James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy closes Sunday: But does it have to?

It depends on who you ask.

A "for sale" sign hangs outside the soon-to-be shuttered James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy in Pittsburgh's East Allegheny neighborhood.

A "for sale" sign hangs outside the soon-to-be shuttered James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy in Pittsburgh's East Allegheny neighborhood.

JIM BRADY / THE INCLINE
colindeppen

Updated 1:50 p.m. with comment from the mayor’s office and from property owner Delford Britton.

Early Sunday morning, the final notes will sound at James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy, the storied jazz venue on Pittsburgh’s North Side that last month announced it would close its doors for good after a protracted and largely covert war with some — or possibly only one — of its neighbors.

The building went up for sale Oct. 26, and when Roger Humphries and his band strike the last chord around midnight, that will be it, all she wrote, the end of a live music era.

News of James Street’s shutdown first broke in October, inspiring interventionist vows from City Hall and lamentations from music fans citywide. But the outcome didn’t change, and when the doors close Sunday, it’s unclear when and under what circumstances they could reopen.

But this isn’t an article about James Street’s sentimental or cultural significance. Those exist elsewhere. Nor is it about what might become of the space. Those are sure to exist soon.

Instead, this is a story about what led to the closure — and management’s attempts to reconcile their version of events with those of the pertinent authorities.

We’ll start with the former.

According to Kevin Saftner, who has run the bar with his mother, Lisa Saftner, since 2011, Sunday’s closure follows repeated noise complaints from neighbors and resulting Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement citations and ultimatums that led the Saftners to finally call it a day. (James Street has had various owners — and names — over the years, and the building dates back at least to 1898, per the Post-Gazette.)

In his time there, Saftner, who is 31 and lives in Brighton Heights, insists James Street’s revenue has grown, with each year better than the last. He also says it was the threat of a nuisance bar designation or the possible revocation of its liquor license that drove the decision to close. (More on that later.)

“We just feel like we’re fighting a losing battle where the law is against us, and we have no recourse to defend ourselves from these violations. And with how the law is written, we just feel that there is something or someone out to get us.”

In total, he said, James Street received seven citations or complaints for noise violations in the last two years, five of those arriving Nov. 2 for alleged violations recorded July 25 and 29-30, Aug. 5 and Sept. 28. (In a letter sent to Saftner by the BLCE, the bureau says the latest alleged violations may result in the issuance of a citation “to show why your license should not be suspended, revoked or a fine imposed, or both.”)

Of the seven listed, citations have been issued and fines paid only on the first two.

BLCE records for James Street go into only slightly more detail.

They list an October 2015 noise citation and $250 fine brought on by an anonymous complaint and a March 2017 citation and $350 fine brought on by a complaint from “an anonymous female.” The BLCE also confirmed a written warning for noise presented to Saftner in August 2016, following yet another complaint, this one from an “anonymous neighbor.”

BLCE Officer Steven Brison said late last month that he could not discuss any citations or alleged violations that had yet to be resolved. He also said he had no additional information to share about the complainants.

As for who they might be, Saftner has no way of knowing for sure, although he does have his suspicions. He declined to discuss those hunches with The Incline, however, saying he preferred instead to let sleeping dogs lie.

“I really just think that these people complaining can hear the music and just don’t like it. I think it is the noise, and I think some people are just unhappy with it, whatever it is.”

But there are also those on the block with no issues to report.

Neighbor Sean Williamson has lived in a home at the edge of the venue’s parking lot for a year now and said of the noise, “We hear nothing.”

He added, “I can never remember a time when noise from the bar was intrusive into the house, including music. […] Occasionally you’ll hear some people outside in the parking lot or in the street, but that’s been a rare occurrence.”

Williamson doesn’t know who’s been complaining either, but rumors are swirling in Deutschtown. Few, if any, of the residents are willing to openly discuss them.

“I don’t know what to make of it,” Williamson added. “No one has named any names. No neighbors have vocally voiced any problems to me, so I really don’t know.”

Saftner said the same goes for him: “Nobody has spoken to us personally about the issue, and that’s what’s so weird. […] There’s just no way to defend yourself against an anonymous person and an ambiguous law.”

And while Saftner did not criticize the BLCE agents he’s dealt with, saying they’re “only doing their job,” he said their interactions have sent a clear message.

“The very first time the BLCE came, they threatened … they said they were capable of taking our liquor license and taking my mother, whose name was on it, to jail. That was our first dealing with the BLCE. […] The last time they were in, they mentioned we got another noise violation and that they got enough calls that we could be considered a nuisance bar. They also mentioned people smoking marijuana outside, but those are public spaces [that we don’t control].”

But could bar owners like Saftner or his mother be arrested or stripped of a liquor license just for noise complaints or marijuana? Experts and law enforcement officials say it’s unlikely.

Steven Brison, a 27-year veteran of the BLCE, said of Saftner and his bar, “This establishment has not been placed on any type of list that I’m aware of,” adding, “And James Street wouldn’t qualify [for a nuisance bar designation] given what I know and based on their past history.”

At the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, spokesperson Shawn Kelly said nuisance bar designations are left up to the courts. The LCB can, however, push to block the renewal of a trouble spot’s liquor license and, if successful, deal the business a serious blow.

In Allegheny County, the LCB objected to license renewals for 20 establishments in the last year, Kelly said. James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy was not one of them.

Statewide, the LCB contested license renewals for 212 license holders during the last statewide review period. That number does not include Bucks and Delaware counties, which have review periods different from those in the rest of the state, Kelly explained.

