Nightclub might not stay shut for long

Owner of the Tunnel files papers applying for different use permit

July 16, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Its critics cheered when the lights went out at the Tunnel, a downtown nightclub that police said has been a magnet for violence. But the Eutaw Street club probably won't stay dark for long.

The Tunnel, closed by the city last month for zoning violations, could reopen soon, said city officials and the club's lawyer. Club owner Jay A. Benjamin has submitted paperwork to correct its zoning status and could be back in business within days if the club passes new building inspections, officials said.

The Tunnel case is not unusual. Experts say it reflects the limits local government face when responding to complaints from neighbors or police. The reality, as the foes of troubled establishments around the region have discovered, is that it can be difficult to close them - or keep them closed.

"There are some things we can do; other things we cannot do," said Michael Savino, city superintendent for zoning enforcement. "We cannot deny people permitted uses. We cannot make that arbitrary decision."

In this case, Benjamin has applied for a different kind of use permit. The one that the club had previously - "banquet hall" - did not allow the Tunnel to operate as a nightclub. Benjamin has since requested a tavern permit with live entertainment and dancing. A tavern is an allowed use at its location, 320 N. Eutaw St.

"We expect to be open again, sure," said Tunnel lawyer, Peter A. Prevas.

Critics pledge continued vigilance.

"We're going to keep an eye on the Tunnel when it reopens," said Tom Yeager, vice president of the Downtown Partnership business group. "We're not here to put anyone out of business, but we want a well-run, well-managed organization. And we do not want violent crime associated with downtown."

Police have long said the club attracts violence. From December 2000 to last September, one person was killed, six people were shot and two people were stabbed in incidents that police suspect were sparked by arguments, fights or nasty looks in the club.

In May, Rio-Jarrell Tatum, a 19-year-old college freshman, was shot and killed in a robbery 1 1/2 blocks away from the club. He was heading to the Tunnel with a friend at the time of his death.

Benjamin has said he hired off-duty police officers to patrol the streets surrounding the club and should not be held responsible for violence outside its doors. But police say the club has put a big drain on resources, with 30 officers patrolling nearby streets some weekend nights.

Those who want to turn the downtown's west side into a neighborhood say the incidents fuel misperceptions that the area is dangerous. "We have one heck of a time fighting the perception of violent crime downtown," Yeager said.

Yeager and others, including WestSide Renaissance Inc., a business group, previously asked the city liquor board - part of a state agency - to revoke the club's liquor license, to no avail. They were delighted when the city used zoning violations to close the Tunnel's doors.

Zoning officials inspected the club June 28, acting on complaints from the mayor's office and City Council members. They found it violated the "banquet hall" zoning designation by charging admission and operating as a nightclub.

Banquet halls are required to be rented for specific events and have invited guests, according to zoning regulations.

Prevas called it a "minor" zoning violation and has appealed the city's handling of the case to the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals. That appeal could become moot if the club is allowed to reopen, he said.

Prevas said Benjamin should have had time to submit a new permit application rather than being closed immediately. In addition, he said, city officials at a subsequent court hearing raised concerns such as the drain on police resources that are "totally outside of the zoning issue."

"It would appear there would be pressure coming from above," Prevas said, adding that he had no evidence of this. But although City Council members and the mayor's office complained, Savino, the city superintendent for zoning enforcement, said he felt no pressure to treat the Tunnel differently.

On July 9, District Court Judge Jack I. Lesser issued a temporary injunction to keep the Tunnel closed until at least the end of this month. However, he warned city zoning officials not to stall Benjamin's efforts to obtain a new permit. Prevas said Savino's office has been cooperative. Benjamin could not be reached for comment.

The two sides are due back in court July 31. Savino said the city would allow the club to reopen before then if everything is in order, as Lesser ordered.

Zoning officials say they will watch the club, assuming it reopens, in part to make sure it truly functions as a tavern.

"You can't just go in to dance," said Donald Small, general superintendent in the city's Division of Housing Inspection Services. "The primary function of a tavern is the sale of alcoholic beverages." Dancing is an "accessory use," he said, not a primary one, adding that it is not clear when that line is crossed.

The Tunnel could have sought a "dance hall" permit, but Small said that would require zoning board approval. With a tavern permit, no board approval is needed.

"We're trying to solve a problem," Savino said. "Whether we'll actually be successful awaits to be seen."

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