Morristown council approves Iron Bar expansion, with conditions; owner upset
Morristown’s downtown is getting another bar–with some restrictions.
The town council voted 5-1 on Wednesday to allow the Iron Bar to extend its liquor license to an adjacent storefront on South Street to create a new Mexican restaurant and bar called the Gran Cantina.
Citing concerns by residents that the downtown is saturated with bars and rowdy patrons, the council imposed conditions similar to ones it mandated for a Latino sports bar proposed across town earlier this year.
The Gran Cantina must:
- Stop serving alcohol at 11 pm, instead of at 1 am or 2 am;
- Reduce the size of its bar by one-third, from 18 seats to 12 seats;
- Provide more indoor storage of trash, so it won’t clog an already-crowded alley that is used to access the 40 Park luxury condos;
- Furnish one security guard for every 50 customers on Thursday-, Friday- and Saturday nights and for special events.
Councilwoman Raline Smith-Reid cast the lone dissenting vote, explaining that she was reflecting residents’ opposition. Alison Deeb recused herself, saying she received in-kind services from the Iron Bar at an event during her unsuccessful Freeholder campaign.
The early alcohol shutdown time was urged by Councilman Stefan Armington. While he agreed that people like a drink with their meals, he said few people dine after 11 pm and he did not want police burdened patrolling another late-night bar.
Iron Bar owner Jimmy Cavanaugh was not happy with that restriction, which he said will cost him money. He has invested millions in his Morristown properties, he said, with no alcohol-related violations since opening the Iron Bar in May, and he resents being “painted with the same broad brush” as other bars.
The council was pressured by a handful of residents, he said, questioning their claims about bar patrons defecating in public and littering streets with beer bottles. Patrons “do their business” in Iron Bar rest rooms, Jimmy said after the vote, adding:
“I see more Starbucks cups than trash from all other businesses put together.”
The Iron Bar owner also expressed reluctance to pay for extra weekend police patrols. The town has been footing that bill–around $7,400 a month since July–while trying to persuade bar owners to pick up the tab.
“I pay, for the properties I own in town, $150,000 a year in taxes,” Jimmy said. “I don’t demand much, and I don’t get back much. I think that’s my fair share, and that’s enough.”
A council subcommittee now hopes to resolve the vexing patrol issue by early next year, said Council President Michelle Dupree Harris.
‘YOU CAN’T CUT THEIR HANDS OFF’
Wednesday’s vote was the latest in a series of controversial decisions involving bars, which have become the year’s hottest topic in Morristown. On Tuesday, the council rejected a request by owners of the Tashmoo Restaurant for 23 one-day permits for outdoor liquor sales in a DeHart Street parking lot during holiday periods. Over the summer, a request to open a bowling alley/ bar at the same location also was shot down.
Permission was granted for a liquor license transfer–with many conditions–to Futbol-Landia for a Latino sports bar on Early Street. That one fizzled over landlord-tenant issues.
When it opens next year the Gran Cantina will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner in the space vacated in July by Zebu Forno, a cafe/pizzeria without a liquor license.
Iron Bar attorney Robert C. Williams cited Zebu’s failure when he tried to dissuade the council from imposing the early alcohol closing time.
“We saw what happened here with Zebu. They didn’t make it….We don’t want to be the second business to fail at this location,” he said.
The 11 pm cutoff would kill potential business from people leaving shows at the Mayo Performing Arts Center and Clearview Cinemas, and from young people who enjoy grabbing light meals over drinks at a bar, said the lawyer. He reminded the council that it could address any problems during the Iron Bar’s annual liquor license renewal.
“You can’t cut their hands off before they start playing the game,” Robert said.
But the Iron Bar’s capacity will surge to about 800 people when a basement level opens (in January, according to Jimmy Cavanaugh), and the proposed 54-seat Gran Cantina could accommodate about 150 drinkers if tables and chairs are removed, said Councilwoman Rebecca Feldman, whose First Ward includes the Iron Bar. Restrictions were imperative, in her view.
“There are too many drinkers in too small of an area, the side streets are narrow, access in and out of the (municipal parking) garage is limited, and we already have a record full of letters and people coming out in the evenings to tell us that the noise, the mess, the leftovers are really unacceptable,” she said.
The councilwoman questioned if the Gran Cantina would be a restaurant serving alcohol, which is allowed by town ordinances, or a bar serving food, which is not. Robert Williams said it was foremost a restaurant; he referred to costly kitchen equipment and architectural expenses as proof.
‘WHAT DO WE WANT THIS TOWN TO BE?’
Alcohol is essential for a restaurant to attract business customers, Morristown resident Danielle DeMarzo told the council. Other residents said they welcomed a Mexican restaurant–without alcohol.
Donna Gaffney, who moved to 40 Park in April and described herself as a researcher from Columbia and Seton Hall universities, cited studies by Johns Hopkins University and the Centers for Disease Control about the effects of clustering bars together.
She said one study found that clustered bars try to carve niches to differentiate themselves–which encourages bar-hopping and excessive drinking.
Clustered “entertainment districts result in high levels of alcohol-involved violence, public intoxication and other nuisance behaviors,” Donna said, “and I can tell you every night I hear the police sirens, and people breaking up fights. And every morning when I walk the dog I step over all kinds of beer bottles and cartons of beer…”
Five establishments serve alcohol within a 328-linear-foot stretch of South Street, she said. “I love the fact that another restaurant is coming to town. We don’t need another alcohol density problem.”
“The number in that small, dense area, it’s changing who we are as a town,” said Ravitte Ginsberg of DeHart Street. “What do we want this town to be?”
Abbey Mohr, who supported the Futbol-Landia application, asked the council to act fairly by applying the same stringent standards to the Gran Cantina. Luis Dominguez asked if the Gran Cantina would admit Spanish people like himself; he told the council that the Iron Bar recently denied him entry (because he could not produce a driver’s license, he later clarified).
Everyone will be welcome, with some dress code restrictions, Robert Williams answered.
Christine Conti-Collins, the bars’ most outspoken critic, read aloud the July council decision that rejected the bowling alley/bar. All the same quality-of-life issues apply to the Gran Cantina, she said.
“I pay $36,000 a year in property taxes, folks….I am not interested in paying for additional police security to support those business establishments. If they want to put a Mexican restaurant in there, that’s great… [But] you don’t need to serve any more alcohol in this town.”