Closing Time?

It’s hard to remember now, but New York’s nightlife community, after chafing under eight years of club-hater Rudy Giuliani, actually welcomed Michael Bloomberg with open arms. After all, the incoming mayor liked to go out himself. And they expected that, unlike his moralistic predecessor, a bon vivant businessman might better appreciate nightlife’s economic contribution to the city.

That was before the smoking ban. And now, with the proposed after-hours “nightlife license,” many club, bar, and restaurant owners are apoplectic. The mayor did a little backpedaling last week, suggesting that he might delay acting on the proposal until next year (read: after his reelection bid if the political fallout seems too toxic), but that did little to assuage those in the business.

The fear and loathing hasn’t subsided in part because the proposal hasn’t been formally withdrawn—and because the administration still seems to think that the cabaret license, which all agree is unfair and maybe even unconstitutional, should be replaced by onerous regulations that give the city expanded powers to shut down clubs.

Bar, restaurant, and club owners worry that if the nightlife license passes the City Council, running any kind of late-night establishment will become an almost untenable proposition. “This administration simply won’t accept that a large chunk of the city’s vitality comes from the fact that at 2 a.m. you have the option to stay out and enjoy yourself,” says restaurateur Keith McNally.

No one argues that clubs shouldn’t be strictly regulated. Happy Land taught us that. What they do argue is that clubs already are: with strict noise, fire, and health codes. And that the new license, in its current form, would do nothing to make clubland safer or address the No. 1 source of complaints: noisy sidewalks outside smoke-free nightspots.

Club owners are asking why the Bloomberg administration, like the Giuliani administration before it, refuses to let bars and clubs hire officers from the NYPD’s “paid-detail unit” (a program that allows cops to do off-duty uniformed security work), even though venues like Madison Square Garden can use it. Such officers could, among other things, help reduce problems out on the smoky sidewalks.

“If you’re serious about protecting neighborhoods from disruption,” says City Councilman David Yassky, “the first thing you should do is allow nightclubs to hire the unit.” New York Nightlife Association attorney Rob Bookman agrees: “Our message is, ‘Do a better job of enforcing the existing laws or give us the unit so we can enforce the laws ourselves.’ ”

Ironically, the license—which would replace the dread cabaret laws—was meant to take some of the capriciousness out of club regulation. Its goal, according to Department of Consumer Affairs commissioner Gretchen Dykstra: to regulate most clubs, bars, and restaurants according to noise and occupancy levels—not whether someone’s getting down to Beyoncé by the jukebox. The license would be required of establishments that have an occupancy of 75 or more in residential districts, 200 in commercial or manufacturing districts, and music louder than 90 decibels. If they don’t obtain the license, which would cost $1,300 and last two years, they would have to close by 1 a.m. Inspectors would measure internal noise and issue fines if a venue goes one decibel over its limit, even if neighbors haven’t called 311.

On his weekly radio show, Mayor Bloomberg proclaimed that such a license would end the cabaret law’s “dancing police” while curtailing noise. “If you’re going to stay up all night long and disturb your neighbors,” he said, “it’s the city’s business.”

But Bloomberg isn’t being entirely honest, or perhaps he isn’t versed in the city’s byzantine zoning code. Dancing is currently permitted only in manufacturing zones (like the meatpacking district) and some commercial zones (like Times Square). So cops could still issue dancing summonses based on zoning laws, even to bars with the new license. “It’s the quo without the quid,” quips Bookman.

What’s even more alarming to late-night proprietors is that the proposed law includes a set of draconian punishments that seem pulled straight from Christopher Hitchens’s worst nightmares. Three minor violations (such as a sidewalk left unswept a half hour after closing time) in two years would allow the city to shutter an establishment for up to ten days. And just two infractions from the “serious” category (like underage drinking) would result in the permanent revocation of the license. “No establishment,” says Bookman, “could survive this kind of scrutiny.”

Dykstra promises that the DCA would follow the spirit of the law—overlooking violations in which club owners act in good faith. “Revocation of a license is not something we’ll do lightly,” she says, adding that the point is to punish venues with “a pattern of bad management.”

But even if she’s right, who’s to say that a subsequent administration couldn’t enforce every last letter? Many owners wouldn’t be willing to take the risk. “People won’t want to get the license due to the potential penalties,” Bookman says, “so most will just close at 1 a.m. voluntarily.”

Yet it’s precisely those late-night hours that make up much of the profits not just for clubs like Lotus, which does about 50 percent of its business from 1 through 4, but also for after-hours steak-frites joints like McNally’s Schiller’s. “This legislation is disguised as shutting down big, noisy clubs, but it really stands to negatively impact every bar and restaurant in the city,” says Tom Sisk, co-owner of the club Centro-Fly and the lounge Aubette, where business is down 57 percent from last year—a decline he attributes almost entirely to the smoking ban.

Scared that the license, coming on the heels of that ban, would cripple the industry—which, according to a soon-to-be-released New York Nightlife Association study, provides more than 25,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in earnings—club owners are pushing for alternatives, like the paid-detail unit. The mayor’s office, in defending its position on the unit, cites a state law banning police from establishments that sell liquor. But Bookman recently enlisted the backing of the State Liquor Authority in the New York Nightlife Association’s quest to allow use of the unit. And Yassky, along with Christine Quinn and fourteen other City Council members, has introduced legislation to that effect.

“The mayor says he’s not anti-nightlife,” says Quinn, “but to prove it he must support this bill, which is a win-win for both the industry and the community.” He could even come to the signing in a tux.

Closing Time?