Manhattan Community Boards

Nightclub Pulls Out Stops

To Overcome ‘Gatien Curse’

Call it the “Gatien curse,” for there are few names more liable to put a community board on the warpath than that of Peter Gatien, the notorious former owner of the nightclubs Tunnel and Limelight, who was forced out of business by a multitude of legal troubles, including drug charges.

Most recently, the curse descended upon nightclub operators Callin Fortis and Ken Barilich when, on March 24, the New York Post ‘s Page Six reported that the two, in league with Mr. Gatien, were planning to open a New York branch of Crobar, the hot night spot that Messrs. Fortis and Barilich operate in Miami and Chicago. The prospect of a Gatien operation taking root once more in their backyard-on West 28th Street-prompted outraged Chelsea residents to raise alarms with their local community board, which was to vote on Crobar’s liquor-license application at their May 1 meeting.

Aware that they were heading into the eye of a bureaucratic storm, Crobar brought out the big guns, launching a public-relations campaign of epic proportions.

Led by Crobar’s community and government liaison, James Capalino, who has represented hotelier Ian Schrager and run two successful Mayoral races for Ed Koch, the campaign has included a slick brochure, consistent public denials of Mr. Gatien’s involvement with Crobar, and the contention that the Page Six item was planted by a malicious competitor.

The principals of Crobar, along with their traffic and security experts, made all the usual promises to Chelsea’s Board 4 at the May 1 meeting. With their arrival, they said, would come their own fleet of security cars, which would be employed to patrol the neighborhood. The crowds outside the club-which will make its New York debut in a former prop studio at 530 West 28th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues-would be carefully managed, and the patrons would not cause traffic problems. And, they promised, they would do everything in their power to keep drugs out. Furthermore, Mr. Capalino contended, his new club would become an asset to the neighborhood; Crobar is a well-run operation that “raises the bar” for competing nightclubs, he told The Observer .

In addition, a procession of character witnesses were paraded into the meeting to tout Messrs. Fortis and Barilich’s professionalism, their devotion to community and their integrity. One of those witnesses was the former two-term mayor of Miami Beach, Neisen Kasdin, who credited the dynamic duo with lifting the quality of Miami Beach’s nightlife and with operating virtually complaint-free.

Crobar’s principals went on to emphasize their community involvement, noting their numerous charitable affiliations. They explained that while the club will occupy the bottom two floors of the building, the top two floors will house a performance space, an art gallery and-this was the kicker-teaching space for the Tibet Center.

So it was only fitting that the coup

de grâce in Crobar’s community-

relations campaign was delivered by a man of the cloth. The venerable Nicholas Vreeland, director of the

Tibet Center on East 31st Street, approached the microphone wrapped in a burgundy robe, his hair closely shorn, to thank Crobar for making the space available at a reasonable cost. “I’m the spiritual side of Crobar,” he introduced himself lightheartedly.

After that, the opposition was toast.

A handful of residents and the attorney representing a large commercial-property owner on the block raised objections to the size of the club, which will have the capacity to entertain approximately 1,300 revelers each night. Resident Laine Conklin asked the board to oppose Crobar’s liquor license and, if not, to impose strict regulations on Crobar-preferably some kind of performance bond, where the club would be subject to serious sanctions should it cause trouble in the neighborhood. “There have been many promises tonight,” Ms. Conklin told the board. “I would love to believe them.” But ultimately, “what are the guidelines?” she asked.

The guidelines imposed by Board 4-which voted to recommend that the New York State Liquor Authority grant Crobar’s liquor license-included that the club provide street-cleaning services and that it hire as many of its estimated 120 employees from the neighborhood as possible.

Despite a handful of dissenters, the majority of the board was swayed. “I was going to vote against this because I didn’t think they had the experience, and [then there was] the whole Gatien thing,” board member Kevin Kossi told the board before announcing his intention to greenlight Crobar.

For board member Jennifer Byron, it was the Tibetans who tipped the scale. “If the Buddhist center has agreed to take a space in the building, come on! ” she urged the board. “This is an internationally recognized religious community that is living in exile. If these people think that they can co-exist with [Crobar], then there isn’t anything else to be said.”

-Karina Lahni

May 8: Board 6, New York University Medical Center, 550 First Avenue, Classroom A, 7 p.m., 319-3750.

May 9: Board 5, Parsons School of Design, 560 Seventh Avenue, 6 p.m., 465-0907.