City Council denies Icehouse license
West End neighborhood bar to appeal
By Chris Busby
After over an hour of troubling testimony from neighbors who say they are routinely harassed and repulsed by patrons of the Icehouse Tavern on York Street, the Portland City Council voted unanimously not to renew the bar’s liquor license at its August 21 meeting. The bar’s attorney, Gary Prolman, said he will appeal the decision before state liquor authorities and, if that fails, challenge the denial in court. In the meantime, the bar will remain open.
Only six of the nine councilors were present for the vote – Councilors Cheryl Leeman and Ed Suslovic were absent and Councilor Nick Mavodones left the meeting around 11 p.m., shortly before the vote.
Those present heard over half a dozen neighbors complain that Icehouse customers fight, curse, smoke cigarettes and marijuana, call them names, and urinate and vomit in the streets and on their doorsteps and cars (sometimes while people are still inside their vehicles).
Neighbor Steve Small said he brings his two young sons and his dog to the park across the street from the bar almost every day. On one occasion, Small said he encountered a man urinating on the street, and when he confronted the man, “he called me an f’ing faggot,” Small recounted.
Small said he works as a therapist with brain-injured people, and that research shows a high correlation between people who suffer brain injuries and those with substance-abuse problems. He suggested the Icehouse “enables” people who suffer from both maladies.
A woman who lives near the bar said she is intimidated to walk with her young son and baby through “the gauntlet” of smokers standing on the sidewalk in front of the Icehouse. Patrons outside have jeered and heckled her, she said, and on one occasion, a highly intoxicated man followed her up the street and made a “sexual comment” regarding her three-year-old. The next day, the same man rammed her car with his bicycle and gave her the finger, she said.
“The bar is in utter contempt of the neighborhood,” said photographer Tonee Harbert, a resident of Brackett Street who said he’s encountered vomit on his doorstep half a block from the Icehouse. “The problem is that they over-serve.”
Prolman, however, said the problem with that contention is there’s no evidence the Icehouse over-serves its patrons. Portland police conducted 12 undercover inspections of the bar in the past year, and found no liquor law violations. Prolman also noted that many of the incidents neighbors described allegedly took place years ago, and the council is charged with assessing whether the Icehouse’s liquor license should be renewed based on its record over the past year.
Lt. Janine Roberts, who worked as the police department’s liaison with bar owners before being reassigned earlier this summer, wrote a letter to bar manager and owner Jeff Orne last May praising and thanking him for “taking proactive steps” to address problems, though she noted some issues still remain. Those steps include the installation of an audio and video surveillance system, and efforts to work cooperatively with the police when problems occur.
For example, Roberts encourages bar owners to call police when incidents take place, and the Icehouse has done that over half a dozen times in the past year, mostly to report assaults. Prolman said police calls for service to the bar have decreased over the years, and he objected to councilors using this past year’s calls to criticize the bar, since the calls were made according to Roberts’ advice.
If the council cites calls for service as a reason to deny a liquor license, it will have “a chilling effect,” said Prolman, discouraging other bar owners from alerting police when problems occur.
“It ain’t like we ain’t tried,” said Orne, who lives in a condominium close to the bar with his wife and children. “Enough’s enough – this is my livelihood.”
Councilors, however, had clearly heard enough to make up their minds.
“This establishment has not heard what we’ve been saying, and that’s ‘Clean up your act,'” said Councilor Will Gorham. Though the bar’s owners have “put some effort into cleaning up [their act],” Gorham said, “the testimony [from neighbors] says [the bar is] not there, and I don’t think they’ll ever be there.”
Councilor Jim Cloutier said the Icehouse is “pretty much incompatible with a residential neighborhood.”
Councilor Karen Geraghty, who represents the West End, was the bar’s fiercest critic. “The patrons there don’t care about the neighborhood,” she said.
Geraghty also said there is a “serious drug problem” at the corner of York and Brackett streets, and said “patrons at Popeye’s are certainly involved in the drug activity.”
In an interview after the vote, Prolman called that comment “the most outrageous thing I’ve ever fuckin’ heard,” and said Geraghty’s public allegation may constitute libel.
There have been no drug arrests or investigations at the bar, Prolman said at the meeting. Police records provided to councilors make no reference to incidents involving illegal drugs. Neighbors, however, said they have observed patrons smoking marijuana in their cars and in the park across the street, and one neighbor said he once saw two people “snort stuff” from his condo window.