Volume 76, Number 30 | December 20 - 26, 2006

Community board hopes Spirit club gives up ghost

By Lawrence Lerner

It appears West Chelsea nightlife has taken another shot to the chin.

At a full board meeting last Wednesday night at Roosevelt Hospital, Community Board 4 recommended that the State Liquor Authority not approve a transfer of ownership for Spirit, the embattled West Chelsea nightclub at 530 W. 27th St. that was shuttered twice for alcohol and drug violations last spring and summer.

Dealing with the police violations has reportedly cost the club millions of dollars; so, to keep down overhead, the club is currently open only for private parties.

According to C.B. 4 Chairperson Lee Compton, the board’s decision hinged on the club’s difficult history, as well as the oversaturation problem in West Chelsea, where a current total club-going capacity of more than 10,000 patrons has brought myriad problems for area residents, along with a formidable presence by the New York Police Department, which has been coming out in full force on weekends since late July, complete with klieg lights and mounted police.

“For us, the issues were, we have investors who have invested millions of dollars to create this club. Is it fair to deny them?” said Compton. “On the other hand, they had all of these problems and violations. We got the applicant to agree on a comprehensive list of conditions for the transfer, but ultimately, a majority of the board felt that this was a chance to say no to 1,500 people of that 10,000. So, we rejected it.”

The denial came after the board’s Business Licenses and Permits Committee had voted 4 to 1 in favor of the transfer on Nov. 14, with nine conditions attached, including requirements for all security personnel to submit to F.B.I. background checks, and for some staff to have backgrounds in law enforcement, fire prevention and E.M.T. procedures. Spirit would also have had to install closed-circuit TV cameras; train its staff in the use of I.D. scanners, portable radios and handheld metal detectors; and deploy a community response team to walk surrounding blocks and respond to community concerns.

But in the three-week interim between the two meetings, C.B. 4 had a change of heart, voting 20 to 9 against the transfer on Dec. 6.

“As a board, we do have something to lose,” said Compton. “The applicant accepted the best, most comprehensive set of conditions and said, ‘We will support the incorporation of these into our method of operation.’” He said some board members — including some members who are nightlife operators — were upset that the far-reaching resolution, full of concessions from the applicant, was thrown out.

Compton believes that the State Liquor Authority has turned over a new leaf under current chairperson Daniel Boyle, who has been more responsive to the concerns of various Manhattan communities since taking over this spring.

Compton also senses that Spirit will still pursue the transfer-of-ownership application with the S.L.A., despite the red flag — which is an advisory opinion only — from the community board, but there are two crucial differences to consider now.

“In the past, our denial wouldn’t have made any difference,” the C.B. 4 chairperson said. “The S.L.A. would not have taken our recommendations seriously and the applicant would have been granted their license anyway. But the S.L.A. is now giving us different signals. We can deny and they’ll listen. Now, we have the opportunity to say no and make it stick.”

Furthermore, Compton said that though the board has laid down stipulations for operators in the past, this case represents a shift because the applicant agreed to have the conditions incorporated into the methods of operation of the license.

“It’s crucial to get our conditions implemented into the method of operation when the S.L.A. approves licenses, because then they’re legally binding, and violating them means operators would be breaking the law,” said Compton. “Otherwise, operators can ignore the conditions without penalty. And I think, in this case, the operator agreed to the conditions because they can certainly read the tea leaves as to what’s been happening in West Chelsea.”

The transfer of ownership is being pursued by Spirit’s current owner, Robbie Wooten. The would-be buyer is John Bakshi, known in club circles as John B., owner of Guest House and Home, two large nightclubs adjacent to Spirit on W. 27th St. Neither Wooten nor Bakshi could be reached for comment.

John Blair, the former manager of Spirit who has been a C.B. 4 member for eight years, agrees that oversaturation is an issue, but he believes his former club should not have to pay for the problem.

“The mess there is a direct result of Community Board 4, who gave all the clubs permission to open; the city, who zoned West Chelsea for night clubs; and the state for O.K.’ing all the licenses,” he said. “Now you want to penalize a club owner who invested $3 million because you made a mistake?” he added. “Not all the clubs in West Chelsea will last. There are just too many of them now, and some will go out of biz sooner or later. But if you want a business to close sooner, buy it out via eminent domain. Don’t force it to lose its investment.”

If Spirit does go ahead with its ownership transfer attempt, the new owners won’t be allowed to apply for a transfer of the existing liquor license but will have to apply for a new liquor license, according to S.L.A. spokesperson Bill Crowley. For Spirit, that will include attending a 500-foot-rule hearing, held for applicants when three or more establishments with liquor licenses fall within a 500-foot radius.

Compton is looking forward to speaking at the 500-foot-rule hearing in a couple of months so he can explain his rationale to the S.L.A.

Compton said: “I’ll of course say to S.L.A., ‘Please uphold the community board and deny this transfer-of-ownership application. However, if you do approve it, please incorporate the conditions to which the applicant agreed into the methods of operation that define the license.’”

If Spirit’s attempt to transfer ownership is denied by the S.L.A., it still will be able to apply for a liquor license renewal when the current license expires on Oct. 31, 2007; but Crowley said the club’s past history will almost certainly be considered as part of the process.

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