Tale of two cities for residents and the club crowd


By Zella Jones

There are some who believe we are two cities — daytime New York and nighttime New York — and we have just two economic engines. But, there are others who feel that the city’s return on nightlife investment is getting pretty slim, that it’s time to look at other options.

The New York Nightlife Association expounds, “New York City nightlife establishments, alone, employ over 19,000 city residents and pay over $391 million dollars in city taxes!” They claim responsibility for generating nearly $10 billion in direct and indirect city revenues. This figure is based on a myriad of suppositions and customized (their words, not ours) calculations. Their premise is that anyone who goes to a theater, movie or gallery or who shops, takes a taxi or train, buys cosmetics or gets his or her hair done is prompted to do so because they are planning to drink till 4 a.m.

Paying for the state and local enforcement personnel that everyone recognizes is necessary to contain the current level of nightlife disruption is already an issue. But NYNA is also lobbying for an additional police presence in high-density nightclub areas and for a New York City Department of Nightlife. NYNA will pay the Police Department for their extra coverage, while the rest of us foot the bill for the additional bureaucracy they recommend adding to the city’s infrastructure with a Department of Nightlife. So far, we haven’t added the additional cost of 311 calls, follow-up on the increased noise, disruption and traffic complaints and cost of Patrol Borough Manhattan South’s MARCH (Multiple-Agency Response to Club Hazards) sweeps. Does the $391 million in tax revenue cover this, too?

Without question, the core issue for New York City is containing the hysterically competitive environment among license holders and new applicants targeting clientele who consume alcohol, primarily, and preferably between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.

Putting a halt to NYNA’s juggernaut has taken a bit of doing. It began on the gritty Lower East Side at a town hall on license proliferation in November 2005. A full house at the Angel Orensanz Foundation asked questions and offered testimony to panelists Doris Diether, Community Board 2 zoning guru; Assemblymember Deborah Glick; Captain Frank Dwyer, Seventh Precinct commander; Dennis DeQuatro, Ninth Precinct commander; and then-Councilmember Margarita Lopez. City and state officials, as well as community organizations, were waking up from an entrenched nightmare.

The SoHo Alliance, Noho Neighborhood Association and Lower East Side Alliance hosted a forum in March 2006 at the Public Theater, another full house querying a panel of elected officials and government representatives. State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver followed up with a hearing on the 500-foot rule in May; in Albany, Glick and State Senators Duane and Connor sponsored or reintroduced legislation to close loopholes, heighten enforcement and generally make information more transparent to the public. Connor proposed a winning candidate from Brooklyn for a commissioner vacancy on the S.L.A. Councilmembers Quinn, Gerson and Mendez pushed for the Bouncer Bill. New York City nightlife was finally getting some serious attention.

In June of last year, New York City and State officials, Police Department officials and five precinct commanders gathered again with Noho, Soho, Lower East Side, East Village, West Village, Tribeca and Chelsea neighborhood organizations and Community Boards 1, 2 and 3 for a summit at the Puffin Room Gallery in Soho. It was there that the new State Liquor Authority chairperson, Daniel Boyle, introduced the long-awaited new S.L.A. commissioner from New York City, Noreen Healey.

The results were amazing. By July, Boyle appointed Healey to head a task force with representation from throughout the state. By August, Boyle announced a three-month moratorium on liquor-license applications. Nightlife-related deaths in ’06 now up to four, Mayor Bloomberg signed the Bouncer Bill in August. In September, Council Speaker Quinn convened a Nightlife Safety Summit with 19 panelists, including elected officials, NYNA and club owners, co-moderated by John Jay College President Jeremy Travis.

On Oct. 30, Senator Duane and Borough President Stringer held a Chelsea forum, where Joshua Toas, the S.L.A.’s C.E.O., announced new enforcement initiatives. Board 4 also documented the effects of multiple licensed locations and club density in West Chelsea, which saw an explosion from a capacity of 1,019 club patrons in 2001 to more than 10,000 in 2006, with up to 16 nightlife locations within a little more than four square blocks.

On Dec. 26, S.L.A. Chairperson Boyle delivered the task force’s report to incoming Governor Eliot Spitzer. It went up on the S.L.A.’s Web site on Dec. 28. Commissioner Healey outlined a long list of statutes and enforcements, already on the books, but not recently utilized, to address density and differentiation between license types. Yes, small restaurants can get a special license — and lose it — if they increase their size or stop serving food; and wine and beer license applications can be challenged. The report also recommended resurrection of existing probationary tools for license holders who are in violation. In all, there are 10 recommendations directly related to the questions raised at the June 2006 Puffin Room summit. In January of this year, B.P. Stringer and S.L.A. C.E.O. Toas addressed community board chairpersons and committee chairpersons about writing advisory resolutions on liquor-license applications that would allow the S.L.A. to incorporate community restrictions on the conditions of the license.

Senator Duane has introduced bills that would tighten restrictions for on-premise licenses located near schools, and in the transfer of licenses between members and corporations. Speaker Quinn’s nightlife safety initiative has inspired several pieces of legislation on this spring’s Council agenda.

Councilmember Gerson plans to propose more zoning and noise code modifications to prevent further nightlife encroachment on residential neighborhoods. Gerson also wants to strengthen the new noise code to prevent nuisance to neighbors and generally insure greater “livability.”

In the East Village, well-heeled promoters are showing more respect for community concern: European Union (E.U.) lost a bid for a full liquor license and returned, with a community agreement in place, to apply only for wine and beer. In another landmark decision, an applicant was denied a beer and wine license at 11th St. and Avenue B on the basis of density of existing licenses.

For Noho, which had been seeing up to three new applications a month, the three-month moratorium on license approvals had an immediate effect. Two recent applicants agreed to sign covenants attached to their applications. Managing late-night street disruption is still a full-time problem, however. In Soho, clubs have been replaced with actual restaurants, thanks to vigilance by the SoHo Alliance and developers’ apprehension to include disruptive tenants in their high-end residential offerings. Noho has noticed this, too, at Ian Schrager’s 40 Bond and Goldman’s 25 Bond St. showcase buildings.

Maybe it’s just time for more diversity in economic base, anyway. Maybe this has all been part of recovering from the emotional and economic panic of 2001. Maybe more of us are realizing, again, that our New York can’t drown its sorrows forever. Continued pressure from the new S.L.A. and now from community boards, from elected officials and agencies to reduce nightlife density and relieve competitive panic are all measures that will increase the value of healthy restaurant, bar, nightclub and cabaret businesses, each in better proportion, to the city’s many valuable economic opportunities.

This article is dedicated to Marcia Lemmon whose light still burns in all of us who think there are better ways for our city to include all of us.

Jones is chairperson, Noho Neighborhood Association