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Cornered Store

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If you ask law-enforcement officials, Brian & Cooper Food Mart is a Bloomfield convenience store that plays by the rules. Some of its neighbors, however, insist it's a cancer that should either change its business model or close up shop. 

"Some people are afraid to walk by [the store]," says Tom Mangan, president of the Friendship Preservation Group, noting that residents have been worried for years about activity in and around Brian & Cooper. "It's just not safe."

During an April 8 community meeting, roughly 70 residents of Bloomfield and Friendship gathered to share their concerns about the convenience store, and to discuss how they could revoke its liquor license. The meeting, hosted by the Preservation Group at Bloomfield's Evaline Lutheran Church, grew heated at times, as some charged the store's owners with luring illegal activity into the neighborhood -- even as law-enforcement officials assured everyone that the business is operating legally.

"They are in compliance with all aspects of their liquor license," announced Pittsburgh Police officer Michael Schopp, co-chair of the city's Nuisance Bar Task Force. He says both the city police and officers from the state Liquor Control Board (LCB) recently investigated the store. "The way they are running the place is correct."

Brian & Cooper -- a seven-year-old business located in a former 7-Eleven -- offers convenience-store staples like milk, juice and snacks at the corner of Friendship and South Pacific avenues. But it also owns a liquor license that allows it to sell beer and other malted alcoholic beverages. Patrons can either buy the alcohol to go, or drink in a small bar-like area in the back of the store. 

One resident complained at the meeting that the bar attracts "less-than-desirable" customers who get drunk inside the store and then loiter outside. Others complained of witnessing drug deals, open-container violations and public urination outside the establishment.

According to the complaint form for the city's Nuisance Bar Task Force, "a bar can be declared a nuisance if the activity in and around the bar is harmful to the surrounding neighborhood." Such problematic activity, the form states, could include "prostitution, sales to minors and open/ongoing drug sales with the knowledge of the bar owner or employees."

Despite hearing complaints from residents, Schopp said undercover surveillance conducted roughly three weeks ago by the police and the LCB showed that Brian & Cooper didn't fall under the "nuisance" category. "We haven't seen anything illegal," he told residents. "People just go in there and buy a six-pack and then leave."

Aggie Brose, a member of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation who moderated the meeting, said the store has indeed become a neighborhood nuisance, and urged residents to file formal complaints with police if they witness any illegal activity. "Anybody within a 500-foot radius [of Brian & Cooper] really has standing if it's disturbing your quality of life," she told residents.

Brose stressed that the problems posed by Brian & Cooper are unique because the store is not located in a business district like Penn Avenue. "You're in a residential neighborhood," she told the building's owner, Nick Redondo.

"I've had about enough!" Redondo shouted back, as he rose from the church pew. "We go through this ritual every year!" 

Redondo, who admitted to City Paper after the meeting that he "doesn't like everyone who comes in [the store]," explained Brian & Cooper's predicament.  

"You can't control who comes in and who comes out," he said. If you do, "You'll be fighting the ACLU."

Redondo said he's tired of shouldering all the blame for every crime in the neighborhood. "It all comes back to the store," he said. 

"You have nothing on the establishment," added Nasir Raees, who owns the store and rents from Redondo. "So why is this meeting here?"

One resident argued that he has called the police roughly 10 times to complain about panhandling and fighting at Brian & Cooper. Another cited an incident where someone was beaten with a metal pipe outside the store. "You are the source of the biggest cancer in the neighborhood," one resident told Redondo. 

Residents did suggest one solution: Redondo could sell the building, which could help move the convenience store out.

"Is your place for sale?" Brose asked Redondo. 

"Every place in the world is for sale at the right price," he answered.

Schopp also suggested another possible solution. "Stop letting people drink in your establishment," he told Raees and Redondo. "Maybe try that for a month or two and see how that goes."

Residents acknowledged that such a move could hurt Raees' profits. And Raees told them, "I can't commit to anything right now. But I will look into it."

After the meeting, Redondo said that he understood some of the neighbors' concerns, and that closing the bar is a "good idea," though he worries what that would cost Raees.

After the meeting, CP contacted Pittsburgh City Councilor Patrick Dowd, who represents the area. He said that eliminating the bar could help the community, and even Raees' own profits. "If he cleans up the business," Dowd explained, "he might lose money on one side, but he might make more on the other."

And for Redondo, as the church cleared out he told CP, "I'm just tired of the fighting."

Ending it will mean compromising with the neighborhoods, said liquor-enforcement officer Daniel Beckey. "The owner has to be willing to make some changes," he said after the meeting. "There's no problem with Pittsburgh [police], there's no problem with [the LCB]. The problem is with the community."

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