A simple request to keep the Libra Cafe’s doors open past 10 p.m. led to heated discussion at a Board of Zoning Appeals meeting Tuesday evening.
The lawyer representing the cafe, Miguel Almodovar, appeared before the board to ask for an extension for a special exception granted by the same board last year. The original exception extended the closing hour of the Libra Cafe, a restaurant on Main Street Annex roughly two miles away from campus that serves beer and wine, from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. between Thursdays and Sundays. Though the request was not listed on the board’s agenda as a public hearing, a number of community members and city officials gave negative testimony on the extension, claiming that the cafe’s disruptive patrons taxed city resources. East Shore Alder Al Paolillo, whose ward houses the cafe, cited a history of public disturbances from establishments in the area — including the Libra Cafe.
“If this body can’t use statistical evidence and history as a guide for the future, I’m not sure what we can use,” Paolillo said.
The cafe was issued a cease-and-desist order by Building Official Jim Turcio last month, when Turcio noticed patrons present for Valentine’s Day at the cafe still lingering at 1:35 a.m. the next morning, Almodovar said. Almodovar called the incident an honest mistake, noting that his clients had not wanted to force restaurant patrons to leave abruptly.
Turcio decried the incident as “a strain on city staff,” noting that his department lacked both the time and personnel to handle these incidents.
New Haven Police Sergeant Wilfredo Cruz, the East Shore district manager, said the police department had responded four times to complaints regarding liquor, weapons and noise at the Libra Cafe. In one of these instances, police responded to a fight complaint at approximately 1:16 a.m., discovering several male subjects involved in a physical altercation at the establishment last month. The police have handled similar complaints at neighboring restaurants, he added.
Paul Kowalski SPH ’79, the city’s acting director of public health, who also lives up the street from the cafe, also emphasized that he considers the establishment to be a bar, despite its owners labeling it a family restaurant. He added that the cafe has generated parking and trash issues for the neighborhood “since day one.”
Last March, the board heard extensive testimony on the cafe’s request to extend hours before granting unanimous approval. According to the New Haven Independent, Paolillo also testified against the request at that meeting, noting that he held the cafe and similar establishments in his ward responsible for violating their liquor license terms.
On Tuesday, Almodovar argued that the cafe continues to face competition from nearby restaurants that are not required to close at 10 p.m., such as the Fireside Bar & Grill.
Debate regarding the cafe cycled between its impact on the surrounding neighborhood and the administrative logistics of approving the special exception. The board then took a brief break to review the text of the zoning ordinance. The text regarding renewal states that a “special exception or variance may be renewed administratively by the Board of Zoning Appeals if it is determined that findings made and conditions imposed on the original approval still apply.”
Board Chair Benjamin Trachten noted that the opinions offered over the course of the meeting suggested that the findings and conditions of the original approval might have changed. Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to deny Libra Cafe’s request. Both board members and City Plan staff present suggested that a public hearing be held later to consider the extension of operating hours.
The board also voted to deny a variance for 87 Pearl St. during the meeting. The property currently consists of four apartment units, one of which is an efficiency apartment. Owners Bruce Cross and Grace Cross, who lease out the four apartment units on the property, had applied for a variance to permit a lot area of 5,664 square feet where 7,400 square feet were required for the efficiency apartment.
Grace Cross appealed to the board, noting that the efficiency unit had existed on the property for decades. She said she and Bruce Cross were unaware that the four units were illegal when they purchased the property. She added that the efficiency unit’s current occupant, a fifth-year graduate student at Yale, was emotionally stressed by the situation and could not find another place to live given her current financial situation.
Although board members were sympathetic, the board referred back to a negative City Plan staff report and denied the variance.
“A variance has to be based upon some difficulty or unreasonable hardship in the land,” board member Patricia King said.
The board also heard testimony from the Mory’s Association, which requested a variance to permit a side yard of 3.8 feet where 10 feet are required. The private club at 300 York Street aims to extend the building about eight to nine feet on one side to create a larger serving area for the kitchen, said Glen Gregg, the architect representing Mory’s.
Mory’s General Manager Carla Cruzoni said the restaurant currently does not have enough space for staff to lay out banquets or provide for a full house.
“It’s impossible to get all those parties out,” Cruzoni said. “[There’s] no place to put a tray — soup is a nightmare.”
Other variances on which the board held public hearings included one for 19 Elm St., at which planning for a mixed-use development is underway. Real estate company MOD Equities aims to turn the former Harold’s Bridal Shop at the site into a five-story space by including a commercial ground floor and constructing 46 new residential units in the four floors above. The board also heard testimony on a variance for 418 State St., where a new development is aimed at converting the existing, historic John English building into a mixed-use site oriented towards people using public transit.
The Board of Zoning Appeals will next meet April 12.