By Kevin Coughlin
Questioning whether a proposed Mexican restaurant really aimed to be a bar, and citing concerns about the “over-saturation” of downtown drinking establishments, the Morristown council on Tuesday shot down a request to expand the Iron Bar’s liquor license into the new venture.
The vote was 6-1, with Councilwoman Michelle Duprée Harris casting the only vote for expansion of the license.
Robert C. Williams, attorney for the applicant, Iron Bar owner Jimmy Cavanaugh, said they would appeal the decision to the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
“It’s a mixed-use neighborhood. And everyone has to get along. What’s the right balance? That’s really the question we have… I don’t think they have satisfied the argument that this is the right balance,” Council President Stefan Armington said before the vote, which followed five hours of testimony over two nights.
“Enough is enough,” added Councilman Robert Iannaccone, whose First Ward includes the South Street location of these bars. “We should be concerned about the amount of alcohol being concentrated in this segment of town.”
Cavanaugh sought to extend the liquor license shared by the Iron Bar and his recently opened beer hall, Revolution, to an adjoining storefront formerly occupied by the Parm Centro restaurant.
He has proposed a Mexican restaurant called Gran Cantina. It would bring at least 25 jobs, his attorney said.
Reiterating concerns raised for several years, residents of nearby apartments, luxury condos and homes in the Historic District testified about late-night noise and unruly behavior by bar patrons at closing time on weekends.
Eight establishments that serve liquor sit in close proximity on South and DeHart streets.
“I’m very tired…of hearing about Mr. Cavanaugh’s rights,” said resident Marie Rozan. “There are probably 500 people affected by this. What about our rights?”
‘YOU HAVE NO FACTS’
Williams called residents’ sworn statements “hearsay,” and labeled the council’s decision “arbitrary and capricious.”
“We’ve never had a violation for serving an intoxicated patron. How can you speculate? That’s not fair. You have no facts,” the lawyer told the council.
The town’s police, fire and building departments raised no objections to the license expansion, Williams said.
To boost security at the Iron Bar, Cavanaugh voluntarily has paid more than $96,000 since September for off-duty cops, his lawyer said.
As a sweetener, Williams on Tuesday offered to stipulate that Gran Cantina would halt alcohol sales at 1 am, when the kitchen closed, instead of serving drinks until 2 am like other places in town.
Gran Cantina would not bring extra drinkers downtown, Cavanaugh has insisted, because he would cap the number of patrons inside Iron Bar, Revolution and Gran Cantina at 1,043– the maximum occupancy for Iron Bar and Revolution.
Armington and Councilman Michael Elms were dubious, questioning how the numbers would be regulated, and whether they accurately would reflect how many people were drinking at any given moment.
Credibility concerns did not stop there. Revolution, the beer hall that Cavanaugh opened in October, initially was pitched as a jazz restaurant called the Iron Bistro, Armington pointed out.
And Cavanaugh already is challenging council conditions imposed on Revolution, Councilwoman Alison Deeb reminded the council. For that reason, Iannaccone suggested it was folly to consider approving Gran Cantina with restrictions.
Nor was the councilman swayed by the Iron Bar’s hiring of police.
“The fact that you have a $96,000 expense for security, what does that say about the nature of the establishment?” Iannaccone said.
‘AGAINST THE LATINO COMMUNITY’
While Hiliari Davis expressed fondness for the Iron Bar and Toshiba Foster welcomed the idea of a Mexican restaurant, both council members sided with aggrieved residents. Foster cited an “over-saturation of drinkers” on weekends.
Cavanaugh’s cheering section included Iron Bar patrons from as far away as Nutley, and his manager and chef.
A resident was quick to note that an Iron Bar employee testifying for Gran Cantina had misrepresented public support for the Iron Bistro in a video at the time.
But Councilwoman Michelle Harris vouched for the bar owner, a former Essex County freeholder.
“I do trust Mr. Cavanaugh. After all these years, since I was a young person, from the different locations that he’s been at, he’s been a consistent and loyal business owner in our town.
“And he follows the law, he makes sure the quality of his restaurants and his businesses are on the high end. And I appreciate and respect that,” said Harris, who is challenging Mayor Tim Dougherty in the Democratic primary.
The town has courted millennials, Harris added, and now their needs must be taken into account.
That goes for Hispanic residents, too, contended her running mates.
“This is against the Latino community,” council candidate Esperanza Porras-Field said of the council decision.
“There’s no Mexican restaurants in town that you can bring a date to,” said candidate Jenna Gervasio, granddaughter of former Mayor Emilio Gervasio.