Volume 76, Number 40 | February 28 - March 6, 2007

Operators under fire

Designing a better community

Government’s draining the life out of our nightlife

By Robert Bookman and David Rabin

New York City is known worldwide as “the city that never sleeps.” Now, however, there is a real danger that the city’s vibrant nightlife industry will suffer in the determined effort by some government officials to address a crisis that is more imaginary than real. If this overzealousness prevails, New York will be in danger of not only losing a vital element of its economy, but its spiritual essence as well.

Put simply, a few tragic instances in the context of 65 million yearly customer transactions does not require a crackdown that features an indiscriminate scorched-earth regulatory and enforcement policy. Such a crackdown will send a chilling message to young entrepreneurs that New York City is not the best place in which to invest their money.

The nightlife industry directly employs 19,000 city residents and generates more than $700 million a year in tax revenue. This nearly $10 billion economic engine is not, however, the kind of unobtrusive industry that can operate quietly in the air-conditioned skyscrapers of Midtown. It is by its nature often raucous and colorful.

That is why the city needs to find a way to accommodate this boisterousness in a manner that interferes as little as possible with the residential needs of New Yorkers. In fact, we thought that this was being done already. When gentrification took hold in Soho, Noho, Tribeca and the Flatiron District, the nightlife industry was forced out. It was this restrictive zoning that, while pushing the clubs into the deserted and rundown areas of the Far West Side, created a de facto nightlife district.

Nightlife came into these blighted blocks and invested tens of millions of dollars to renovate abandoned buildings and transform the rundown area into an important entertainment destination. Now we are told that the area, and a few others just like it, is “saturated” and would benefit from fewer clubs.

Nightlife districts should be seen as good for New York City. Boston has successfully created a nightlife-focused area, and Las Vegas and Miami are reaping enormous tourist dollars by promoting their cities as exciting nightlife destinations. In our town, however, the welcome wagon seems to be staffed by hostile prohibitionists.

Just look at some of these startling statistics and developments:

• The number of licensed cabarets in the city has decreased by 20 percent over the past 15 years.

• The growth in the total number of all liquor-licensed establishments (restaurants, bars and clubs) over the past five years in Manhattan is an anemic 2.2 percent per year, lagging well behind the growth in the city’s economy.

• Prominent restaurateurs and lesser-known but equally deserving new operators are being denied licenses to open new establishments due to an arbitrary system of review that is all too often based on NIMBY (not in my backyard) opposition by residential neighbors living in commercial and manufacturing areas, not based on what is best for the city as a whole.

This city needs a collaborative nightlife policy, one that seeks to nurture and not punish bar and club owners. Currently, there is a fear by responsible operators to call the police due to a disturbance at a club or even outside the venue, because it is the club owner who will be cited for a “failure to control the premise.” Does anyone think that Jim Dolan or George Steinbrenner has ever gotten such a violation if a drunken brawl has broken out at Madison Square Garden or Yankee Stadium?

In those venues, the teams are allowed to hire off-duty cops in what is known as “paid detail.” Yet the nightlife industry, a business sector that economically dwarfs the sports teams of this city, is refused permission to hire police to insure patron safety around its clubs.

A new issue this past year is the dramatic increase in the number of nightlife venues being shuttered in the most punitive fashion available to the N.Y.P.D. — on Friday nights via ex parte orders, leaving the club with no remedy over the weekend and with huge revenue losses.

Most times those venues are reopened on the following Monday, indicating that, indeed, they were never an imminent danger to the public’s safety in the first place. The busboys and barbacks and wait staff suffer through a weekend of lost income and the venue and its staff suffer through months of decreased revenue. And most often, the case is based on allegations, not convictions, or on summonses previously dismissed in court. Nightlife venues are being held to a standard regarding such issues as marijuana sales between patrons, that if uniformly applied throughout society, would not only result in the closing of every concert venue and M.S.G., but maximum-security prisons such as Rikers Island, as well.

Of all of the publicized issues in the nightlife controversy, the problem of underage drinking is the one that could be most fairly labeled a crisis. Yet it is not something that is caused by the industry. This is a serious societal problem and the appropriate remedies need to involve a wide range of additional stakeholders.

Underage drinkers themselves need to be made culpable for their actions. While it is against the law to serve alcohol to minors, it is equally illegal for minors to purchase and consume alcohol. Increasingly the computer-savvy youngster is accessing “failure proof” fraudulent I.D.’s that are offered on Web sites all over the Internet. These sites need to be shut down. But if a youngster is faced with a night in jail or the suspension of a driver’s license, as is done in other states, he or she will think twice about using a fake I.D.

Article after article is written about the need to expand the Javits Center to increase convention business. Stories are written weekly about how New York needs to compete in the global marketplace now for the best and brightest as other financial marketplaces grow more prominent. Other American cities are actively reaching out to young people to convince them that their cities not only have the job opportunities but the cultural and nightlife choices to make for an exciting place to live. Who is captaining the ship in New York? Who is making sure that New York remains a world-renowned symbol of innovation and excitement? Who is making sure it is a magnet for tourists and young M.B.A.’s? Who is making sure that an enforcement policy based purely on CompStat numbers and 311 calls doesn’t turn New York into Cleveland on the Hudson?

The New York Nightlife Association is proud of its members and their contribution to the economic vitality of this city. At the same time, we are certainly concerned about patron safety. It is in this spirit that we, together with Council Speaker Christine Quinn, have called on the mayor to set up an Office for Nightlife Affairs that is designed to nurture the industry’s growth and to ensure that this growth takes place in as safe an atmosphere as possible. We are also working with the Council, the State Liquor Authority and Police Department to address all of these issues in what we hope to be a new spirit of cooperation and open communication.

A vibrant and safe nightlife should not be mutually exclusive.

Bookman is counsel and Rabin is president, New York Nightlife Association (NYNA)

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