South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Tom Smith
South Pittsburgh Reporter Editor 

South Side mobilizes to testify against new after-hours club on E. Carson St.


April 19, 2011

United by a common cause, more than four dozen South Siders jammed the hearing room of the City of Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment last week to protest an after-hours social club's application for a special exception to operate on the East Carson Street.

After the original hearing on March 10 was postponed, Thomas Barnes, operator of the proposed club for Triko Enterprises, and his attorneys met with representatives from the South Side Planning Forum and interested community stakeholders to see if common ground could be found to allow the club to open. Through three often contentious meetings, South Side residents and nearby businesses maintained they did not want another bar, especially one that would be open until 3 a.m.

Wrenna Watson, chairwoman of the Zoning Board, seemed slightly surprised when she asked all interested parties to move up and around the table and almost the entire gallery, more than 50 people, pulled up chairs.

Prior to beginning the hearing, the members of the Zoning Board heard that several letters were sent to the board in protest of a special exemption being granted for the club; one letter from the owners of the former Hkan Hookah Bar and another from Lt. Shirley Sloan, acting commander of the Zone 3 Police Station.

"Such after-hours, "Club" liquor-licensed establishments in the East Carson Street business district would have detrimental impacts on the public safety of individuals and property, in my personal and professional opinion," Lt. Sloan wrote. "The City of Pittsburgh Zone 3 Police force does not have the resources to handle an increase in demand for our services. 911 calls for police service – in and around East Carson Street – spike in the early morning hours on Saturday and Sunday (12-4 a.m.)."

Attorney Jonathan Kamin, with the firm of Goldberg Kamin & Garvin was representing the appellant, Mr. Barnes, operating manager for Polish American Citizens Club of Western Pennsylvania (PAC), submitted documents into the record including a copy of the club's 1998 articles of incorporation, a copy of the corporate charter, excerpts of the lease and a copy of the Liquor Control Board's approval for a liquor license.

Mr. Barnes told the board he has operated 133 clubs over the last 35 years, some his, some for other people. The liquor license for the PAC is in his name.

As he maintained in the community meetings, he said the PAC would be an "upscale" space with membership geared toward an older crowd, not toward "21 to 25 year olds." Membership is required to enter and any new members have to be referred by a current member and be approved by the club's Board of Directors.

Each member is permitted to bring two guests into the club. Current membership is approximately 70.

Proposed operating hours for the club are from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m., there will be no daytime hours.

The façade of the building will be renovated along with work on the interior to add restrooms and a 26' bar.

Although they plan to sell food, a simple menu of "unique" sandwiches and soup, there are no plans to have live music or a disc jockey in the club. Mr. Barnes said there will be no entertainment on site.

Prior to coming to the Zoning Board, Mr. Barnes said he agreed to several self-imposed conditions including: storing all rubbish indoors and being rolled out only for collection; provide offsite parking for five to eight employees, including the two on-site parking spaces in a garage in the rear of the building; to remove litter and debris around the building at closing time; to not provide live music or a disc jockey; to discourage waiting lines of greater than 10 people; and, to install exterior surveillance cameras and lighting.

Mr. Barnes said patrons wouldn't be permitted to exit through the rear of the building and there would be no outside operations. He estimated they would have occupancy of 80 people in the 1,700 square foot layout of the club.

Interior seating at the club would include 16 at the bar and seats for another 60 at tables and booths. Currently, he said, there are no plans to use the 130 square foot mezzanine.

He offered to put the exterior lighting on timers if neighboring residents requested.

Mr. Barnes said "to his knowledge" the bars and clubs he's been associated with have had a limited number of violations including several for underage drinking and a few citations for drink specials, "six or seven total."

He anticipated the social aspect of the club will include participating in bowling and softball leagues and doesn't have any community goals.

Although he expects a total membership of around 500 people, there will be no general membership meetings and he didn't think all the members would show up for a meeting anyway.

Currently most of the members of the club don't live in the South Side and Mr. Barnes said it would be "very possible" most of the members won't live in the neighborhood. Parking isn't required for patrons of the club and he didn't have plans to provide customer parking.

Voicing opposition to the proposed club included Councilman Bruce Kraus and representatives from the South Side Planning Forum, the South Side Community Council, the South Side Chamber of Commerce, the South Side Friends of the Library, Carson Towers, Business Forward, South Shore Court Board of Directors and Gala Limited Partnership in addition to neighboring residents and businesses including Perlora, Pittsburgh Jean Company and Mallorca and Ibiza restaurants.

"Clearly the community stands in opposition," Mr. Kraus said.

