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Originally published July 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 18, 2007 at 10:35 AM

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Nightclub frustration hits a boiling point

Nickels says it can take years to shut down clubs under the city's public-nuisance ordinance or by pleading with the Liquor Board to suspend a...

Seattle Times staff reporter

After a shooting July 2 near his Belltown nightclub, Tabella Restaurant & Lounge owner Kauser Pasha said he was poised to take a drastic step: abandon the club's hip-hop music format and replace it with Top 40 hits.

But his attempt to mollify his critics was too little, too late.

Last Friday, Mayor Greg Nickels asked the state Liquor Control Board for an emergency suspension of Tabella's liquor license, saying "the history of violence and irresponsibility surrounding the club" endangered public safety.

Tabella is the latest example of why Seattle's nightclubs should be licensed by the city, he says.

Nickels says it can take years to shut down clubs under the city's public-nuisance ordinance or by pleading with the Liquor Board to suspend a club's liquor license. If the city had the power to revoke a problem establishment's nightclub license, he says, it could force compliance faster, preventing an escalation of violence.

While residents of Belltown, Pioneer Square and other neighborhoods have complained loudly to City Hall about the nightclub-related violence, noise and litter they're exposed to regularly, club owners say they're being unfairly held responsible for the bad behavior of a few individuals outside their premises.

To get a nightclub ordinance passed, the mayor is playing hardball, Pasha and other club owners say, and demonizing certain clubs — especially those that play hip-hop or cater to African Americans.

From the clubs' perspective, the mayor already can crush a business in a single blow — and has — by asking the state for a 180-day emergency suspension of a liquor license.

Such suspensions amount to a death sentence, say owners, who by law have no way to stop, or even delay, a suspension once it's been ordered.

Club owners emphasize that they don't like troublemaking patrons, and that clubs typically throw such patrons out — or refuse to admit them in the first place. It's those same people, club owners say, who sometimes come back later with a weapon.

"How is that the club's fault?" asks Lance Miyatovich, president of Jolan Inc., which has owned J&M Café in Pioneer Square since 1995.

Some owners also say the city picks on clubs that play hip-hop because of a perception they attract gang members.

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"We're not in business to attract gangs," says Pasha, himself a Belltown resident. "We want people to come down here and have a good time, not to fight."

Seattle Police Lt. Ken Hicks, who took Nickels on a 1:30 a.m. tour of Pioneer Square a week after the Belltown gunfire, said that among other things, police want clubs to stop serving alcohol at 1:30 a.m., to not overserve patrons, to report incidents and send their bouncers to the department's security training.

Pasha says he's done all that and more to run a clean business and be a good neighbor.

His neighbors don't see it that way.

Earlier this year, Pasha and his security staff were standing outside the club when they and a few patrons were struck by eggs hurled by residents from the roof of the condo building next door, Belltown Lofts. The club called police.

Ariel Sanderson, 29, a Belltown real-estate agent living in the building, says that while she doesn't condone egg-throwing, residents have become so frustrated with nearby clubs that it's come to this.

"We need to hold these clubs accountable for their patrons," she says.

At the same time, she and other Belltown Lofts residents acknowledge that the violence won't end if Tabella is closed, but would likely migrate to another club — hopefully, in another neighborhood.

Most recent closures

The last time Nickels asked the Liquor Board for a suspension, he got it, shutting two clubs that played hip-hop and had reputations as violent places.

In 2005, it was Larry's Nightclub in Pioneer Square, and in 2006, Mr. Lucky Lounge and Grill in Lower Queen Anne.

Nightlife-related crime is "not just isolated to Belltown," Nickels said. "It could happen anywhere on any given weekend."

Pasha's been part of Seattle's nightlife scene for more than a decade.

A native of India who emigrated to the U.S. in 1992, Pasha, 47, says he's worked behind the counters of gas stations and convenience stores and knows firsthand the terror of having a gun or knife pointed in his face.

"Life is always scary," he says. "Anything can happen anywhere, anytime."

For five years beginning in the late 1990s, Pasha ran the Rock Salt Steak House on Westlake Avenue.

He opened Tabella in 2005, up the street from the former Club Medusa, which had a history of violent incidents.

A club called Venom now operates at the old Medusa site.

At Tabella, Pasha installed fire sprinklers and soundproofing insulation.

He said he also required a dress code — no baggy clothes or baseball caps — and had his staff attend Liquor Board training sessions.

He also hired a seasoned security team, he said, including two armed guards who pat down or screen every patron and check purses for weapons.

The dimly lit stretch of Western Avenue where Tabella and Venom are located was thrust into the spotlight July 2 when, police say, a Navy seaman based in Everett left Tabella only to fire shots on the street later that night.

The gunfire wounded an 18-year-old woman who was standing outside Belltown Lofts and just missed a resident who was inside her condo working on her computer.

A security guard at Tabella says the seaman had been ejected from the club earlier for punching a bouncer, and that the shooting happened much later, under a dark overpass more than a block away and outside of Tabella's control.

"A nightlife license would not have stopped this shooting," says David Osgood, Tabella's attorney.

"If you're going to hold Tabella responsible, you should hold the Navy equally responsible and close down Seafair," which also brings many sailors into the city.

Mayor's list draws fire

Club owners are seething over a list the mayor's communications director released to reporters during Nickels' recent tour of Pioneer Square.

The list, titled the "Five Most Violent Nightclubs in Seattle," misattributed some police-incident reports.

Staff are still "working out the kinks" in a city database, said the communications director, Marianne Bichsel.

On Tuesday, the mayor's office sent the City Council a revised list, this one naming eight problem nightclubs. But it, too, has issues, and Liquor Board officials were talking with the mayor's office late Tuesday about how the city was counting written warnings or complaints against a club as actual violations.

Bichsel said it's all just semantics, that complaints serve as an early warning to the city that a club is developing problems. City staff also don't apologize for the fact that their database makes no distinction between incidents inside a club, incidents somewhere else involving a patron of the club and incidents in nearby parking lots.

According to the city database, known as LiquorStat, from January 2006 to April of this year, J&M Café ranked first with 50 police incident reports, followed by Venom with 37 and Tabella with 35.

"I call it voodoo statistics," J&M's Miyatovich says. The police and Liquor Board repeatedly encourage his staff to call 911 — even for a patron angry that his fake ID card was confiscated or staff refused to serve him more drinks.

"This is the whole problem with using police incident reports as some sort of tool to determine who's a bad operator and who's not a bad operator," Miyatovich says.

Adds Osgood, Tabella's attorney: "In fact, these might be the five most responsive clubs to call 911 when they see anything."

Tabella's fate is now in the hands of the Liquor Board, which is investigating the mayor's allegations before deciding whether to pull the club's license.

Last weekend, at the city's request, the Liquor Board stepped up enforcement in Pioneer Square, Belltown and Capitol Hill, and will keep it up every weekend until at least Aug. 4, said board spokesman Brian Smith.

If the board grants Nickels' suspension request, Tabella could ask for a hearing but would not be able to sell alcohol during the interim, Smith said.

He acknowledges that an emergency suspension can kill a business. "That's why we have to look at these things very closely."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

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