on a weeknight in early June. In 2007, a man was shot just outside.

As Kail-Smith enters, wearing a cerulean sweater and matching framed glasses, everything seems to freeze -- even the music. A dozen pairs of eyeballs swivel to the door.

It only takes Kail-Smith about 10 seconds to learn that the owner is out -- she'll have to come tomorrow if she wants to talk about any concerns -- but that's enough time for a man in his mid-20s to approach a City Paper photographer.

"I want to kiss you," he says.

"I have a boyfriend," she replies.


Kail-Smith isn't on a bar crawl, exactly. She and Ginny Kropf, a friend and community activist, frequently visit bars in the area ... but usually to look into neighbors' concerns about rowdy establishments. The hour is often late when Smith makes her rounds, much to her husband's dismay.

"I go right to the owners. My approach is to work with them," she says. "I don't want to put anyone out of business." But she's not afraid to step in if a bar gets out of hand. And there's a reason Kail-Smith embarks on these late-night outings: Thanks to state law, she doesn't have much other opportunity for oversight.

Every bar requires a liquor license, and in the vast majority of cases, the bar owner buys the license from someone else. State law, however, gives local officials the ability to review such transfers only when the license originates from outside the city limits. If a license is moved from one city neighborhood to the other -- called an "intra-municipal transfer" -- city councilors like Kail-Smith has no say in the matter.

That's a long-standing problem for neighborhoods like the South Side, whose 15203 ZIP code holds more than 120 liquor licenses, according to Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board online records. (By contrast, Oakland has 82 licenses, Shadyside just 33.) Not all licenses are active.

Council does get to approve or disallow license transfers, and to call a public hearing when they are brought from outside the city borders. In such cases, would-be bar owners must complete a four-page questionnaire requesting background information, and submit a business plan, reasons for acquiring a license outside of the city, necessary permits and leases -- as well as disclosing any previous liquor-related violations. Since 2007, Pittsburgh City Council has reviewed five such applications, denying two of them.

And while the state Liquor Control Board has the final say, if the local governing body doesn't approve the transfer, it probably won't happen. "We would stop it," says Tisha Albert, assistant director at the Bureau of Licensing. There is no appeals process if the city denies a transfer.

click to enlarge Pittsburgh City Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith and Sheraden community activist Ginny Kropf, outside Di'Versions Cocktail Lounge in Windgap, on June 1. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Pittsburgh City Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith and Sheraden community activist Ginny Kropf, outside Di'Versions Cocktail Lounge in Windgap, on June 1.
Even so, city council doesn't have the resources to fully investigate license applicants.

"How do we know?" asks Councilor Doug Shields. "Let's say [the license] comes from a previously bad bar. Is it legitimate? Council has no way to penetrate that." Police can do background checks, he says, but council relies heavily on community input.

Take Craig's, a bar next door to Molly O's on Chartiers Avenue. Formerly the site of Kron's Draught House, the bar had a reputation for fighting and other disruptive activity. And community leaders had misgivings about Mallory Craig, who sought to open the bar after working for the city as a street sweeper.

Originally, Craig sought to transfer a liquor license from outside the city. But in his transfer application, he disclosed a handful of misdemeanors in the early 1990s, including a DUI. The city denied the transfer. "I was 21 years old. Now I'm 41. Those were tough times," Craig says of the charges.

But Craig later obtained the license from a bar in Squirrel Hill in November -- a transfer the city was powerless to stop.

So Kail-Smith used other means. She told Craig that if he worked with the community, she wouldn't pursue the problem with his background further.

But if the bar became a problem, she warned, "I would aggressively pursue the business license."

Happily, it hasn't come to that. Craig says that, although he'd never run a bar before, he knew about the location's history, and understood the community's reservations. "Once you put up with an owner with a lot of problems, you don't think the next one is going to be any better," he says. So he's installed security cameras, offers a food menu and has made his bar a non-smoking establishment. He maintains that he, too, is invested in the community. "This is my place," he adds. "This is where I want to hang out."