Saying "critical mass" with parking has been reached in South Side, the councilman referenced the illegal parking sweep in the neighborhood last October when nearly 1,000 cars were issued citations for illegal parking and hundreds more were towed.

"There simply is no more parking," he said.

He referenced media reports of the detrimental impact the number of bars and bar patrons have had on the neighborhood noting according to police reports 3 a.m. is "critical mass for crime and violence" in the community.

Mr. Kraus said the community hasn't seen an agreement between the PAC and the Light of Life Mission. Often bars say they are donating to charities, but the charities don't know anything about the drinking promotion, he added.

"It will blow a huge hole in the foundation of the South Side," Perry Sigesmund, owner of Perlora furniture store, said of the possibility of the club opening.

He told the Zoning Board the neighboring businesses of the proposed club, including himself, Pittsburgh Jean Company, and the Mallorca and Ibiza restaurants, cater to an upscale clientele and having {the PAC} as the first thing customers see as they are crossing the Birmingham Bridge would be detrimental to their businesses.

He said now, without the club open, he often has to power wash the front of his property to clean up the urine and vomit from bar patrons.

"This is a bar that's opening. If you don't believe that, then you're fooled," he said.

Lawrence Scott, owner of the Pittsburgh Jeans Company said in his 10 years on Carson he has witnessed the "good and bad of South Side" and complained of the "never ending influx of bars." He pointed out to the board there are already six bars within the same block as his business, on the same side of the street all with only 10 metered parking spaces.

If the Zoning Board allows another bar in the block it would be "throwing salt in the wounds of legitimate businesses down there," he said.

Mr. Scott said if the Zoning Board allows the PAC to open he will move his business out of South Side.

Also dissenting was Lou Glasso from the Gale Limited Partnership, a real estate management company. Mr. Glasso pointed out to the board he has property next to another after-hours club in South Side near 18th and Jane streets. He said they have trouble keeping tenants from moving out because of the noise and broken glass from the neighboring club.

"We're having more trouble bringing better businesses to South Side {because of the bars}," he said.

Wanda Jankoski, vice president of the South Side Community Council, questioned why the club owners haven't talked to the neighboring residents about their plans. She also questioned where delivery trucks will park saying there isn't any parking available in front of the building.

John Huffel from Business Forward failed to see how a private social club would not create a detriment to the neighborhood.

He said the social club was "just a sham" to sell beer from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m.

Even residents four blocks away were concerned about the club said Richard Ulsh representing the South Shore Courts and its 77 owner residents.

"The parking problem is so bad that it spills over into our neighborhood," he said.

Mr. Ulsh continued, they're often awakened by the noise of bar patrons returning to their cars. "Are we not allowed to have a decent night's sleep on the weekends?"

Rick Belloli, executive director of the South Side Local Development Company also protested the occupancy of the club. He noted Mr. Barnes, although having opened more than 100 clubs and bars, has had no experience with non-profit organizations or with operating an after-hours establishment.

He said they tried to "drill down" on the hours of operation and suggested noon to midnight instead of the 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. but were turned down.

Mr. Belloli also said the Soffer Organization indicated they are concerned their $400 million investment in the neighborhood will be detrimentally affected by the opening of the PAC. The Soffer Organization would be sending a letter to protest the club's occupancy.

The South Side Chamber of Commerce was represented by acting President Kim Collins who also characterized the after-hours club as being "detrimental to the community." She said the board of directors of the organization voted unanimously to oppose the club.

Ms. Watson asked for a membership roster of the businesses represented by the chamber of commerce which Ms. Collin promised to provide.

The Friends of the South Side Branch Library weighed in with Mary Ellen Leigh's testimony. She explained to the Zoning Board the library is directly across the street from the proposed club.

Ms. Leigh said the Friends of the Library are "very concerned" club patrons will find their way across the street where they will leave litter and debris on the steps, already a problem for the library's janitor each morning. She feared the problem would only get worse with the new club.

Sharing the concerns of the long-term businesses represented at the hearing was Hugh Brannan, chair of the South Side Planning Forum. He said to allow the after-hours club to open would only exacerbate an already challenging situation.

He added the club would be detrimental to Carson Towers and the additional traffic congestion would make an already dangerous intersection worse. Mr. Brannan also expressed concerns about the lack of parking in the neighborhood for another bar.

"The parking situation is so bad, it goes all the way up to the Slopes," echoed Misi Bielich, representing the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association.

Testimony continued with residents complaining about problems in the neighborhood such as noise, liter, foul language from bar patrons, parking and capacity that they all said would get worse with another alcohol serving venue.

At the conclusion of the testimony, Ms. Watson said the Zoning Board would reach a decision within 30 days.


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