By that point, some have been labeled nuisance bars. Most have been deemed a “moral detriment to the community.” Kelly said this distinction usually follows repeated offenses for things like selling alcohol to minors, over serving customers or incidents of violence.

Meanwhile, Charles Caputo, a liquor license lawyer in Pittsburgh, said of noise complaints, “We’ve represented people who’ve had neighbors and habitual noise complaints, but we’ve never had anyone shut down solely for that.”

“It’s possible,” he said, adding, “but I’ve never seen that before.”

In rare cases, though, owners under pressure from state authorities do admit defeat.

Stanley Wolowski, an attorney specializing in liquor law enforcement cases at the Flaherty & O’Hara law firm in Pittsburgh, said, “Maybe, if one of my clients said, ‘Hey, I put in soundproofing, $30,000 worth, and I had the bands turn it down, and I tried to work with the neighbors, but I’m still getting citations and the city won’t ask for an exemption,’ then I am aware of clients who’ve said, ‘That’s it. I’m not going to contest it. I’ll sell my license.’”

There’s a few things in there worth explaining:

  1. Wolowski was referencing business owners whose liquor license renewals were already being challenged by the LCB. This has not been the case with James Street, as Shawn Kelly confirmed.
  2. Cities can ask the LCB to waive the more stringent statewide noise restrictions — the “exemption” referenced by Wolowski above — for specific establishments. If granted, these bars are instead subjected to a city’s local noise ordinance. (Attorney Caputo said municipal ordinances are almost always more lax. He’s also not familiar with any case in which the state has refused to grant such a waiver.) But Mayor Bill Peduto’s office said Pittsburgh city code does not currently permit “exemption of a single property from noise violations under state liquor laws,” meaning that wasn’t an option for James Street.
  3. Even if a liquor license renewal is contested, the affected business owner can appeal that decision or strike a deal with LCB officials to avoid losing their license altogether.

“Most of the cases I’ve had I’ve been able to win on appeal or by working with the LCB on a conditional licensing agreement, whereby we’re eliminating entertainment on certain nights of the week or we turn the volume down,” Wolowski said.

He added, “Personally, I can’t remember one that I lost outright.”

That begs the question: Why would Saftner close his doors before the LCB had even launched a formal challenge of his license, or without first looking to City Hall for help?

Turns out he did the latter.

Saftner said he met with members of Peduto’s team to discuss issues, including a possible waiver of the state’s noise rule, only to have them “go dark” after two meetings.

“They were very responsive the first couple of days, but we haven’t heard back since. They haven’t responded to text messages, emails or phone calls,” Saftner said.

Kevin Acklin, Peduto’s chief of staff, disputes this characterization of their involvement. Acklin said he met with the Saftners as recently as two weeks ago and “offered to assist with a buyer of the business and /or the real estate.”

“It doesn’t appear that they have secured a buyer,” he added.

Acklin said he reached out to the Saftners immediately following news of James Street’s planned closing.

Acklin said he personally held three meetings with the Saftner family, and that “Kevin’s parents both indicated that they were ready to move on from the business, and we [continued] our offer to assist with transition to a new buyer, should they find one.”

Acklin said he also held several discussions with state police to understand the nature of the violations and potential solutions. There was also a meeting with the North Side Leadership Council, where Acklin said, “We offered loan support if the Saftners found a new buyer of the business.”

He continued: “The problem seems to be that the Saftners have been unable to secure a buyer of the business, despite our continued offer of support. Kevin shouldn’t blame the public for trying to help them. If they are able to find a buyer, we stand ready to assist to assure that the music continues at James Street Tavern.”

But Saftner said his decision to close the doors was also rooted in the growing frequency of the complaints and citations being made against his business, his continued inability to stem that tide and James Street’s desire to end things on its terms.

He also cited a sort of cumulative effect and the weight it bore.

“When the BLCE mentioned people smoking marijuana outside, on top of the noise violations, it seemed like so many things to take on and to have to deal with and worry about on top of running a business.”

He also points to the $25,000 they already spent on soundproofing the venue’s ballroom in 2016 and the fact that it did little to slow their unwanted interactions with the BLCE.

“When we made those renovations, the [BLCE] commander said, ‘You put $25,000 into being a good neighbor, and so you don’t have to worry about the noise violations anymore. And since then we got five more. We tried. We tried the best we can.”

It should be noted that anonymous complaints don’t directly result in citations. Instead, BLCE agents investigate and issue citations only when they observe violations themselves.

Saftner added of this dynamic, “But the BLCE does not really need to prove anything, they just need to come in and say they hear music outside.”

None of that matters now, though.

Instead, come Sunday, James Street’s 35 employees will be out of work, with the building’s owners, Delford and Stephanie Britton, looking to sell off the Foreland Street property for $899,900. The Brittons purchased the building for $405,000 in 2006, according to city records, and Delford said they invested $600,000 in it since then. Delford also said they plan to take $50,000 off the asking price for any buyer “who will keep the music going, if only in the speakeasy.”

Saftner added of Britton’s decision to sell, “Once he found out we were leaving, he said he just wants to clean his hands of it and be done. It puts us in a tough spot because now we can’t sell the business […] or the sound equipment.” They will have to sell their liquor license.

As for Saftner, he said he’s unsure of what he’ll do next, just that he hopes it somehow involves music.

When asked about rumors that he’s been considering a run for local office, Saftner was more conclusive.

“No,” he said, laughing, “but people have been asking me.”

For now, he’s just looking forward to Saturday’s show and to the music, one last time.