Federal Hill Bar Gets Two Liquor Licenses over Neighborhood Opposition

Thursday, March 19, 2015

 

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The Providence Board of Licenses has approved two liquor licenses for a new restaurant-lounge on Federal Hill despite opposition from local businesses and residents still rattled by the problems caused by the $3 Bar and worried that the new establishment will become yet another late-night club.

The licenses, which were approved on Jan. 29, are for the DaVinci Ristorante and Lounge at 146 Acorn Street. There are technically two businesses at that address: a restaurant and bar on the first floor, which opened about a week ago, and a cigar lounge on the second floor, which has yet to open. The licenses allow both floors to serve alcohol until 2 a.m.

One of the owners, Romeo Rouhana yesterday insisted that his establishment was a classy atmosphere that would cater to the kind of customers more interested in savoring rare bourbons and fine cigars rather than throwing back shots and cheap beer.

Residents say club crowd wrong for Federal Hill

But it’s that 2 a.m. closing time—not necessarily the owners or the type of business itself—that has so many Federal Hill residents and landowners alarmed, according to a GoLocalProv review of at least 10 letters of objection that were submitted to the city Bureau of Licenses.

“We are having a crisis of late in Federal Hill with several late-night incidents related to the 2 a.m. liquor licenses with drunken fights spilling out onto the streets, both Atwell and Spruce, on a frequent basis, lately, between 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. That being said, I am completely against another such possibility from this venue, and I would also like to preemptively say that I will continue to be in objection to the granting of any and all 2 a.m. licensing request in this area,” Anne-Marie Bennett, a resident of a nearby condominium at 333 Atwells Avenue, wrote in a Jan. 29 to the Bureau of Licenses.

Several business owners are opposed as well.

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John Campagnone, the owner of Caserta Pizzeria, which is across the street from DaVinci, has objected to both the 2 a.m. closing time and what he foresees as increased problems with parking and traffic in the area. Scott Gaudreau, the owner of the property leased to a nearby Walgreens, also told city authorities that he “adamantly opposes” the application in a letter in January.

‘We are afraid of our neighborhood’

Robert Terino, the owner of D’Vine on the Hill, just down the street, said he came out to oppose the license for one reason only: the 2 a.m. closing time permitted by the licenses.

“It attracts the wrong kind of people—people who don’t have respect for the neighborhood, respect for police, respect for anybody,” Terino said.

Terino ticked off the many public nuisances with which residents and other businesses have had to contend as more clubs and late-night spots have opened up on the hill: bottles thrown everywhere, hypodermic needles tossed on the ground, public urination.

“They don’t deserve to see things on the ground that are disgusting,” Terino said.

In an interview, Rouhana noted that Terino himself has a liquor license that allows for a 2 a.m. closing, but Terino said he would be willing to give up the late hours if the city eliminated it for all bars and restaurants in the area. “I would be a hypocrite otherwise,” he said.

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Terino’s concerns were mirrored in a series of letters to the Bureau of Licenses obtained by GoLocalProv. One couple said they had suffered property damage and trespassing. In another letter, a son and his 97-year-old father who live in the area warned of a rise in bar brawls and other violence, including a shooting which left a bullet hole in the window of another liquor license applicant.

“Late at night, we are afraid of our neighborhood,” father-and-son Louis and David DiCola wrote.

GoLocalProv counted at least 10 letters of opposition in the city file on the liquor license applications. Terino said he thought it would have been enough to deny the license. Under state law, if 51 percent of landowners within 200 feet of a liquor license applicant oppose it, a local licensing board loses the jurisdiction to approve the application. But city attorney Mario Martone told GoLocalProv that DaVinci is in a state-designated enterprise zone and is therefore exempt from the rule.

Rouhana claimed that he had more support than opposition from the neighborhood. He said his business had rounded up more than 20 letters in favor of his application. When asked why they were not in the city file, he said his attorney had not submitted them since it was not legally necessary.

Johanna Harris, who was chair of the Board of Licenses at the time of the approval, declined to comment, instead referring a reporter to the newly elected chair, Jeff Williams, who did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

Owner: restaurant not another $3 Bar

Rouhana, who is one of five brothers who owns DaVinci, has a simple answer to residents who are worried about late night crowds like the kind that frequented the $3 Bar: he is too. “I’m sure it’s everybody’s concern. It’s my concern,” Rouhana said. “Nobody wants to be near a bar called the $3 Bar unless you’re on South Beach somewhere.”

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But he said his restaurant and lounge are the furthest thing from that.

In their first weekend open, he said $3-Bar type patrons had been turned away from DaVinci because they did not meet the dress code of dress pants, shoes, and shirts meant to help maintain a high-class atmosphere. “That’s what we’re aiming for. That’s what we’re promoting. People can promote a $3 bar or a $5 bar, they’ll get a $5 bar. But if you promote a high-end restaurant, you’ll get a high-end restaurant. So it comes down to what you promote,” Rouhana said.