Kail-Smith calls Craig's a success story, noting he recently hosted a community meeting. It's an example, she says, "of how bars and community members can all peacefully exist."

But Sheraden may simply have gotten lucky. Local officials say such transfers can easily go the other way.

"I'm not sure what power we have locally," says Councilor Bruce Kraus, who represents the South Side. "It appears the state holds all the cards."


Some state officials agree that's a problem.

State Sen. Wayne Fontana, whose district includes much of the South Side, recently sought to give local officials more leverage on intra-municipal transfers. When a bill making various amendments to the state liquor code came up recently, Fontana tried to add an amendment requiring a public hearing when such transfers are proposed. The measure would also give Pittsburgh officials authority to approve the transfers.

"It was important that certain neighborhoods didn't become just totally saturated with bars and restaurants," Fontana says. "If you just keep adding to it, it just gets worse."

Fontana's amendment, however, was later stripped from the legislation, due to lack of consensus on its language among the city's Senate delegation.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo declined to comment. But Jay Costa, a Forest Hills Democrat, says there were concerns about setting arbitrary limits on the number of bars in an area, as well the legality of limiting saturation. "How do you look at the record of a business that's not even open yet and say this is the straw that breaks the camel's back?" he asks. He also says there were concerns that the rules would "make it more burdensome" for legitimate bar owners to open up, thereby slowing economic growth.

Kail-Smith poses in front of Craig's, a bar in Sheraden. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Kail-Smith poses in front of Craig's, a bar in Sheraden.

Industry groups note that bars are already subject to plenty of legal oversight. In addition to the state's liquor code, there are provisions like the Dram Shop laws, which allow bars to be sued if they serve a visibly drunk person or minor, who later causes injury or damage as a result of being drunk.

"When you go into this business, you know you're going into business where you are heavily monitored," says Amy Christie, executive director of lobbying group PA Tavern Association. "You're responsible for not just the safety of you and your employees and regular clientele, but [others], especially with Dram Shop laws. It's a nightmare. It's a big investment."

About 20 percent of liquor-license holders cause problems, says Bob George, acting district commander of the Pittsburgh office of the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement. The BLCE is an arm of the state police and is responsible for enforcing Pennsylvania liquor laws.

The trouble usually begins with "ignoring a few of the rules, then it gets more serious," George adds. But for the most part, bar owners are "decent, hardworking people."

Which is just as well, because the LCE's resources are strained.

Twenty-one enforcement agents are responsible for a six-county territory that includes Allegheny County. It's the largest district office in the state, with 4,185 liquor licensees. (In comparison, the Philadelphia office's three-county region patrols 3,272 licenses with 19 agents.) Ordinarily, Pittsburgh would have 32 agents, but the state's budget problems have forced a hiring freeze which has left 11 positions vacant.

"I could certainly use a lot more officers but ... the state is in difficult financial times," says Major John Lutz, who heads the LCE in Harrisburg.

There's more at stake than just keeping bar patrons from urinating in nearby alleys. The truly troublesome bars are "used as a front and sometimes they're magnets for other criminal activity," says District Attorney Stephen Zappala.

In fact, bars can be subject to extensive law-enforcement investigations, with full-blown surveillance and confidential informants doing undercover work.

At the now-shuttered Chez Lounge in Moon Township, for example, court records allege a whole series of criminal acts. The filing document showed confiscated gambling machines, frequent reports of fights and drug trafficking. A man was shot in the head after a fight with an employee. A neighbor reported two people engaged in sexual activity in a vehicle outside. Bar patrons yelled obscenities at children getting off a school bus.

In such cases, state officials get an assist from local law enforcement. Locally, the Nuisance Bar Task Force brings together city police and investigators from the Allegheny County District Attorney's office, along with concerned citizens and officials from health and building-safety agencies. The task force was established in 1986 to address neighborhood bars that became "havens for illicit activities" like drug sales, gambling, prostitution and vandalism, according to Pittsburgh vice commander Cheryl Doubt.

