The exclusive club meets resistance from the community in opening a new location
By Adam Janos
Groucho Marx once humorously stated, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.” In the spirit of that irony, he’d be positively tickled to explain the current state of affairs for Soho House, an ultra-exclusive international private members club that can’t seem to get its foot in the door with Community Board 3.
The club, which has become so eponymous with “New York chic” that it was once featured on Sex & the City, is seeking to expand to a second Manhattan location a 139 Ludlow Street. The first New York Soho House, in the Meatpacking District, is six floors, covers 45,000 square feet and has a rooftop pool and private theatre.
Unfortunately for the club’s owners, the Community Board voted to deny them a liquor license by a vote of 25-10, keeping in line with the original recommendation of the State Liquor Authority and Department of Consumer Affairs (SLA & DCA) Licensing Committee.
Community members cited an oversaturation of bars in the “Hell Square” area, a .026 square mile area in the city that residents believe would be better off with fewer watering holes, not more. There are 55 full on-premise liquor licenses in Hell Square, including 38 that operate until 4:00 a.m.
Members of Soho House felt that to be lumped together with those other bars was a mischaracterization. Calling itself a networking club for creative professionals, Soho House defenders pointed to the artistic and community-based components of the space. And truly, there are many in the works: a basement gallery for art shows; a library; a yoga studio space; a greenhouse terrace. The bar is but one component.
All of which would be well and good, said the board, if community members were allowed to access those things. Soho House members must pay $1,200-$2,400 per year for use of the facilities – and that’s only if they’re accepted.
“In our club, we have more people on the waiting list than in the club,” admits Pierre Dourneau, East Coast Director of Operations. Still, Dorneau claims the charges of elitism and exclusivity are off-base, pointing to the fact that the club had held 14 open houses prior to the community board meeting and sent out 1,800 letters to tenants throughout the community in English, Spanish, and Mandarin. Jan Hanvik, former chair of Community Board 3’s Arts Task Force thinks they could have done more.
“Eighteen hundred letters? To whom?” Hanvik asked. “How did you miss the Arts Task Force? I’m all for an arts center, a bar, a restaurant. There’s just too many things I don’t know anything about.” Hanvik voted “no” with the majority of the board.
Still, Dorneau is not deterred. The group’s next step is a “500 foot hearing” with the State Liquor Authority, in which they’ll ask to be granted the liquor license in spite of the board’s disapproval. At the Community Board meeting he told board members that he’d be happy to discuss a discounted rate for senior citizens or struggling potential patrons, and hopes community board members will email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to share their feedback of how he could best improve upon his space. The one thing he won’t do, though, is allow more people in.
“We could have many more members, but often they wouldn’t be part of the industries we want our members to be from,” Dorneau said. “We could have more from financial industries, more lawyers, more architects, but it’s a bit like being a member of the Harvard club. Our criteria is certainly not [just] money.”
Unfortunately for the Soho House, the artists they hope to attract may want a full bar to network out of. For those that do, it remains to be seen if the new Soho House will be worthy of their consideration.
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