A wild ride at Neighbours (Image: DBS/Neighbours Facebook)
Those worried about an over developed, overly sanitized version of Capitol Hill can probably imagine some Bizarro version of the universe where even Neighbours dance club has become a restaurant. Here’s the deal. It already is one. And has been for more than 20 years. And isn’t the only Pike/Pine club masquerading as a restaurant.
According to court documents obtained by CHS, Neighbours has more on its hands than a fight with the tax man. The club’s lawyers spent the summer in a legal battle with the City of Seattle over the business conducted at the Broadway club. According to the documents, Neighbours has operated as a restaurant since it opened in 1983. But a fire department inspection last spring of emergency exits and the fire sprinkler system — routine, the City tells us — revealed the discrepancy. Neighbours is not permitted as a nightclub even though people have been dancing there for decades.
“Our code enforcement is complaint-based, so while the nightclub has been operating for some time, the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) was only recently informed of the issue,” spokesperson Bryan Stevens tells CHS.
The permit issue is more than a formality. Requirements for crowded nightclubs call for important structural elements that aren’t necessarily needed for lower occupancy restaurants. Paramount — and potentially most expensive for a building that needs to change to comply — are more stringent requirements for exiting.
Representatives for Neighbours or MDK Law Associates, the law firm representing the club in the dispute with DPD, have not yet responded to CHS’s inquiries on the situation.
After an agreement to drop the case, the dispute with DPD has moved out of the courts and back into City Hall. This week is the deadline for Neighbours to show the City of Seattle that it is making “substantial” progress on becoming compliant so that it can continue to operate and either work with DPD on a new permit for the dance club — or, unlikely we assume, start getting serious about being a restaurant. In the meantime, an application for a $13,000 construction project to overhaul the club’s basement is on hold. A $20,000 project to overhaul the front of the club — listed as “Alter Storefront to existing Restaurant per plan” in DPD’s notes on the permit application — was completed this summer.
It turns out, Neighbours is not alone. The city has also set its sights on the HG Lodge as that club has also operated with a restaurant permit since its days as the War Room, according to DPD. Issues with hosting the BadWill flea market this summer brought the permit issues to the city’s attention as a fire inspection revealed the club’s sprinklers were not “operable” and the club lacked the official drinking establishment permit necessary to operate a club, according to DPD’s Stevens. Stevens says HG Lodge has already begun the process of working with DPD to bring the space into compliance and obtain the correct permit for the business.
HG owner Marcus Lalario did not respond to our requests for more information.
The permitting issues have come to light as Capitol Hill clubs also face scrutiny from state auditors over the so-called “dance tax” issue reported by the Stranger earlier this summer. A spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Revenue tells us there is no connection between the City of Seattle’s violation notices and the revelation that some clubs have not been paying taxes the state says they owe on cover charges — and that audits, not DPD inspections, triggered the findings regarding back taxes the state says Neighbours owes.
In addition to the costs of obtaining the permits and bringing the buildings into compliance, a city change of use process could also expose clubs like Neighbours and HG Lodge to additional business pressures. The club could find itself in a situation similar to that of the Volunteer Park Cafe as the restaurant continued operating for a year as it secured its change of use after agreeing to a set of conditions. Some living or doing business near the club/restaurant might be already licking their chops.