Volume 75, Number 28 | Nov. 30 - Dec. 06, 2005

A special Villager supplement

It’s not happy hour for the bar and club operators

By David Rabin and Robert Bookman, Esq.

Without the tourism industry, New York City will go bankrupt. It has become that critical of a part of our city’s economy. And without a vibrant nightlife industry, tourism will be decimated. That is why the city wisely dropped its 1 a.m. licensing proposal last year. Put New York’s business community to sleep early, and you put New York’s economy to sleep permanently. It is time for some straight talk and some long-term planning if this industry is to survive while living in peace with our neighbors.

Zoning and gentrification

In the last several years, the far W. 20s, particularly, W. 27th St., have become home to many new nightclubs that have sought out the large spaces and relative peace of a nonresidential area — in other words — they’ve done everything that could be expected of them by seeking an area where cabaret licenses are readily available and their impact on a neighborhood would be minimal.

However, for more than 20 years now, the city has ignored well-designed zoning laws that separated residential use from commercial uses such as nightclubs. The city has regularly rezoned commercial and manufacturing areas by permitting residential gentrification without any acknowledgment of the long-term impact this has on both the new residents and the pre-existing business uses.

So, despite the huge number of jobs, revenues and tax dollars being generated in that area, it is inevitable that the clubs will face crushing community opposition once people buy expensive apartments on that block — regardless of the fact that art galleries and nightlife are a principal reason those blocks were revitalized. Instead of requiring those new buildings to build thicker walls and have triple-paned windows, at some point, the city will require those clubs to retroactively soundproof their venues, even though they long predate later residential arrivals — an impossibility that in the real world will lead directly to the clubs’ closure and the loss of hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs and millions of tax dollars.

This is a situation we have seen replaying itself over and over again in varying degrees in different neighborhoods that once had little or no legal residential use, but did have pioneer nightlife businesses, such as Tribeca, the Flatiron District, Soho, the Meatpacking District and parts of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

It must be debated in this city whether or not it is healthy for every block to be developed with million-dollar condos. We think not.

With residential gentrification comes the inevitable “noise” issue. The fact is that over 56 percent of all 311 noise complaints are regarding residential neighbor-to-neighbor noise issues and only 8 percent of noise complaints concerned bars and clubs. Yet, with all the “political noise” on this issue, one would think it is the opposite. Where are all the demands to stiffen fines and enforcement against noisy residential neighbors? The silence is deafening.

For example, the proposed noise code currently pending in the City Council unfairly singles out fixed-location businesses for huge fines under impossibly subjective standards, yet chooses not to address the issues that most people are complaining about. There is nothing new in the code about neighbor-to-neighbor noise. Unfortunately, nightlife is the easy, politically expedient target.

The New York Nightlife Association is not denying that some operators open venues in inappropriate locations or don’t do enough to make their spaces as quiet as possible. But these are the few, not the majority. And while there is no room in the city for bad operators, there must be room in the city for this important industry

Street issues
Neighbors who are (to some extent) justifiably fed up with street issues stemming from the existence of lawfully zoned and licensed late-night businesses and their patrons really need to stop looking at the businesses themselves and look instead to the city for solutions.

First, nightlife was forced into an untenable, catch-22 situation by the smoking ban. Keep the smokers inside and clubs and bars risk fines that cost them their license, or enforce a law we warned against by forcing smokers in the street and risk enraging neighbors looking for a good night’s sleep. The phenomenon of smoking/flirting outside of bars has become so widespread (as predicted by NYNA) that even The New York Times has identified a new term for it: “smirting.”

At both the city and state level, all reasonable attempts to amend the smoking law as related to nightlife only (not restaurants) were rebuked. It is incumbent on the government, therefore, to find a solution to this problem which it created or, at the very least, exacerbated.

Second, contrary to the average person’s understanding, bouncers working for bars have no legal authority over activity that takes place on the public street. If a customer insists on smoking and talking loudly in front of their establishment, if a cab illegally double-parks forcing other cars to blow their horns, if someone is removed from an establishment or refused entry and decides to remain on the street causing problems, our bouncers are powerless beyond asking repeatedly for the person to stop. 

In any other municipality in the country, the business owner would simply call the local police for assistance. But not in New York City where the Police Department will actually give a summons or two to the business owner for getting the police involved, an obvious and enormous disincentive.

Our industry has been at the forefront of developing solutions for these issues. NYNA proposed, and a number of community boards supported, the idea of expanding the existing Police Paid Detail Unit to nightlife — essentially allowing nightlife venues to hire off-duty but uniformed cops to work OUTSIDE their venues, patrolling the streets and asking customers to be quiet or face repercussions. There would be NO cost to taxpayers — all costs would be paid by the bars/clubs themselves.

So...the very industry that is often the focus of complaints — after being rebuffed for years when asking for the same police assistance that is provided free of charge to stadium owners for sporting events, large concerts and other events that generate tourism dollars and tax revenues for New York — offers to PAY to have safer and quieter streets, and the legislation can’t get through the City Council.

Why? Because the higher-ups at the N.Y.P.D. have made it clear they will block it.

Our government refuses to recognize the economic and social importance of this industry to the city, the 100,000 jobs created, the tens of thousands of young people directly supporting themselves in our industry, the $9.7 billion in economic activity, the 64 million admissions each year — more than all of Broadway, all New York City sports teams and the Metropolitan Museum COMBINED — and the importance of our industry to New York’s vitality and future. Until it does, until we have a partner to work with, there can be no solutions to the issues addressed here.

Rabin is president of the New York Nightlife Association and owner of Lotus club/restaurant in the Meat Market; Bookman is general counsel for NYNA and an attorney in private practice representing many nightclubs

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