Rouhana’s prices certainly are in a different league. Entrees start at $25 and his bar boasts high-end wines and rare bourbons, like Pappy Van Winkle.

Rouhana’s ideal clientele, he said, consists of business-types ages 25 and up. He said he is not marketing his bar to college-aged drinkers. “Somebody who understands a fine cigar would be an older crowd,” he noted.

If DaVinci is attractive to loud, late-night clubbers, it wasn’t apparent when a reporter visited the newly opened venue Wednesday night. Light jazz, not club music, wafted through the air. About a dozen customers, mostly an older crowd, split between a dinner table and the bar, were winding down their night well in advance of the 1 a.m. weekday closing time.

Rouhana said he spent four years and $1.9 million converting a dilapidated poultry factory. During an interview yesterday, he was at pains to point out the finishing touches he had put on the restaurant and lounge interior, many of them themed after the bar’s namesake, including a large stone mural of the Mona Lisa that eyes customers as they enter the main dining area.  

“If you spend money on a business—over a $1 million—you want to see it succeed. Would you ruin it by letting unsuitable clientele into your business? I don’t think I would,” Rouhana said.

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Previous license denied, granted, then expired

The Rouhana brothers had previously applied for and been denied a general liquor license by the Board of Licenses in 2011—after three formal letters of objection were entered into the record. At the time, those abutters withdrew their concerns after their conditions—mainly limitations on noise—were met. But the city board declined to reconsider.

Rouhanas appealed the matter to the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation, which ordered their application approved in 2012, with a series of conditions, including prohibitions on any second-floor balcony or patio, outdoor speakers, and a limitation of music to one singer or performer.

The Board of Licenses continued to fight the license, appealing to Superior Court. The case was eventually dismissed after the Department of Business Regulation agreed to reconsider the case. The department then ruled again that a license should be granted, citing the fact that less than a majority of neighbors were in opposition and noting that those who were opposed had generic quality-of-life concerns not specific to the business.

But that license expired as the renovations continued, according to Rouhana, forcing him to submit a new application. Yesterday, he said he believed he had been treated fairly by the board last January, without any mention of past opposition.  

He said he sought two licenses—rather than one—because the cigar lounge is registered as a separate business—necessary, Rouhana said, to comply with regulations that at least 51 percent of the business profits come from tobacco sales. In addition to his selection of cigars, scotches, and bourbons, Rouhana said the lounge would also serve hookahs, but at higher prices that might be available at other venues in the city.

In addition to DaVinci, the Rouhana brothers also own a gas station in Cranston, with a business address of 964 Cranston Street, and Big Tony’s Pizza, near the corner of Smith and Eaton streets in Providence.

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City records show that the law firm of Petrarca and Petrarca submitted payment for at least one of the fees their new business on Federal Hill needed to open. One of the attorneys at that firm, Peter Petrarca, also represented the $3 Bar after it lost its license last August after a series of violent incidents. Later that month, Petrarca filed a state ethics complaint against then-chair Harris, citing her for holding a position with the board and also serving as a consultant for the city.

Petrarca is well-connected former state rep served as a Senior Deputy Majority Leader. State campaign finance records show that Petrarca was a contributor to the gubernatorial campaigns of first Angel Taveras then, after the primary, Gina Raimondo. But in the race for Providence mayor, he appears to have been a Buddy Cianci supporter.

At least one of the Rouhana brothers who co-owns DaVinci, Yousseff, is also listed as a donor to Cianci’s campaign. He had previously also given to Michael Solomon.

Neighborhood waiting with ‘baited breath’

Despite his concerns, Terino told GoLocalProv he is hopeful that new Mayor Jorge Elorza will limit 2 a.m. licenses on Federal Hill. He said that he is also willing to give the Rouhanas a shot at proving themselves. He recalled his parting words to the Rouhanas at the Board of Licenses meeting in January: “Good luck, just be a good neighbor.”

The rest of the neighborhood remains on alert for the first sign of trouble at DaVinci. “The neighborhood is waiting with baited breath to pounce right back on them,” Terino said. Locals who decide further action is necessary are ready to appeal to the city council, the Board of Licenses, or take other legal action, according to Terino.

But Rouhana is confident he can win them over.  

“They’re going to come in. They’re going to try my filet. They’re going to try my stuffed veal chop. They’re going to have the crème brûlée. And they’re going to say, ‘You know what? I’m happy they came to this neighborhood.’ Because if I was a resident of this area, I would rather say there’s a DaVinci down the street from me than an abandoned building with graffiti all over it,” Rouhana said. 

 

Related Slideshow: Objections to New Liquor License

Below is a summary of some of the top concerns residents and business owners expressed to the Bureau of Licenses over the granting of a new pair of liquor licenses to a restaurant and cigar lounge on Federal Hill. The excerpts are taken from letters and e-mails residents and business owners submitted to the city and are part of the public record for the restaurant and lounge. Some information is also taken from interviews with local business owners. 

