So Long, “Problem Bar.” Hello, Preschool?

DAVID SEPULVEDA PHOTOA community nursery school where little tykes sing songs and play with blocks may have found an ideal new home: A bar where neighbors have complained of noise and public urination, where a man was shot outside the front door.

The school is the Westville Community Nursery School (WCNS), which has an expiring lease at its 43-year home on Harrison Street and has been searching for a new space. The bar is the Owl’s Nest Cafe (pictured) at 3 Tour Ave. in Westville, the source of a long list of neighborhood complaints and police calls over the years.

Owl’s Nest owner Jose Cunha said he’s been treated unfairly by neighbors and is moving his bar to a more hospitable location. The property was recently put on the market, drawing the attention of WCNS parents and staff, who think the bar could be renovated and turned into a nursery school.

Neighbors are eyeing the move as a solution to two problems: New digs for a beloved nursery school, and good riddance to a bar seen as noisy and troublesome.

WCNS (pictured) parents and staff have been searching for a new home for just over a year, and coming up short. Parents and staff had resigned themselves to moving the school to a less-than-ideal location when they learned of the Owl’s Nest possibility. They were planning to make an offer on 1289-1299 Whalley Ave., near the Top Kat laundromat, a heavy-traffic area not far from where an 11-year-old girl was killed by a car in 2008.

Just an hour before the school was going to make its offer on that last-resort property, realtor Rebecca Weiner came up with 3 Tour Ave. in a last minute check of commercial real estate listings. The Owl’s Nest property had just come on the market.

The site meets some of the school’s search committee criteria; a central Westville location and ample outdoor space for a playground. WCNS staff wasted little time getting over to the location for an inspection, which revealed additional amenities: a nearby river walk and beautiful views of West Rock.

WCNS Director, Patty O’Hanlon, said she is hopeful about closing on the new location pending inspections by city, state and federal officials. Some renovations would have to be made before occupation. It was not clear if the building would be ready in time for the start of the new school year in September.

WCNS, operating out of its current location in a church on Harrison Street, has been a neighborhood institution for 43 years.

The location at 3 Tour Ave. has also been a neighborhood institution, of a different sort. A bar since the 1930s, the Owl’s Nest is just the latest of numerous iterations over the years, including McGowans, an Irish bar; Malone’s West, serving primarily students and locals; Josey Wales Saloon, a biker bar; and Val’s Cafe, named after the current building’s owner.

News of the potential purchase quickly spread throughout the community. Many expressed relief that the nursery school, with its impending lease expiration, may have found a new home. Others expressed relief that the bar, which has garnered a list of complaints from neighbors over the years, would be closing its doors.

Longstanding complaints at the location have centered on illegal parking and excessive noise at late hours, particularly when the Josey Wales bar had a motorcyclists customer base. There have been reports of public urination and occasional finds of drug paraphernalia in an adjacent parking. A gun was pulled in the bar in 2010. Critical mass may have been reached with the sound of gunfire ringing out on several occasions, and a shooting outside the bar last year. The shooting was the result of a personal issue among acquaintances, according to proprietor Jose Cunha, who has operated the Owl’s Nest for 13 years. 

Cunha said he will be leaving for a more hospitable location even if the nursery school sale does not go through. About his neighbors on Tour Avenue, Cunha said he believes he has been treated unfairly. “From day one, they never gave me a chance.” Acknowledging that there have been some issues outside the establishment, Cunha said, “It hasn’t been perfect, but every bar has issues.”

The legacy or perception of rowdiness at the bar seemed at odds with the bar environment during a recent interview. “We serve an over-25 crowd” noted Cunha, who said his bar has never been cited for underage drinking. A former landscaping-business owner, he said that he has cleaned up sites on the street, personally bought planters and planted trees to beautify the area, and even plowed Tour Avenue with regularity.

