Volume 73, Number 30 | November 26 - December 2, 2003

Gerson says cabaret plan is a misstep

By Albert Amateau
Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Gretchen Dykstra last week proposed to replace New York City’s 76-year-old cabaret law with a new nightlife license law intended to address problems of noise, disorderly crowds and dirty sidewalks instead of dancing.
“Noise is the problem, not dancing,” said Dykstra at the Nov. 19 news conference where nightlife advocates, including Eric Demby, of Legalize Dancing NYC, hailed what they hoped would be the “the end of the dance police.”
Last June, D.C.A. held an eight-hour hearing on the proposed nightlife law, which is expected to be drafted and introduced into the City Council within the next few weeks. “We’ve been working on this since the beginning of the Bloomberg administration and we’ve learned a lot from the industry,” Dykstra said.
The need to control noise, garbage and rowdy crowds in front of clubs has been especially acute in Downtown Manhattan — including the Village, Gansevoort Market, Lower East Side, Soho, Chelsea and Lower Manhattan — the area of the city containing the overwhelming majority of clubs currently requiring cabaret licenses. Community Board 4, for example, which covers Chelsea and Clinton, currently has 75 percent of all the city’s existing cabaret licenses and 75 percent of the city’s pending licenses, said Anthony Borelli, district manager of Board 4, who attended the news conference last week at The Kitchen, a music venue on Leonard St. between Broadway and Church St.
The new nightlife licenses would apply only to establishments that meet specific criteria: Clubs, bars, restaurants or lounges that have a capacity of more than 75 patrons in residential zones and some mixed-use zones or a capacity of more than 200 in manufacturing and most mixed-use zones would need a license if they have continuous live or reproduced sound at a noise level of 90 decibels or louder and remain open after 1 a.m.
(D.C.A. estimates that restaurant decibel levels average between 70 and 85, a dog barking averages around 85, clubs with amplified music average 90 or more and a plane taking off hits 120 decibels.)
Licensed nightlife establishments would be allowed to choose the noise level they wish to maintain and would require professional sound engineers to certify that they comply with the city noise code at that level. D.C.A. would be authorized to enforce the city noise code using digital sound meters; but the code, set by the Department of Environmental Protection, would not be involved in the new law.
Licensed premises must make good faith efforts to ensure that crowds entering or leaving do no cause disturbances and that the streets outside are clean. Three nightlife license violations within two years would subject the premises to padlocking for up to 30 days.
But the new nightlife rules would not change zoning or the uses allowed in various zones.
While he lauded the city’s intention to address club and nightlife issues, City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who over a year ago called on the city to “deregulate dancing and better regulate noise,” was critical of the details.
Robert Bookman, attorney for the New York Nightlife Association, a group that represents the city’s largest nightclubs, which had initially opposed the change in legislation, also expressed reservations.
Both Gerson and Bookman said this week that zoning is a glaring omission from the nightlife proposal.
Said Gerson, “Currently the city zoning ordinance would negate virtually all of what the plans seek to accomplish because zoning restricts dancing to areas zoned for Use Group 12. I would eliminate dancing from zoning entirely and replace it with rules about the size of clubs.” Gerson proposed that all large clubs (allowed only in nonresidential areas) should require special permits whether they have dancing or not.
“The people who think dancing has been liberated are in for a rude awakening. It is zoning that says where dancing is legal,” Bookman said.
Gerson is also against the proposed law requiring licensing only if a place stays open after 1 a.m. “I don’t want a two-tiered system that might allow places that close at 1 a.m. to get away with excessive noise,” he said.
Gerson also insists that the special manufacturing zones of Soho and Noho must be treated as residential communities in regard to clubs, bars and lounges. “We shouldn’t tolerate anything that would result in a proliferation of under-regulated clubs and nightlife establishments in these highly residential areas,” Gerson said.
Bookman hopes the Department of City Planning will address zoning issues. He also called for expanding the Police Department’s “paid details,” off-duty city police paid by club owners to maintain order in the streets outside clubs. “The real trouble is the crowds outside clubs, exacerbated now by the city’s smoking laws,” said Bookman.
Gerson said he also supports the paid detail idea, but only if the police details are assigned and controlled by precinct commanders.
Previously, when the idea of reforming the Prohibition-era cabaret laws was first raised, Downtown’s two other Councilmembers had expressed concern and skepticism, when asked by The Villager, about the idea: Councilmember Christine Quinn noted Chelsea had been plagued by quality of life problems caused by big dance clubs, while Councilmember Margarita Lopez said many dance clubs tend to have drugs, which frequently means ties to organized crime.
The proposed nightlife law would include a 45-day comment period allowing community boards to consider recommendations on new applications. In addition, applicants for places with capacities of 500 or more would have to engage one state-certified security guard for every 50 occupants and the guards would be responsible for maintaining order outside the establishment.
Dykstra said there are about 330 existing cabaret licenses and she estimated they would be replaced by between 750 and 1,000 new nightlife licenses citywide. But Gerson said he feared there would be 750 licenses in his district alone, which includes Lower Manhattan, Soho, the South Village and part of the Lower East Side.
Under the proposed new rules, D.C.A. would be able to revoke licenses of locations that repeatedly violate any of 10 city or state laws: unlicensed liquor sale, liquor sale to minors, occupancy overcapacity, disabled sprinkler systems, disabled exit signs or emergency lighting, blocked or locked exits, assault, rape or attempted rape, possession of weapons or homicide.


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