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Attrition, Atlanta-style

Nightclub owners say the latest city regulation is a naked attempt to put them out of business

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If your New Year's resolution is to do less club-hopping in 2006, you're about to get help from an unexpected source.

A city ordinance that imposes strict new requirements for nightclub parking is expected to further thin the ranks of Atlanta nightclubs after it goes into effect Jan. 1 -- provided it survives a court battle by club owners who claim the measure is a mean-spirited attempt to drive them out of business.

"Many fine nightclubs that never get into trouble cannot hope to comply with this ordinance," says attorney Alan Begner, who represents many of the city's bars and clubs, and who says he's preparing a lawsuit this week challenging the new rule. "Chances are that one-half to three-quarters of Atlanta nightclubs can't comply."

Under the ordinance, nightclubs -- but not bars or restaurants -- will be required to have one parking space for every 75 square feet of floor space set aside for the exclusive use of the club's patrons. The big change from previous years is that street parking and shared parking lots aren't counted, meaning that if a nightclub doesn't already have its own parking lot, it must rent spaces from a nearby private lot.

"If your club is in a shopping center, chances are you can't comply with the new rules," Begner says.

The ordinance itself is not new. Drafted by Atlanta City Council members Howard Shook and Clair Muller, who both represent Buckhead, the measure was approved by the Council last fall with little fanfare. A one-year delay was built in to give club owners time to locate the necessary parking spaces, but Begner says city officials did a poor job of notifying people about the policy change.

"They never sent a warning when the law was passed, so many club owners don't even know about it," explains Begner, who says that only a few of his clients have since received letters that instruct them to abide by the ordinance or risk being stripped of their liquor license.

Club owners contacted by CL -- even those prepared to comply with the ordinance -- complain that the law will do little more than add overhead costs to an industry that has already seen profits squeezed by the city's 2004 rollback of bar hours from 4 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.

"I still don't know what the intent was supposed to be," says Adam Gajadharsingh, co-owner of Sutra Lounge in Midtown, who says he's in contract negotiations to rent spaces from a private parking deck a half-block away down Crescent Street.

Gajadharsingh criticizes the ordinance as being unfair in the way it targets businesses that operate under a nightclub license.

"The law puts us at a competitive disadvantage because it doesn't apply to places that somehow hold a restaurant or special event license," he says.

Under sometimes perplexing city guidelines, many of Atlanta's best-known nightlife destinations are not, technically speaking, nightclubs -- and are thus exempt from the new parking rule. According to their city-issued licenses, the Masquerade and Vision are restaurants, Eleven50 is a catering company and the Loft in Midtown, because it's located in the same facility as EarthLink Live, is a convention center.

"There's probably more work that needs to be done on licensing guidelines," concedes Councilwoman Muller, co-sponsor of the ordinance.

Tom Cook, who owns the Loft and several other local restaurants and nightspots, says the law won't affect him directly, but predicts it could ruin some clubs.

"None of the big nightclubs will fail to meet this standard. Money will always find a way. But it hurts smaller clubs that can't afford to go out and pay for parking," Cook says. "This, pure and simple, was an effort to shut down clubs."

Cook also contends that, if the law actually makes it easier to find parking outside nightclubs, it could encourage customers to drink and drive.

"The reason to have nightclub districts in the first place is to encourage people to walk between bars and take mass transit and shuttle buses," he says.

Some club owners are dealing with the ordinance by getting out of the nightclub business altogether -- not by closing their doors, but by applying for a different license.

Blind Willie's co-owner Tracey Crowley plans to start serving food at his venerable blues club so it can become, technically speaking, a restaurant, like his Limerick Junction next door. He also has the option of cutting his maximum occupancy to less than 100 and re-licensing Blind Willie's as a bar, another exempt category.

"Where the hell are we supposed to find parking?" says Crowley, whose club is wedged into a narrow, hundred-year-old storefront in Virginia-Highland that shares a back parking lot with other tenants.

Crowley's predicament is all the more ironic, Begner says, because of a city crackdown a few years back that led to several "restaurants," such as gay dance clubs Hoedowns and the Heretic, being re-licensed as nightclubs because they didn't serve enough food.

So, if the parking ordinance ends up affecting only those pour houses unlucky enough not to be able to take advantage of the licensing loophole, what will it ultimately have accomplished?

"I would argue that it's already working," says Councilman Shook, the law's primary sponsor. Shook points out that some of the rowdy Buckhead Village nightclubs that closed in the past year -- including Vinem, SPF-15 and Chaos -- have remained shuttered, rather than reopen as other clubs, because would-be club owners have been discouraged.

While Shook and Muller stop short of saying it was their plan to weed out nightclubs (because of the impending lawsuit, city attorneys have asked them not to comment on the law's intent), Shook says he hopes his district will become something more than Atlanta's blowout party zone.

"I'd like to see the Buckhead Village remain a fun place to hang out and party, but I'd like to see a better mix of retail and restaurants," Shook says. "That means it'll be duller for some people, but if Buckhead wasn't a clearly recognized problem, I don't know what was."

Club owner Cook, however, worries about the effect that the parking ordinance will have on the city as a whole.

"If Atlanta wants to continue to attract the twentysomethings who add to the city's creative mix," he says, "it needs to recognize that nightlife is an important reason that young people move here."

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