Atlanta is accelerating its crackdown of nightclubs that cause a ‘nuisance’

City pushing to fine, shut down unruly establishments
The Deja Vu Sports Bar and Lounge, also called "The Voo 2," is located on Campbellton Road. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The Deja Vu Sports Bar and Lounge, also called "The Voo 2," is located on Campbellton Road. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

As Atlanta’s first responders were called to the scenes of 14 shootings that left two people dead over NBA All-Star Weekend, one team of officers and fire department employees were on a different mission: Making sure dozens of nightlife spots were behaving.

They went around to 53 bars and clubs to make sure they were complying with Gov. Brian Kemp’s COVID-19 orders to limit occupancy.

Officers doled out 11 warnings, issued three citations and arrested two club managers, Assistant Police Chief Todd Coyt told the City Council’s public safety committee this week. That’s on top of APD’s 10 ongoing investigations into various clubs.

The enforcement is part of a larger push by the city to crack down on so-called “nuisance properties” — loosely defined as businesses that are the scene of violent crimes or that repeatedly violate city codes.

A main target of the crackdown, city leaders say, are businesses that are licensed as restaurants but behave more like nightclubs. Local leaders say they disturb nearby neighborhoods and are often in violation of alcohol laws or COVID-related occupancy restrictions.

The effort to punish or even close down the problematic businesses follows new city laws and a nuisance properties working group formed by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in December.

When Bottoms formed the group, she directly linked nuisance properties to the uptick in homicides and aggravated assaults Atlanta experienced in 2020: “Many of these violent crimes have consistently occurred within or near specific nuisance properties,” an administration order from Bottoms stated.

Following the rise in crime, elected officials and residents pushed for stronger enforcement against nuisance properties.

“I’m really frustrated with these restaurants operating as clubs. Just trying to usurp the system,” said Councilwoman Marci Collier Overstreet, whose district includes much of southwest Atlanta.

Businesses that are licensed as restaurants are given exemptions that nightclubs do not receive, and are allowed in some neighborhoods where nightclubs are not.

Much of the enforcement happens behind the scenes — in meetings between city officials, in courtrooms and even through undercover police operations. In some cases, owners or bartenders have been arrested. Investigations can also lead to hearings in front of the city’s License Review Board, which can vote to impose fines or revoke an alcohol license.

In more extreme cases, the city can seek restraining orders to force businesses to close their doors.

Currently, the city has a list of 20 nuisance properties, according to Atlanta police Major Brian Schiffbauer, the code enforcement commander. Nuisance properties can include bars and lounges, as well as some apartment complexes that are in poor shape and violating city code.

APD was not able to release the list of properties “due to the ongoing investigations on these properties and for operational security purposes,” a department spokesman said.

“We need to do a better job of closing loopholes and enforcing the laws,” said Councilman J.P. Matzigkeit, who represents a Buckhead district. “It just takes time. The wheels of justice are slow. I think people would like to see quicker action.”

To Overstreet, Deja Vu Sports Bar and Lounge is the prime example of a nuisance property. Over the last few years, she has received complaints from residents about noise coming from the bar late at night and fights or shootings in the parking lot, she said. The business, also called “The Voo 2,” is licensed as a restaurant, but undercover operations found they were serving alcohol after 2:30 a.m., police allege.

“They’ve violated the ordinances time after time after time,” Overstreet said.

Officers have been called to the bar on Campbellton Road over 200 times in the last few years, police records show.

The city decided to take away Deja Vu’s alcohol license for two months and impose a $5,000 fine last summer, though the business asked the court to review the decision. It argued officials acted arbitrarily and “abused their discretion,” according to court records. A Fulton County judge rejected Deja Vu’s request last month on a number of procedural issues.

Earlier this year, the city was granted a restraining order against Deja Vu, arguing it was operating in violation of several city laws, the city’s law department said. The business is currently closed after being required to shut down for three months. Its exterior appeared to be under construction this week. A lawyer for Deja Vu declined to comment.

The city heralded the restraining order against Deja Vu as a big win against nuisance properties. The law department has appointed two city prosecutors to focus on pursuing injunctions against problematic properties, City Attorney Nina Hickson recently told councilors.

This building on Pharr Road in Buckhead is listed as the address for Prince's Room, a cigar club that was recently searched by Atlanta police. Its owner was arrested, officials said. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Bottoms’ nuisance properties working group is made up of people from various city agencies and departments and meets every other week. The group helped craft legislation that requires restaurants to submit a statement from a public accountant confirming that they make at least half of their sales from food when they renew their alcohol license each year.

The City Council also passed a new law allowing the city to conduct annual audits of random local restaurants that have liquor licenses, to make sure they are following the law.

In Buckhead, local community groups are keeping track of the crackdown. Several businesses there have received warnings for overcrowding or received punishments for alleged violations of liquor laws, according to the Buckhead Coalition, a business organization.

Last month, Atlanta police searched Prince’s Room, a cigar club on Pharr Road in Buckhead, and arrested the owner on charges of selling alcohol without a state license, the coalition said. Hundreds of bottles of alcohol were seized. It’s unclear if Prince’s Room is still open; the business did not respond to phone calls or email seeking comment.

“I know we’re making progress,” said Jim Durrett, the president of the Buckhead Coalition, who added that he has been in close contact with the mayor’s office to track policies related to nuisance properties and other public safety issues.