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NPU can make it tough to open new Midtown bars

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Ask anyone with an interest in fast-growing Midtown what they would like to see the area become and, chances are, they'll respond in the negative: "We don't want another Buckhead."

From businesspeople to bar owners to neighborhood activists, there's near-universal agreement that Atlanta doesn't need a second free-for-all party zone to attract crime and complaints. But some local bar owners say neighborhood watchdogs are making it increasingly difficult to set up shop in Midtown's white-hot nightclub district in the blocks surrounding Crescent Avenue.

Veteran Atlanta club owner Shad Gerami fumes with anger as he recalls being told by members of Midtown's Neighborhood Planning Unit-E, "We don't want Buckhead people here."

Although Gerami operates the upscale Goldfinger and The Vault -- both a little off the beaten path in Buckhead -- he has also owned the trendy SoHo in downtown Atlanta and The Zone in Midtown on Peachtree Street near 12th Street, both now closed.

Since June of 2000, Gerami says, NPU-E tried every avenue it could to reject his applications for a nightclub permit and liquor license, from nitpicking over renovation plans to finally demanding drainage improvements on a lot that had sat unchanged for at least 25 years.

When the group ran out of hurdles and stalling tactics designed to discourage him from opening Tangier, a new upscale nightclub slated for 12th Street down and across from the Leopard Lounge, it finally gave up and approved his proposals only last month, Gerami says.

"It's a handful of people who don't even live in that neighborhood and they just don't want us there," he says.

The delay cost him tens of thousands of dollars in rent on the two connected houses where Tangier will be located, he says, in addition to the overhead money he spent to repair the dilapidated buildings, remove thousands of used syringes and fumigate the former homeless shelter.

Randal Lautzenheiser, a real estate broker now in his second term as NPU-E chairman, says his group aims to make sure that Midtown's recent boom doesn't transform it into a rowdy bar district.

"It needs to be balanced with restaurants and shops," he says. Lautzenheiser acknowledges that the NPU isn't allowed to keep nightclubs out of commercially zoned areas such as the blocks surrounding Crescent Avenue simply on principle. But, he says, the group plans to hold prospective bar owners to high standards to ensure quality growth.

NPU-E's jurisdiction extends from Brookhaven to North Avenue on the north and south, and Juniper Street to Northside Drive on the east and west.

In the case of Tangier, Lautzenheiser says, Gerami dragged his feet on showing the group his plans.

"That's bull," Gerami says. "They tried everything they could to stop us."

It's clear that neighborhood leaders are making use of the clout that comes with soaring land values, a bustling nightlife and a bright future. The gigantic Atlantic Station mixed-use development is poised to take shape just across the Downtown Connector; a new bridge will span the interstate, opening the area to even more traffic; and a slew of new high-rise projects are in the works, including the nearly completed Atlanta Center Plaza at West Peachtree and 14th streets.

On weekends, the lines to get into Midtown's hottest clubs -- eleven50, Crescent Room, Martini Club -- and even some of the restaurant patios spill onto the sidewalks. "Midtown's really taken off," Gerami says. "It's the name of the game right now."

Basically, everyone is trying to get a piece of Midtown and NPU-E holds the key.

The traditional role of the city's NPUs has been to offer non-binding recommendations to city officials on local zoning and building permit applications. Their influence received a major boost last year when the City Council added liquor licenses to their purview in reaction to the problems in Buckhead Village.

Scott McCray says he had little trouble opening his Cosmopolitan nightclub on 13th Street two years ago. When he went back to get the permits for the swanky Lava, which opened next door this past spring, he says he got resistance from NPU-E. He eventually won their approval, but came away feeling that some NPU-E board members simply didn't want any more bars in the neighborhood. One of the concerns the group stressed was parking, even though McCray says a large new parking deck at the corner of 14th Street and Crescent Avenue has relieved much of the parking crunch.

Dee Grimes says the NPU shot down his plan for a pizzeria a few doors down from the Leopard Lounge -- which he co-owns -- because he wanted to have a full bar. But he says he has no interest in criticizing the same neighborhood leaders he plans to petition in a few weeks with a proposal for a taqueria in the same space -- also with a full bar.

"I understand where the NPU is coming from. I think they're trying to do what's best for the neighborhood."

Susan Mendham, president and CEO of the Midtown Alliance business coalition, says that this increased power calls for a balanced approach. "The question is, 'How do we keep (Midtown) from becoming a Buckhead Village without stifling it?' " she says.

Still, she says, the neighborhood has the responsibility to make sure no bad apples aren't let through. "It's too easy to get a nightclub in Atlanta," she says. "The rules and regulations could be tightened to ensure quality operators."

And while the neighborhood certainly wants to encourage new businesses, it has other factors to consider. "Now that we have more residents, they actually want to be able to get to sleep at night," Mendham says.

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