Volume 76, Number 42 | March 14 - 20, 2007

Flatiron folks pressed by club noise and violence

By Albert Amateau

A standing-room-only crowd of Flatiron District residents told state and city officials on March 1 about their long siege by noise, filth and violence from bars and clubs concentrated on a few blocks between Fifth and Sixth Aves.

Sponsored by Assemblymembers Richard Gottfried and Brian Kavanagh, the Flatiron nightlife meeting included Joshua Toas, chief executive of the State Liquor Authority, the state licensing agency, which has become more responsive in the past year to community complaints.

Members of the Flatiron Alliance, a neighborhood advocacy organization, spoke about two decades of noisy club patrons, frequent violence and auto traffic clogging 20th, 21st and 22nd Sts. between Fifth and Sixth Aves. from 11 p.m. to the early morning hours on three or four nights a week.

“We’re being held hostage in our own neighborhood and I’m scared,” said Michele Golden, a Flatiron Alliance member and 20-year neighborhood resident. She protested the oversaturation of bars in an area that has recently been rezoned to include residential as well as commercial uses.

Clubs including Avalon, which opened in 1983 as Limelight in the former church on Sixth Ave. at 20th St., and F-stop, at 28 W. 20th St., which has been variously known as Lava, Eden and Embassy, and Deep, at 16 W. 22nd St., among other venues, were cited as sources of constant disruption over the past several years.

Susan Finley, a Flatiron Alliance member and 24-year neighborhood resident, recalled that gunshots were fired last May outside Deep.

“We are afraid someone will be killed by a stray bullet,” Finley said. “We’re tired of calling 311, we’re tired of calling police and being treated like we’re the problem. We need help.”

The S.L.A. recently suspended or revoked liquor licenses for Avalon, F-Stop and Deep, but the clubs appealed the S.L.A. ruling and, pending the outcome of their appeals, they remain open.

“In the city, courts have ruled against us on some of the most common-sense things we’re doing,” Toas said.

Phil Byler, another Flatiron Alliance leader, said the number of bars and clubs in the area has become overwhelming.

“Within 500 feet of Sixth Ave. and 20th St. there are 20 licensed premises in an increasingly residential neighborhood,” said Byler. Owners who apply for liquor licenses for “white tablecloth” restaurants that morph into clubs or lounges even before they open have added to the neighborhood’s woes, Byler said.

Byler also faulted what he called “the corporate shell game” whereby a club’s directors change radically when new investors sign on, but the establishment is able to operate under the old liquor license because the corporate structure is the same.

David Rabin, president of the New York Nightlife Association and owner of Lotus, a club in the Gansevoort Market district, told angry residents at the meeting, “I’m as opposed to clubs that cause problems as you are.” But he urged residents to remember they live in “a 4 a.m. city, that attracts 50 million tourists annually. It’s not Cleveland or Cincinnati.”

He blamed the city law that forces restaurant, club and bar patrons into the street to smoke for increased complaints about noise.

Rabin also said club owners are reluctant to call police when violence occurs in their premises because they receive tickets for failing to keep order and those tickets can be cited when police seek to close what they deem to be trouble spots.

Nevertheless, Rabin urged residents to lobby Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly to authorize “paid detail” — off-duty police officers in uniform, paid by club owners, to patrol blocks with high concentrations of bars and clubs.

“We’ve been asking for seven years for greater police presence,” said Rabin, noting that venues including Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden are allowed to employ off-duty uniformed police officers, but bars and clubs lack that privilege.

“We’d like them to patrol nightlife areas on our dollar,” Rabin said.

However, state legislation may be required to make paid detail legal, according to elected officials at the meeting.

Finley, though, said paid detail for nightlife would present a great potential for conflicts of interest and corruption.

“We pay for police protection now and we don’t get the help we need,” she said. “What can we expect if the clubs paid for them?” Finley charged that Peter Gatien had two Police Department officers on his payroll when he owned Limelight (now Avalon) more than 10 years ago. During that period, Limelight managers were apparently tipped off about drug raids on the club, Finley said. Gatien was later charged with allowing drugs to be sold and used in the club, but was acquitted. He was later convicted of tax violations.

Speakers at the March 1 meeting praised what they called “the new S.L.A.,” which for the past year has been paying more attention to community board recommendations on license applications.

Vickie Barbero, a Community Board 5 member for the past 14 years, recalled the “frustration, fear and sense of futility that we felt when we recommended denial of licenses or renewals,” and compared it with recent moves by the S.L.A. to deny applications. In 2006, the first year of the “new” S.L.A., the agency suspended 24 licenses compared to four each in 2005 and 2004.

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