The bars are referred to the task force and LCE via police reports and community complaints. At first, the idea is to help the owner -- recommending the installation of surveillance cameras or security, for example. "We try to give them positive steps they can implement," says George, of the Pittsburgh LCE office.

Ultimately, though, a nuisance bar that doesn't mend its ways can be padlocked for up to one year and may have its license revoked or forfeited. The PLCB may also deny a renewal, or change the status of a license based on nuisance issues.

In 2009, the LCE opened 22 nuisance-bar investigations across the state that resulted in the closure of four establishments. As of May, LCE agents have opened 10 investigations this year; none have been in Pittsburgh.

In Allegheny County, the Nuisance Bar Task Force has conducted approximately 400 inspections over the past 10 years, according to the District Attorney's office. And in that time, judges have ordered the closing of eight bars; 13 others signed a consent agreement with the courts and 30 closed on their own.

When pursuing nuisance-bar action, "What we're looking for are citations, sales to visibly intoxicated patrons, sales to minors, drug activity, loudspeaker violations," says the PLCB's Albert. "We're looking for citations that actually affect the community."

Such issues -- like community concern and a track record of problems with police -- are also factors the PLCB weighs when a bar's license is up for renewal, which happens every two years.

Groups like the BGC take advantage of such opportunities. Since the mid-1980s, the group has worked to close about 10 bars. (The Bloomfield-Garfield area has 42 liquor licenses today.) The Quiet Storm Coffeeshop was once the location of a disruptive bar, that even held a chocolate-pudding wrestling match outside, says BGC executive director Swartz.

More than a decade of nuisance-bar activity has organizers wary of anything that might create a "permanent underclass," Swartz says.

"You gotta be able to show me [that] the benefits of what you're doing don't become the burdens of someone else," he says.

And as far as Brose is concerned, as soon as the orange placard is posted announcing a bar owner's application or transfer, that's the cue for neighbors to use their leverage. State law gives residents within 500 feet of a bar -- and churches, hospitals and other institutions within 300 feet -- 30 days to protest such an application. Brose plots that area on a map, and then hands out fliers advertising a community meeting the applicant is invited to attend. The community asks the applicant to share a business plan and background, and give details of the operation such as hours, number of seats, parking accommodations and security plans.

If a prospective bar owner earns the support of the BGC, the organization asks them to sign a memorandum of understanding, agreeing to stipulations such as agreeing not to sell 40-ounce beverages, opening before 11 a.m. or having dollar draft specials. All of those practices, Brose says, are likely precursors to disruptive activity. And while a memorandum pledging not to engage in such activity isn't legally binding, Brose says, it demonstrates good faith on the part of the establishment.

In other cases, such requirements can be made a condition of the liquor license itself. Elsewhere in town, stipulations on conditional licenses have included stamping the bar's name on paper bags used to sell alcoholic beverages to go -- so booze can be traced back to the source -- meeting with police and community leaders quarterly, and retaining security guards on the premises. Violations of any of those stipulations could result in loss of a license.

Still, bar owners sometimes bristle at being blamed for all of a neighborhood's problems. "It's a gray area," says Lutz, of the LCE. "We have bars in neighborhoods with higher crime rates and we have to try to distinguish whether it's the bar or licensed establishment at fault."

"You can have a lot of problems outside of your place," says Caputo, the liquor attorney. As a bar owner, "you can only do so much to protect yourself."

Ultimately, though, local officials are seeking more oversight, not less.

In the South Side, Councilor Bruce Kraus has proposed a "responsible hospitality management plan." Part of that management includes forming a code-cooperation team to review codes and compliance, a dedicated policing unit for the South Side on weekends, and creating a social-message marketing campaign.

"If we wait until the situation is deteriorating and to the point where we have to introduce police officers," Kraus says, "we have already failed."

Kraus says the stakes for the community are too high to not attack on the front end of things, and have a review process.

"People invest their lives, life savings, homes, family in a community," he says. "People really should have a say in how their community grows and changes."


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