Bar battle on South Side
Dani Aboud, co-owner of BaBa D's, a Mediterranean restaurant in the South Side, poses in front of the restaurant's empty liquor shelves.
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No one's buying the next round in the empty storefront at 1021 E. Carson St., or behind the plywood facade masking a mystery renovation at 1715 E. Carson, or at BaBa D's Mediterranean Restaurant four blocks down. As least not yet.
All three, though, are battlegrounds in the ever-changing South Side booze wars, the rules of which changed two years ago when Pittsburgh City Council capped the number of alcohol-serving establishments on Carson by setting a "saturation level" that had already been exceeded. That ordinance is now being challenged in court by two property owners, while a third one's apparent expansion effort has attracted city scrutiny.
The ordinance has allowed South Siders "to catch our breath," said Rick Belloli, executive director of the South Side Local Development Corp. The number of alcohol-serving establishments along the main drag -- not including the new SouthSide Works -- hasn't changed in two years, even as 45 non-alcohol-related new businesses have moved in, he said.
The next challenge, though, may be looming expansion bids by several existing establishments, led by S Bar, at 1713 E. Carson.
Last month S Bar operator Gabe Fontana asked for city permission to turn part of the former Tom's Diner, next to his establishment, into what's described on his application as "retail space." City administrators approved.
Then Councilman Bruce Kraus noticed an application for an expansion of S Bar's liquor license tacked to the plywood over the former Tom's Diner. The state Liquor Control Board had approved the extension of S Bar's existing license into the Tom's Diner space, but S Bar's operators hadn't mentioned serving alcohol in their city zoning permit applications.
Mr. Kraus contacted city Zoning Administrator Susan Tymoczko to find out if that violated the bar density ordinance, which requires the approval of the City Planning Commission and council.
On April 22, Ms. Tymoczko revoked the zoning permit, because of the plans to serve alcohol. .
The next day the Bureau of Building Inspection sent out a written order shutting down the job site, citing both Ms. Tymoczko's action and the presence of an unauthorized opening between S Bar and the Tom's Diner site.
When S Bar sealed the opening, Building Inspection Chief Sergei Matveiev verbally lifted the cease-work order.
Mr. Matveiev said in an interview that Ms. Tymoczko's objection to the liquor license expansion was rendered moot by the closing of the passageway, since that made it impossible for S Bar booze to flow next door.
"I can't imagine that they're going to be walking drinks out on to the sidewalk and bringing them in to [the former] Tom's Diner," he said.
Mr. Kraus said that since it's "obvious that [Mr. Fontana's] intent is to extend his liquor license," he shouldn't be building without going before the Planning Commission and City Council.
Mr. Fontana would not comment. His attorneys, liquor law specialists Lou and Charles Caputo, said they didn't know what his plans are, but added that he hasn't violated any city rules -- including the bar density ordinance, which they argue is illegal.
The Caputos also represent BaBa D's. That restaurant went through the process in the ordinance, agreed to terms including an 11 p.m. end to alcohol service, and got Planning Commission approval -- but was unanimously rejected by council.
Mr. Kraus said that council rejected BaBa D's bid to serve alcohol because Carson already has nine more such establishments than the ordinance permits.
Najib Aboud, owner of BaBa D's, said that business has been "very slow," since he was prevented from becoming the first Mediterranean restaurant on Carson to sell drinks. "How much [money do] we lose? A lot."
He said he spent upwards of $600,000 buying and renovating the place. His Oakland location gets by without serving alcohol, but it caters to the lunch crowd, while South Side diners want dinner and a drink, he said.
Since he can't sell them, he's giving drinks away to dinner groups, he said, while he waits to see whether council's decision and the ordinance are overturned.
The ordinance creates a special class of businesses -- the alcohol-serving restaurant -- that should only be carved out by the state, said Charles Caputo. Municipalities "can't make a distinction between a restaurant that sells liquor, and a restaurant that doesn't," he said.
BaBa D's challenge to council's decision has been consolidated by Common Pleas Judge Joseph James with another court case, filed in December, by businessman James M. Quinn.
Mr. Quinn wanted to turn two buildings at the corner of Carson and 11th Street into a bar, but city administrators would not take his permit applications because they arrived two weeks after the ordinance was introduced. New zoning rules take effect temporarily as soon as they are introduced. The ordinance "is nothing more than an effort to control liquor," which is the state's job, said attorney John E. Quinn, who represents his brother in the case.
Restaurateurs argue that the entertainment scene makes South Side attractive to the young people the city wants to retain, and has helped build the tax base. "If the South Side doesn't have these businesses here, South Side isn't worth a penny," said Mr. Aboud.
The ordinance wasn't an effort at prohibition, said Susan McCoy, former public safety chair for South Side Community Council. It was meant to force those seeking to serve alcohol to first talk with the community.
BaBa D's didn't provide the community with enough information about its plans, she said.
But she's never received a complaint about S Bar, and Mr. Fontana has taken steps to ensure that his restaurant is clean and safe, she said. "To just blatantly say, 'You're not getting an extension of premises, you're not getting this or that,' is a mistake."
First Published May 19, 2009 12:00 am