Brookhaven City Council continues to struggle with what to do about nightlife along Buford Highway. The council recently considered placing a moratorium on late-night venues along the popular thoroughfare, but then backed off.
Councilmember Joe Gebbia, who represents Buford Highway, has been pushing the council to find some way to better regulate the late-night venues already open in the city’s most diverse neighborhood. He continually raises his concern that the stretch of road will become the “next Buckhead.”
Gebbia recalled the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Buckhead made national headlines not only for its Mardi Gras atmosphere but also for violence. The Buckhead bar district eventually shut down in 2007 when the Atlanta City Council moved last call to 2:30 a.m. Tony boutiques and mixed-use developments now stand where numerous bars and clubs once thrived.
Discussions have taken place at the past two City Council meetings and work sessions about late-night establishments. Noise complaints are the number one issue they deal with, and those have come under control thanks to a new noise ordinance as well as some venues willing to install sound-proof insulation, Gebbia said.
The police are racking up DUI and disorderly conduct arrests along Buford Highway as well as working numerous accidents in the early morning hours, according to Police Chief Gary Yandura.
Another problem is some restaurants are operating as late-night establishments, violating their licensing agreement. Restaurants are supposed to stop serving alcohol at 12:30 a.m. even though they are legally allowed to stay open until 3:30 a.m. However, several are serving booze well past 12:30 a.m., city officials say.
“What we need to do now is make sure the city’s ordinances are being obeyed,” Gebbia said.
Earlier last call?
Last year, an earlier last call was implemented in Brookhaven. Last call for late-night venues is 2:55 a.m. with closing set at 3:30 a.m. Restaurants are also able to stay open until 3:30 a.m. Before last year, bars and restaurants could serve alcohol until 3:55 a.m., with closing at 4:55 a.m.
Last call in Atlanta is 2:30 a.m. and closing time is 3 a.m., leading many bar hoppers to drive to Buford Highway to keep the party going. “We shortened the hours so we wouldn’t be the dumping ground for last call,” Gebbia said. Yandura has asked to have the city’s last call moved back to 2 a.m.
But Khalifa Jubril, who opened Royal Lounge in late 2015 on Buford Highway, said an earlier last call could would hurt his bottom line and be bad for the dozens of people he employs. “I have 50 or so employees – they have families,” Jubril said. “Closing earlier would hurt them.”
Gebbia said he tried unsuccessfully to start a restaurant association on Buford Highway so the venues could “police themselves.” Without help from the business community, Gebbia said the city must find ways to ensure the safety of those living in Buford Highway and in Brookhaven.
Installing cameras in parking lots at the landlords’ expense at restaurants and bars could help reduce crime, Gebbia said. Mandating off-duty Brookhaven Police officers to work at venues is another possibility.
Several venues already hire Brookhaven Police officers, according to information provided by the police department.
Cost to police the Pink Pony
The Pink Pony is perhaps the most well-known late-night venue in Brookhaven. Shortly after incorporation in 2013, the city attempted to have the Pink Pony – in operation just off Buford Highway since the 1990s – shut down. A battle ensued, resulting in numerous lawsuits before the city eventually won when the state Supreme Court ruled the city had the authority to regulate sexually oriented businesses.
In 2014, the city and Pink Pony agreed to drop all lawsuits, and in turn, the Pink Pony would only operate as a nude club until 2020. As part of the settlement, the Pink Pony agreed to pay the city $225,000 a year – or $56,250 quarterly — for police services. However, the costs to patrol the nude club have been exceeding the annual fee, according to quarterly reports from Yandura.
From Jan. 1 through March 31, 2015, the first quarter of the agreement, it cost the police department $181,130 to provide “enhanced public safety services.” This includes $56,586 in personnel costs (including a sergeant, two officers, K-9 services); and other costs, including uniforms, vests, communications, gasoline, police vehicle and mobile radios at $145,706.
During the second quarter of 2015, the costs totaled $68,578 with such items as uniforms, vests, mobile radios and police vehicles being removed from other costs. Personnel costs totaled $64,560.
The third quarter of 2015 saw costs total $76,688; total costs for the fourth quarter of 2015 was $76,248.
The first quarter of 2016, the most recent report on file, shows the cost to police the Pink Pony to be $71,905.
‘First concern is safety’
There are 17 late-night venues on Buford Highway, all of which opened before Brookhaven incorporated. Before city ordinances were implemented, many clubs were abusing closing hours, Gebbia said.
“Our first concern [as a city] is safety. People have a right to be entertained, but certainly not at the risk of hurting others. That is the kind of things government does,” he said.
Buford Highway is where much of Brookhaven’s crime occurs, according to police reports. Simply ignoring it is not going to make it go away, Gebbia said. But, he added, it’s not all late-night establishments that are causing problems. However, just one or two clubs continually violating city law hurts all of the city’s nightlife, he said.
Late-night venues are part of the character of Buford Highway, Gebbia said. But if that character is degraded “that challenges the whole existence of the late-night community,” Gebbia said.
“It’s not that we don’t want to see late-night establishments thriving, we want them to [be] done responsibly,” he said.
Late-night establishments/clubs that hire off-duty Brookhaven officers
Acapulco: 1 officers hired every other Friday, Saturday, Sunday
Atlanta Peach: Staffed by DeKalb County Police when needed
Confetti’s: 1 officers Tuesday and Friday
El Ocho: 1 officer Sunday nights
Josephine’s: 1 officer Saturday and Sunday
Medusas: 1 officer Friday, Saturday and Sunday
La Casa: 1 officer Saturday night
XS Lounge: 1 officer Friday, Saturday and Sunday
Royal Lounge: 1 officers when needed on Saturday and Sunday
No set schedule, just as needed
Rush Lounge 1 officer Tuesday & Friday; 2 officers Saturday and Sunday