City & State:
While aimed at illegal speakeasies, the law was often used in discriminating fashion. From targeting largely African American jazz venues at its inception to requiring mid-century musicians to carry a “cabaret card” to Rudy Giuliani’s use of the law as part of his “broken windows” policing, the selective nature of its use has found plenty of opponents, which is why the law’s repeal was widely championed throughout the city.
But while proponents were celebrating the move, a look at the legal implications suggests there’s much further to go for the city that never sleeps to dance away its insomnia. Specifically, the zoning for any establishment that wants to host dancing and music still needs to be addressed, which is not lost on City Councilman Rafael Espinal, who was the key sponsor of legislation to establish an office of nightlife and repeal the Cabaret Law.
Espinal added that he is looking forward to working with the office of nightlife and advocates “to explore our city's archaic zoning code to see how we can build on this progress."
Those “archaic” zoning laws have less to do with how long they’ve been on the books and more to do with a lack of clarity. While it’s been widely reported that only 97 out of the roughly 25,000 eating and drinking establishments in New York City had a cabaret license in 2017, unless the zoning changes, many of these establishments are still not permitted to allow dancing, even without any requirement to obtain a cabaret license, Derek Wolman, chairman of the restaurant and hospitality practice group at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, wrote in an email to City & State.
New York City neighborhoods are zoned into three categories: residential, commercial and manufacturing. Within those zones are “use groups” that determine specifically where and how different businesses can operate within a zone. Making things difficult for proprietors who wish to hold music events is that they fall under “Use Group 12,” which spans both commercial and manufacturing.
Wolman broke it down in all of its complexity:
“Use Group 12 (eating or drinking establishment with entertainment and a capacity of more than 200 persons or establishments of any capacity with dancing) are permitted in C2 zoning districts (with Special Permit from the Board of Standards and Appeals), C3 zoning districts (with Special Permit from the Board of Standards and Appeals), C4 zoning districts (with Special Permit from the Board of Standards and Appeals) [permitted as of right or by special permit in C4 districts, depending upon location], C6 zoning districts [permitted as of right in C6 districts with conditions], C7 zoning districts, C8 zoning districts, M1 zoning districts [permitted in M1-5A, M1-5B, M1-5M, and M1-6M districts only as provided by special permit under Zoning Resolution Section 73-244], M2 zoning districts and M3 zoning districts.”
Yes, it means you can't keep sleeping children up at night with thumping music and you can't turn manufacturing space into clubs without jumping through hoops. Oh, the horror!