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Dancefloor Showdown

A judge has upheld the Washington Avenue Armory’s right to book electronic shows, but the fight over what separates concerts from nightclub events in Albany is far from settled

by Ali Hibbs on April 4, 2013

It’s been a long, dark winter for the Washington Avenue Armory. Ever since the Barstool Blackout foam party on Oct. 18 of last year, which resulted in a tussle between patrons and Albany police, the venue has been locked in a legal back-and-forth with the city of Albany. A flurry of cease-and-desist orders paralyzed much of the venue’s winter programming, and a March ruling by the Albany Board of Zoning Appeals found the venue’s electronic shows to be in violation of their permit for “Auditoria.” Last Thursday (March 28), however, the tides seemed to shift when state Supreme Court Justice Michael Lynch issued a temporary restraining order against the city following an Armory lawsuit claiming the city’s actions caused irreperable financial harm to the venue.

Back in business: The Washington Avenue Armory gets the green light to host electronic music.

Armory operations manager Michael Corts says the show cancellations have damaged the venue’s relationship with promoters and its reputation with fans, limiting its ability to get the high-volume shows the Armory needs on the calendar before going dark for the summer. The court decision arrived in time for last Friday’s installment of an ongoing series featuring local performers called Stuff Your Face With Bass, yet came on the heels of two March cancellations: Excision and Electric Safari, both of which were shut down within hours of showtime.

In the case of the Electric Safari event on March 8, Corts says the cease-and-desist wasn’t issued until 4:30 PM, just before the close of office hours, claiming that the venue was acting as a “nightclub” and had failed to hire private security, as per an agreement with the city in a memorandum of understanding signed in November. Donna Bartholomew, who runs Act Up Entertainment with her son, and promoted the event, says she had hired security for the event, as well as EMS service, and that the cease-and-desist arrived so close to showtime that she lost in excess of $7,000 on these investments. “I don’t know what the problem was,” she says. “I think [the city] associated the event with a rave and thought it was destructive.”

Although the Electric Safari and March 12 Excision show were both shut down before the BZA issued its violation interpretation on March 13, these definitions of what constitutes a “concert” vis a vis a “nightclub” show or “rave” remain the heart of the legal battle, in regard to the Armory’s permit for “auditoria.”

The Armory was issued its permit in 2003, when it first began to transition from a primarily sports-oriented facility to one that could host concerts and stage shows. For the better part of a decade, the venue did just that, and began to book EDM shows in the past two years as the genre started to eclipse the demand for traditional rock shows. In April 2012, the Times Union even ran a front-page story heralding the venue’s success in the venture.

It was only after the Oct. 18 incident, a matter of external security, which the Armory immediately overhauled, that the city’s regulatory bodies became involved. The BZA found “that the use of the facility for a ‘Rave’ party, nightclub, dance club or other similar event is excluded from the definition of an ‘Auditoria,’” definined as “part of a building where an audience sits.” The Armory’s general assembly ticketing plan provides 2,400 bleacher seats and standing floor space to accommodate 2,100. This is a violation of the permit’s required 5,000 fixed seats. In his ruling, Justice Lynch issued the Armory a stay on account that “it is difficult to discern the security difference arising from a concert where patrons are assigned fixed seating, compared to a general assembly concert.”

The word “concert” may actually be Lynch’s largest contribution to this case, as opponents of the Armory insist that it’s operating as New York state’s largest illegal nightclub. The BZA decision defines a nightclub as “an establishment where alcoholic beverages may be sold and consumed on the premises and where live entertainment and/or centrally controlled recorded performances take place and which may contain a stage, staging area and/or dance floor.”

Corts insists that these EDM performances differ little from a standard rock concert, with the exception that the performer uses digital gear, and can’t be considered a nightclub act where the music is secondary. Further evidence that the city’s concern with the venue seems to have more to do with genre of music rather than zoning violations is the fact that rapper Machine Gun Kelly’s March 1 concert was one of two Armory events that was not shut down this winter (February’s Kandiland was the other). In a press release, Corts pronounced Lynch’s decision “a huge victory for the arts and entertainment community here in Albany.”

Before the restraining order expires, the Armory plans on challenging the BZA’s decision and the way he claims the venue has been unfairly targeted since October. “The word ‘rave’ carries a negative connotation,” Corts says, distancing his shows from the raves of the ’90s that were laregly illegal, unadvertised, and associated with rampant drug use. “EDM is being scrutinized because of the youthful crowd it draws,” he believes, “just like rock & roll in the ’50s. People who didn’t understand the genre felt threatened when Elvis shook his hips.”

One way or another, the local demand for EDM doesn’t seem to be abating, and Corts says the Center Square business district stands to benefit greatly from this increased traffic. “This city is full of young people that want a vibrant city and nightlife,” he says. “There’s demand for [EDM] here, so why not embrace it before it moves elsewhere?”