Cabaret licenses have become as scarce as affordable apartments, security at nightclubs is tighter than at JFK’s international terminal, and the city’s Social Club Task Force sometimes makes multiple visits to clubs on a single night. Yet even at this stage of Mayor Giuliani’s quality-of-life crackdown, some people still think nightclubs have it a little too easy. And one of them is Queens borough president Claire Shulman, who wants to take control of regulating New York City’s bars and nightclubs away from the State Liquor Authority (SLA) and give it to a proposed agency that would be called the City Liquor Authority (CLA). Needless to say, Giuliani loves the idea of the CLA, which would answer directly to the mayor’s office.
In a copy of the proposed legislation provided to New York, Shulman blasts the SLA for issuing liquor licenses without community input and failing to “effectively monitor and enforce the alcoholic beverage control law.” The SLA “does not seem to function in New York City,” Shulman says. “Right now, there is little or no enforcement.”
Nightclub owners think there’s plenty. “The SLA does come by,” says Steven Lewis, creative consultant to the new club SPA, “and they come by in force.” “The SLA has been overly responsive,” agrees attorney Robert Bookman, who helps club owners navigate the city’s liquor- and cabaret-licensing process. The agency may be understaffed, Bookman says, but that’s because the Pataki administration reduced its budget. “If Giuliani has an issue with the SLA,” he says, “he should take it up with the governor.”
Several city agencies already help regulate nightlife. There’s the Social Club Task Force (which makes inspections and can consist of members of both the Buildings and Health Departments as well as a fire marshal and the NYPD), the Department of Buildings (which issues the all-important certificate of occupancy), and the Department of Consumer Affairs (which issues cabaret licenses permitting dancing). Then there’s the Nuisance Abatement Law, which the NYPD used to padlock the Tunnel last year when undercover officers made drug buys at the West Chelsea club. And that’s not counting the community boards, which have grown more aggressive about using their power to block cabaret licenses.
“It’s almost impossible to open a new nightclub now,” says Lewis with a sigh. So would-be impresarios are converting existing spaces that come with the necessary licensing, which is why most “new” clubs aren’t really new at all: Tramps became Centro-Fly; the Bank became Chaos. “That results in certain neighborhoods being consistently saturated with nightclubs,” argues New York Nightlife Association president Andrew Rasiej.
In previous decades, those neighborhoods were on the edges of habitable Manhattan, but the roaring real-estate market and the erosion of zoning laws that separated commercial and residential districts have created situations in which “people are literally living on top of nightclubs,” says Bookman. “We’re a hindrance,” says a club manager, “because we’re taking up valuable real estate.”
The CLA could make it even harder to operate clubs in such neighborhoods, but owners might not have to worry. The agency could be created only if the State Legislature approves a measure that would cede a state agency’s authority to the city. “It has two chances,” Bookman says with a laugh. “Slim and none.”
Still, even the slimmest prospect of Giuliani grabbing additional power has bar and club owners envisioning something of an apocalypse – the end of nightlife as we know it! If the legislation does pass, “no one would get a liquor license,” predicts Rasiej. “Starting a nightclub would be like trying to open a homeless shelter.”