Board says cafe is illegal dance club

When the doors of Gotham Citi Cafe close at 2 a.m., patrons have the option of hanging out into the wee hours at Gotham Cafe, which is a late-night version of the popular New Haven bar. The party will continue for the time being, but a hearing in the New Haven Superior Court will determine for how long.

Gotham Cafe, which is affiliated with but independent from Gotham Citi Cafe, has recently come under the scrutiny of zoning officials for allegedly violating zoning regulations.

After a Feb. 24 inspection, zoning board officials found that the facility is operating as a dance hall despite its classification as a restaurant, and they have issued a cease and desist order to force the establishment to comply with zoning regulations. Gotham Cafe must now obtain a special exception in order to comply with the law.

On March 9, the cafe appealed the cease and desist order, but a hearing Tuesday in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously upheld the findings of the inspector.

Now, Gotham Cafe owner Robert Bartolomeo has filed an appeal with the New Haven Superior Court.

Bartolomeo said he feels the court will agree that Gotham Cafe is operating in accordance with zoning regulations.

“This is a viable establishment and every club should have one,” Bartolomeo said. “I think that we’ll win on a level playing field.”

But Zoning Director Phil Bolduc said the Crown Street hot spot, which often stays open until 5 a.m., is most definitely a dance club.

“The inspector who visited Gotham Cafe concluded it was operating as a dance hall, which is a violation of the New Haven zoning ordinance,” Bolduc said.

Bolduc added that because Gotham Cafe charged a cover fee, had a disc jockey and lacked lounge-style seating, the facility should be classified as a dance hall instead of a restaurant. He added that Bartolomeo’s agreement with the city prohibited the use of live music but that a DJ was present the night of the inspection.

“The night of the inspection, there were approximately 120 people dancing at the club,” Bolduc said. “The club would also charge admission, and I don’t know of many restaurants where there’s a fee to get in.”

But Chris Licari, Bartolomeo’s attorney, said city regulations concerning dance halls are not defined in zoning regulations.

“In going through the zoning appeals process, Rob got every indication the city approved of his intended use,” Licari said. “The city let him do this, and now they can’t come back and change the rules.”

Bartolomeo said Wednesday he will comply with zoning regulations by eliminating the cover charge and DJ, and by adding more seating to discourage dancing.

Bolduc said the facility is well operated and will likely stand no problem in receiving a special exception from the zoning board.

But Bartolomeo was less than optimistic about his chances.

“I don’t necessarily believe that we’ll be granted the exception,” Bartolomeo said. “If the city has such a problem with our right to operate, I don’t think they would give us the exception.”

Neither Bolduc and Licari knew when the Superior Court will begin hearings.

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