Adams, Nightlife-Loving Mayor, Offers Plan to ‘Let the People Dance’

During his first six months as mayor, Eric Adams has developed a reputation for being a fixture of New York City’s nightlife scene.

So it should perhaps not come as a surprise that Mr. Adams has proposed changing the city’s zoning regulations to allow New Yorkers to dance more easily in bars and restaurants.

Although the city had repealed its Cabaret Law, a 1926 regulation that made it illegal to host dancing, singing or musical entertainment without a license, zoning law restrictions left many establishments unable to permit dancing.

“Think about the owner of a tapas bar that has live music on weekends and wants to set aside a small space for dancing, but finds that under city rules, it’s not allowed,” Mr. Adams said on Wednesday during a speech before the Association for a Better New York. “We’re going to change that no to a yes, and let the people dance.”

Supporting the city’s nightlife is not just about fun, the mayor has said. It is also part of an effort to help small business owners still trying to recover from more than two years of the pandemic’s devastating effects on the economy.

But too many bars and restaurants are hampered by antiquated zoning regulations that prohibit dancing, among other things, Mr. Adams said on Wednesday, adding that he intended to change out-of-date zoning rules that interfered with the city’s recovery.

“Far too many agencies don’t understand part of their mandate is to allow the city to grow and flourish,” Mr. Adams said. “Don’t start with no. Start with how do we get to yes. How do we build our city?”

The proposed changes to the city’s zoning rules would, for example, allow a small retailer looking to expand its business selling to other businesses do so without relocating to an area zoned for manufacturing; they would allow homeowners to convert the second floor of their homes to rental units without having to add a parking space; and the changes would make it easier to convert unused office space into housing.

Other zoning changes would make it easier to install solar panels and create charging stations for electric vehicles. Mr. Adams said the city also wants to use smart zoning to increase opportunities around four new Metro-North stations expected to open in the Bronx in 2027.

City planning officials will begin a public engagement process to craft the language of the zoning text amendments. There will be an environmental review for the proposed changes and the City Council will have to approve the changes.

New York suffered as a result of the pandemic but is starting to see some job growth, said James Parrott, an economist with the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. The city added 39,400 jobs in April, including 7,200 in the full service restaurant industry

The changes to the zoning regulations that make it legal for bars and restaurants to allow dancing are a continuation of the repeal of the Cabaret Law from 1926 that made it illegal to host dancing, singing or musical entertainment without a license. It is widely believed that the law was used to target racially mixed jazz clubs in Harlem.

The rule was liberally applied across the city’s venues, and music was not allowed at bars without a cabaret license until 1936. The city required cabaret employees and performers to carry “cabaret cards” and also be fingerprinted. A prior police record could be used to deny applicants cabaret cards, and famous musicians such as Ray Charles and Billie Holiday were not eligible.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani used the cabaret law to enforce his quality of life initiatives but Mayor Bill de Blasio repealed the law in 2017. Even after the law was repealed, the city’s zoning rules still prevented dancing in some restaurants or bars.

The proposed changes will remove dancing from consideration under the zoning laws and will instead rely on indicators such as whether venues have cover charges or show times and thus might need a license, city officials said.

Ariel Palitz, executive director of the Office of Nightlife at the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, said in an email that Mr. Adams was essentially carrying out “unfinished business” left behind from the repeal of the Cabaret Law.

Large establishments that want to offer dancing will still come under review as they apply for a liquor license, and be subject to fire and noise rules and community review, said Keith Powers, the City Council’s majority leader.

Business owners expressed relief at the coming changes.

“All of these tiny, weird things affect how you operate,” said Diana Mora, who helped found NYC Nightlife United, and runs Friends and Lovers in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. A fuller repeal of the Cabaret Law helps remove the fear that even though businesses are trying to follow the rules, “someone’s going to come in, something’s going to happen. You’re going to be shut down.”

John Barclay, owner of Paragon, was involved in the Dance Liberation Network that pushed for repealing the Cabaret Law in 2017. He said the law was being “enforced against very predictable groups,” such as venues frequented by Black and Latino people.

“If a law or a regulation is founded with clear, bigoted intent or if the results of enforcement are clearly racist or bigoted in any way, it needs to be repealed point blank,” he said.

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