By Lore Croghan
Published on August 11, 2003

*LOTUS OPERANDI: Robert Wootton’s club,
Spirit New York, will feature a vegetarian
restaurant and wellness center in addition to its huge dance floor.

Until recently, just about the only sign of life on far West 27th Street was the occasional delivery truck rumbling up to the scrap-metal recycling place.
But now, the clamor of heavy machinery roars through the open doors of cavernous old brick warehouses, as construction crews work feverishly to turn a remote block of far-west Chelsea into Nightclub Row.

"It's going to be the next hot spot," predicts Carlo A. Seneca, who plans to open a club at 547 W. 27th St. that he has tentatively named Dream. It is one of a half-dozen clubs that are expected to be up and running on the block between 10th and 11th avenues by Thanksgiving.

What's driving the transformation of the area is Giuliani-era zoning regulations that control dance clubs and topless bars-combined with an inventory of vacant real estate and landlords who are willing to work with club operators.

Years of effort are all starting to come together. Some club owners have been working for a long time to get clubs built on West 27th Street. Some chose their properties more recently, encouraged by the fact that the first comers had targeted the area.

The changes to the neighborhood promise to be dramatic. If the clubs take root and generate a following, as their owners hope, they would bestow an aura of cutting-edge cool on the block. They would create hundreds of jobs, and would likely draw an influx of restaurants and other businesses to join them.

"We're awakening the neighborhood," says Robert Wootton, who bought an 80,000-square-foot building at 530-542 W. 27th St. for $13.5 million to house his club, which will be called Spirit New York.

It is ardently hoped that the awakening will be free of the nightmarish drug abuse that can take hold in clubs-and that the block has witnessed in the past. The street had a prior taste of club life, and the experience ended badly.

A popular club, Twilo, formerly operated in the building that Mr. Wootton just purchased. Two patrons of Twilo died from alleged drug overdoses, and the city revoked its cabaret license. In May 2001, an appeals court upheld the city's decision and the club closed.

But the owners of the newly arriving clubs have track records as clean operators, and have committed themselves to a zero-tolerance policy on drugs, says Robert Silbering, a former prosecutor who now runs an investigative firm and works as a consultant for several of them. The club operators are making big investments in real estate and construction, and don't want to jeopardize their licenses.

They also have promised Community Board 4 that they will be good corporate citizens on other fronts, such as noise control and litter cleanup.

Good neighbors

"The clubs will try to be community-friendly-it's smart business for them to be," Mr. Silbering says.

The new arrivals have a surprisingly wide range of styles. Their marketing hooks run the gamut from bare breasts to highbrow concept and design. A new branch of topless club Scores is coming in, but so is a club designed by famed modernist architect Philip Johnson.

Mr. Wootton is building a New Age club like the one he owns in Dublin, Ireland. In addition to a massive dance floor, it will have a vegetarian restaurant and a wellness center offering aromatherapy and massage. Space on the upper floors of the building will house studios for artists and dancers, and perhaps a yoga center.

The clubs are coming to West 27th Street because it is one of the few places in Manhattan that's zoned for cabaret licenses-so dancing is legal-and for adult entertainment businesses, which means that topless dancers can have the run of the entire 10,000-square-foot Scores. In neighborhoods that aren't zoned for adult entertainment, topless women are allowed to work in just 40% of their club's space.

The heavy concentration of clubs will draw people to the area and keep them club-hopping all night long, the proprietors believe. This is critical mass, not overkill, they say.

"A novice club owner would want to be alone," explains Ken Smith, who is building a club called Crobar with partner Cal Fortis at 525 W. 27th St. "An experienced club owner would want a million places surrounding his."

From balloons to bars

The 35,000-square-foot building they're renting is a former foundry, where sets were once constructed for the Metropolitan Opera and balloons for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade were inflated.

The clubs will be harbingers of gentrification, if Mr. Smith's experience with the Crobar that he and Mr. Fortis built 10 years ago in Chicago is any indication. Over time, the industrial area they moved into was populated by other clubs, then restaurants, then retailers. Even an Old Navy is there now.

The clubs themselves will be big income generators contributing significantly to the city's tax base, if they perform as well as their existing sister operations.

For instance, Scores' location at 333 E. 60th St., with its clientele of Wall Street traders, business executives and celebrities, generates a staggering $20 million in annual revenues, according to an announcement from the publicly traded company that licenses the Scores name. Great things are expected of Scores West Side, which has a fa‡ade on West 27th Street but will use 536 W. 28th St. as its customer entrance.

"The facility will be a huge success from the moment it opens," a Scores spokesman says.

Galleries that have colonized the neighborhood may profit because well-heeled club-goers who get acquainted with West 27th Street might return during daylight hours to buy art.

"Now there will be people walking the streets, creating a mini-SoHo buzz," says attorney Ronald Fishman, a partner with Noah Tepperberg and Jason Strauss in building the club that Philip Johnson is designing.

The low-rise brick building they are renting at 289 10th Ave. was formerly a facility for repairing garbage trucks.

Copyright 2003, Crain Communications, Inc