Pointing to a beefy door man who sat dutifully at a nearby table, Cunha said, “On my most busy night, Karaoke Thursdays, I always hire an off-duty New Haven police officer.”

Cunha also talked about his support for the broader community, displaying some of the citations and acknowledgements he has received from the Board of Alders; the New Haven police department, for his fund raisers in support of injured police officers; and support of the black firefighters association’s turkey and toy drives. Cunha, who grew up in and around New Haven, said he is proud of his sponsorship of a New Haven Little League team named “Owl’s Nest.”

“What I do for the community,” said Cunha, “I do from the heart, it’s not for publicity.”

Regular Alex Howard (pictured), Gateway Community College basketball coach and former Harlem Globetrotter, offered praise for the bar. “The atmosphere is great with a positive vibe. We have violence going on in the city but we don’t worry about that here. It’s safe and it has always been a safe place.”

As it pursues the purchase of the Owl’s Nest property, WCNS is raising money to help underwrite renovations and costs associated with moving. On Saturday, April 26, WCNS is planning its 8th annual “Jump-A-Thon” and toy tag sale fundraising event at 34 Harrison Street, from 10 a.m. to 1p.m.

“Children can jump to their heart’s content in the bounce house, and delicious homemade treats, breakfast, and lunch items are for sale,” states a website announcement.

Director O’Hanlon also noted the school’s inaugural participation in “The Great Give,” a 36-hour online fundraising event benefiting New Haven non-profits, which starts at 8 a.m. on May 6, and ends at 8 p.m. on May 7. “Gifts,” according to the website, “will be amplified with matching dollars provided by The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.”

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posted by: neighbor123 on April 23, 2014  12:55am

I lived on West Rock for years behind this bar.

In fairness to Cunha, anything but the sleepiest pub would work in that neighborhood. It’s a tiny residential street where the bar abuts homes. It is also a one-way street where people leaving the bar loop down Tour onto West Rock rather than exiting straight to Whalley Ave.

Also, issues like the occasional violence or obnoxious behavior outside the bar would be less likely on a busier street, like where he is moving.

Neighbors had issues with Cunha but I think there is a tendency for them – at times me included – to pile it on in frustration, resulting in treatment that was far too harsh and not a fair picture of the person at all.

Being an annoyed neighbor, I decided once to have a drink at the bar and went two or three times and it was quite mundane. it had a loyal following and I did not have a bad experience at all. I think the move will be good for the bar.

posted by: Semi Semi-Dikoko on April 23, 2014  1:19pm

For nearly ten years, I lived on “The Loop”, (Tour Avenue, Valley Street Extension and West Rock), two houses down from the Owl’s Nest. Greatest group of neighbors ever. In fact, pioneers genuinely concerned about Westville village, its renaissance, the quality of life and, (above all), each other! The Westville Community Nursery School could not have found a better home. This is perfect!

The outgoing bar that Jose Cunha inherited had a legacy and a reputation of a “tough bar”. Much of that, survived the ownership change. That legacy and the pseudo-privacy offered by the loop, (out of the main arteries), continued to exist and inevitably, nuisances from, and clashes between rowdy patrons tailgating in the parking lot after last call were inevitable!

Here is what I learned quickly: Calling Jose Cunha, always got a faster resolution to nuisance complains than calling the cops. See, the man maintained a list of banished undesirables patrons no longer allowed in the bar. He exercise an almost paternal oversight over the not so gallant and troublesome patrons. Everyone was welcomed as long as they followed the rules. I also learned that I could always count on any of my neighbors in an emergency, for a tool, a machinery, help digging my car out, cleaning the street, maintaining and watering the tree belt and so forth! All of them that is, including Jose Cunha!

I wish Jose the very best in his future endeavors. After all, contrarily to what the title of this piece seems to suggest, (emphasizing the “Problem Bar”), this is the only Westville bar that lasted so long without being busted for serving alcohol to underage patrons! You have my very best wishes and good luck to you Sir!