About 20 residents, business owners and a few politicians spoke out at last night’s Special Council meeting about a proposal that would repeal Hoboken’s “500-foot rule” and while the majority went on record saying they didn’t want the regulation repealed, many seemed open to at least some changes in the law.
Earlier this month, two Council members co-sponsored an ordinance that would do away with the rule, which says that an establishment cannot operate with a liquor license within 500 feet of an already existing liquor-licensed location. According to officials, Hoboken has approximately 140 total liquor licenses, with the vast majority being for consumption (i.e. bars and restaurants). The law change would not add any additional licenses to the city, but could potentially make it easier to transfer the licenses around.
The meeting started with comments from Council members, who seemed split on the ordinance in terms of support. But when the public stepped up to the mic, it became clear that most didn’t support repealing the ordinance. One resident of Hoboken’s First Ward, home to the highest concentration of bars, even invited Council members to take a tour with him around the neighborhood after midnight on a Friday or Saturday in an effort to demonstrate how the 500-rule could lead to more bars opening in the area and negatively affecting the quality of life.
A few restaurant owners also spoke out against the change. Armando Luis, owner of La Isla, stated that the reasons for the 500-foot rule, an attempt to control the proliferation of bars, “have not entirely gone away.” He suggested that instead of repealing the law, the city create zones within Hoboken that are currently underserved by restaurants where new, less strict liquor license rules would apply. He also recommended limiting the ratio of bar seats to overall seats in an attempt to encourage new restaurants to open instead of watering holes.
But there were a few business owners who supported the change. Mike Gallucci, owner of Green Rock and Grand Vin, made perhaps the most impassioned pitch for repealing the law, stating that the rule makes business owners feel “trapped,” as they can’t easily move their business if their landlord raises their rent. “You can’t negotiate with the landlord if you have nowhere to go,” he said, citing examples of Maxwell’s and Hobson’s Choice as establishments he felt had closed due to the rule.
Joseph Costello, who’s re-opening Antique Bakery on Willow Avenue, also supported the repeal. “If you try to control the market, there’s a lot of unintended consequences,” he told the Council. But Hoboken Chamber of Commerce President Richard Mackiewicz said their membership is “very split” on the issue of the 500-foot rule, demonstrating the thorny balance that will need to be struck if changes are made.
Planning Board members Gary Holtzman and Ryan Peene both suggested during the meeting that repealing the 500-foot rule in redevelopment areas might make sense, as lifting the restriction could create new restaurant rows in emerging parts of the city. Fourth Ward Councilman Ruben Ramos noted that his ward, in the city’s southwest section, has only three liquors licenses and few places to eat. “Whatever flexibility we can create, I’m willing to listen,” he said.
Before the meeting, First Ward Councilman Michael DeFusco, who previously served on the Zoning Board, told Jersey Digs that he feels the issue would be best addressed by zoning changes. “Our city’s dated zoning is actually the core factor in why bars and restaurants can’t proliferate in Hoboken,” he said. “Even lifting the 500-foot rule would still subject bars and restaurants to zoning that dates back to the 1980s.”
Despite some earlier reports, ordinance co-sponsor Jim Doyle confirmed at the meeting that a vote on the matter isn’t imminent and there will likely be further discussion on the matter when the city re-evaluates its Master Plan early next year.