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Crime: Brawls to Bullets

‘We are afraid of our neighborhood’

Objection: In letters to the Bureau of Licenses, residents worried that more 2 a.m. licenses would lead to an increase in what has already become a problem of rising crime. One letter, from a 97-year-old WWII veteran and his son warns of “bar fights which have spilled out into the streets, and frequent incidents of disorderly conduct along Atwells Avenue.” In one instance, the father and son, wrote, a bullet hit a window of another applicant for a liquor license. “Late at night we are afraid of our neighborhood, wrote the pair, Louis DiCola and David DiCola in Jan. 21 letter to the Bureau of Licenses. 

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Too Much Liquor

Federal Hill ‘Saturated’ with Liquor Establishments

Objection: Federal Hill already has too many liquor licenses, according to Louis DiCola, 97-year-old WWII veteran, and his son David DiCola. “It is relevant to point out that our community is amply served, in fact saturated, by establishments serving liquor, wine, and beer. Our condominium, in fact, is surrounded by such establishments,” the DiColas write in a Jan. 21 letter to the Bureau of Licenses. 

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No Club Zone

‘We do not want to become a club zone’

Objection: For many residents and business owners, the issue comes down to what kind of a place Federal Hill should be. Objectors to the new licenses say the Hill should continue to be a mix of fine dining and residences—but not become another stop on the club scene. “Our quality of life is already deteriorating, with restaurants closing and bars … proliferating. We have had too many incidents of gunfire and brawling, and we do not want to be a club zone for the city of Providence,” writes Catherine Hurst, a local condo owner in a Jan. 26 letter to the Bureau of Licenses. 

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Late Night Litter

‘Dangerous and Unsanitary Litter’

Objection: The crowds may move on, but they leave trash and litter in their wake, according to residents. In a letter to the Bureau of Licenses, one couple wrote that they had to deal with “substantial volumes of dangerous and unsanitary litter” that made it “unsafe to walk on our street or property.” That could include anything from broken beer bottles to hypodermic needles, according to Robert Terino, a local resident and also the owner of D’Vine on the Hill. 

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2 a.m. Too Late

‘A crisis of late in Federal Hill’

Objection: For many residents, it’s not so much the fact that there will be another liquor license or another bar or club-like restaurant. It’s the 2 a.m. closing that is the sticking point. The late-night closing is what attracts the wrong crowd. “We have having a crisis of late in Federal Hill with several late night incidences related to the 2 a.m. liquor licenses with drunken fights spilling out onto the streets, both Atwell and Spruce, on a frequent basis, lately, between 2:00 – 3:00 am.,” writes Anne-Marie Bennett, a local condo owner. 

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Late and Loud

Objection: The late closing doesn’t just attract the wrong crowd; it also ensures they are out on the streets from 2 a.m. onwards—at a time when local residents are most sensitive to loud noises. Robert Terino, the owner of D’Vine on the Hill, said bar and club patrons resist police efforts to move them quickly off the streets. Some residents reportedly have complained that they now have to sleep with earplugs on weekends. 

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Property Damage

Objection: Some who object to the new licenses said they have suffered property damage as a result of the late-night, rowdy club crowds. From public urination on cars to other disruption from trespassing, property damage is yet one more headache clubs have caused, local residents say. 

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Tired of Traffic

‘Tremendous traffic problems’

Objection: The objections go beyond the quality of life issues. One owner, John Campagnone, the owner of Caserta Pizza, told the Bureau of Licenses that he has a “concern regarding parking availability and increased traffic flow” on his street. “I feel that a facility of this size will cause tremendous traffic problems,” added another residential property owner, Ryan Welter, who owns homes at 118-220 Spruce Street, in a Jan. 29 letter to the Bureau of Licenses.  

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Deterring Tourists

New licenses ‘will ultimately deter people from visiting this great area’

Objection: A letter from two residents makes it clear they have no objection to outsiders visiting their neighborhood—something they are all for, in fact. The problem is the wrong kind of visitors—late-night clubbers—may be scaring away the right kind, diners and other tourists. The licenses, according to father-and-son Louis and David DiCola will “jeopardize the attempts to revitalize the whole area, and will ultimately deter people from visiting this great area.” 

Photo courtesy of Mike Giannamore/flickr

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Sliding Property Values

Objection: While many complaints about quality of life issues may seem intangible, one real impact is on property values, according to Robert Terino, a local restaurant owner and also a resident. He said residents have become mobilized now that the rising numbers of bars and clubs are hitting them where it sometimes hurts most: in their wallets. Most of the letters of objection received by the Bureau of Licenses were from residents at the condominium at 333 Atwells Avenue. 

Photo courtesy of jkozik/flickr

 
 

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