Squadron pushes crackdown on unruly nightclubs

BY Michael Mandelkern

Bars in Lower Manhattan attracts tourists and locals that howl as loud as wolves well past midnight, but the New York State Legislature is trying to help those who live near the nightspots get a more peaceful night’s sleep.

The State Senate passed a bill on Thursday that sets guidelines for the State Liquor Authority to revoke the licenses of consistently ruckus bars and clubs.

If Governor David Paterson signs the bill, co-sponsored by State Senator Daniel Squadron and Assembly Member Robin Schimminger, into law the state-run S.L.A. could shut down nightspots if police are called at least six times within two months for incidents of excessive noise and disorder.

Squadron, a Democrat who represents Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, has been striving for solutions to the issue since being elected.

“Right now it’s very, very difficult to distinguish between places that are and aren’t a problem. It’s even more difficult to do something about it,” said Squadron.

The S.L.A. could still terminate licenses for less than six highly reprehensible incidents in 60 days, and the bars may still operate with more than six less-severe complaints.

And nightlife operators no longer have to be directly culpable for infractions in order for a police referral to the S.L.A. to put a scratch on their record.

“We think it’s really good legislation,” said Bill Crowley, spokesperson for the S.L.A.

An officer must refer complaints to the S.L.A. for a nightspot to be fined, to have their license revoked or to incur other penalties, but police are only required to report serious offenses, such as gambling, prostitution and violent crimes.

A nightspot could face sanctions for rowdy behavior that spills outside if the owner didn’t provide enough security or notify the authorities in time. But the S.L.A. is not required to revoke licenses or take all incident reports in earnest.

“It’s crazy to get into the technicalities. This bill creates a clear standard,” said Squadron.

He believes unruly bars, particularly those in the Lower East Side, “make the community nearly impossible to live in. Too often the community voice is drowned out.”

Squadron has heard numerous complaints from his constituents and hopes the N.Y.P.D. would have more incentive to communicate with the S.L.A. if the bill becomes law.

“We do have to rely on the discretion of the police,” said Crowley.

But Karen Stamm, a public member of Community Board 1’s Tribeca Committee, believes not only the N.Y.P.D. but several other groups, including Community Boards, citizens and other government agencies, must also be central in referring complaints to the S.L.A.

“It doesn’t go nearly far enough. I would have preferred 90 days instead of two months,” she said. “I hope it’s not just being done for appearance sake. The S.L.A. doesn’t really react with a stiffened spine.”

Stamm, who lives on Broadway, criticized the N.Y.P.D.’s response to shootings outside of Peppers, a vibrant nightclub in Tribeca that was shut down in June 2008, two years ago. She emphasized that the gunfire, which she heard from her residence, didn’t close the club down.

“The police had all types of excuses of why they didn’t turn the information over,” she said, adding that based on the Peppers incident she doesn’t see the N.Y.P.D. taking complaints of loud noise seriously. She also named Club Remix and the bar-restaurant Sazon as problematic.

Some Republicans in the State Senate have different concerns. They believe the proposed measure could encourage competing businesses and nearby residents to call the police out of spite and penalize establishments for minor infractions. Other republicans believe the bill gives too much power to the S.L.A.

Squadron debated the bill with his colleagues on the State Senate floor for roughly one-and-a-half hours.

Stamm called the development of nightspots and mass influx of families into Lower Manhattan “oil and water” because in her opinion current district zoning and the rise of commercial establishments don’t benefit children and, on the contrary, is a “threat to the community” if they cannot sleep and violence sporadically breaks out.

Stamm, who has lived in Tribeca since 1987, has observed the expansion of entertainment establishments and residential developments over the past 23 years.

The Tribeca Committee regularly reviews presentations of liquor license requests in an effort to ensure the community their establishments will be beneficial to the neighborhood. “It’s a matter of how you perceive the density of what’s a lot,” she said.

Susan Stetzer, District Manager of C.B. 3, is skeptical of how many places fall within the new S.L.A. standard. “There are some bars [in the Lower East Side] that have constant problems, but I think it would be extremely unusual; there are very few bars that would reach this level,” she said.

Stetzer, who has communicated with Squadron in drafting the bill, doesn’t perceive the nightlife as such a threat to the community. “Singling out a place just on complaints would not be fair,” she said.

Paul Hovitz, a C.B. 1 board member on the Seaport/Civic Center Committee, has mixed feelings on the effectiveness of the legislation, referring to openly lewd conduct around South Street Seaport bars. “We get complaints all the time,” he said.

Hovitz believes Tribeca, with numerous bars and lively restaurants located directly below residential complexes, is one of the noisiest neighborhoods Downtown.

He’s concerned that troublemakers usually flee from a bar by the time police pull up and, unless the S.L.A. receives an expanded budget for enforcers, perpetrators and owners will not be held accountable.

“It’s a positive step but it’s not going to solve all of our problems,” he said.

Squadron co-sponsored a bill in March currently pending in the Assembly that would require the S.L.A. to listen to community board concerns when an owner applies for a liquor license for an establishment within 500 feet of the property line of at least three other locations.

Owners on trial have the right to an attorney, but unlike a criminal court the S.L.A. doesn’t appoint attorneys for businesses who cannot afford one. Owners and police are allowed to bring witnesses and present their accounts to a three-person board.

Some trials last for months, but defendants could request a conditional no contest, which allows them to plead down to a lesser penalty. And while the license revocation timeframe isn’t absolute it does provide the S.L.A. with leverage, nightspot executives who file lawsuits countering decisions to revoke their liquor licenses.