Megaclubs Making Comeback on Manhattan's Nightlife Scene, Owners Say

By Mathew Katz on February 23, 2012 8:54am 

HELL'S KITCHEN — Megaclubs are the next big thing on New York's nightlife scene.

The once-common gigantic nightspots, decimated  by a series of city and police crackdowns in recent years, are coming back to Hell's Kitchen and Midtown this year. Already, three have opened to crowds of partiers, and one is set to open by the end of 2012.

Club owners say they're on a forefront of a new trend — the return of the giant clubs of the 1990s.

"We're getting back to the day when you could go with your friend to a nightclub and actually lose them," said Robert Wattman, who launched the three-floor, 850-person Culture Club in September.

"New York nightlife just hasn't been as fun as it used to be."

At 16,000 square feet, the new club at 20 W. 39th St. is just about double the size of its previous location on Varick Street, which closed in 2007.

Nightlife impresario John Blair's new 14,000 square foot XL Nightclub, nestled underneath gay hotel The Out NYC at 512 W. 42nd St., opened at the end of January and can hold 650 revelers on the dance floor, and over 1,000 people in total.

And La Boom, an offshoot of a Queens-based Latin nightclub, got the go-ahead from the local community board to open a three-floor, 1,150-person hot spot at 605 W. 48th St. by the end of 2012. 

In the aftermath of the closure of more than a dozen mega dance clubs in neighboring Chelsea over the last few decades, the area is shaping up to be clubland's last refuge. A swath of the West Side in the neighborhood, along with parts of Midtown, are still zoned for manufacturing, allowing for club use.

The grand approach seems to go against the trends of the modern nightlife scene, which has focused on exclusive lounges, speakeasies and more traditional bars in Manhattan, or isolated underground warehouse party spots at hard-to-reach locations in the outer boroughs.

In Chelsea, where huge clubs once dominated, one of the chicest spaces, 1Oak, holds only about 300. Green House, the popular SoHo eco-club, maxes out at 600.

"It's like people were hungry for something," said Blair, who's spent 35 years throwing the city's most massive parties at megaclubs like Studio 54, the Roxy and the Limelight. 

"The younger generation never experienced a nightlife like this. It's brand new to them."

Few other places in densely packed Manhattan can have such massive, loud clubs. The less residential parts of Midtown and western Hell's Kitchen are perfect for club use, owners say.

Culture Club was the first huge club to open in Midtown since the 14,000-square-foot, 900-person District 36 came in late 2010 — which nightlife-lovers heralded as the first new megaclub to come to the city in years.

Even bar owners are buying into the bigger-is-better mentality. Rob Hynds co-owns Boxers in Chelsea and hopes to open a larger location in Hell's Kitchen. 

"I think the next great bar in Hell's Kitchen needs to be big enough to make a statement," Hynds wrote in an email. 

"The local neighborhood bar will continue to compete, but when given the opportunity to go to a larger gay bar with a nightclub feel at the same time, it's a choice most people will make."

The new crop of megaclub owners are confident they can bring back parties on a scale that many of the current generation of partygoers have never experienced, while also attracting all kinds of customers with a variety of events and acts — not just dancing.

Both Blair and La Boom owner Pedro Vamara were allowed to open in large part because of their reputation with the community board as responsible owners, according to community board members who recommended the city and state authorities approve the venues' applications.

And while XL and La Boom are huge by today's club standards, they're a much more manageable size than the clubs of the 1990s, which could hold upwards of 2,000 people, said those familiar with the club circuit.

Paul Seres, head of the New York Nightlife Association, who also co-chairs the Community Board 4 committee responsible for dealing with liquor licenses, said he wouldn't be surprised if other nightlife operators were looking to get in on the trend back towards huge clubs around the city.

"There aren't that many places where you can dance in a big dance club environment anymore,"  Seres said of the appeal for customers.

He said he could understand the appeal for owners as well.

"You can make the same amount of money off of 1,000 people as you can off of 1,500 or 2,000, but with less of a headache," he added.

So far, the strategy has worked at XL, Blair said. Since the club opened in January, more than 15,000 people have signed up for the club's membership card, which grants special access and discounted drinks. 

"Fridays and Saturdays have been unbelievable," Blair said. "We're less than a month in and we've got three stable nights." 

Wattman from the Culture Club said his venue is packed — with about 2,800 people coming through on weekends.

"I still have a great time watching 1,000 people singing 'Living on a Prayer' in unison," Wattman said. "And that's what draws people here."

Blair added that his club has also reached out beyond the gay nightlife scene. The club is putting on several cabaret shows a week, drawing upon the nearby Broadway community, and it's also booked four corporate events so far, and predicts there will be more as the economy bounces back.

La Boom will also seek out corporate business, and hopes to attract big-name Latino musical acts, like Shakira and Ricky Martin.

The appeal is that club owners can lure customers from all walks of life, increasing their cash flow.

"We're hoping to attract every kind of customer from our community — not just club people," said Louis Nunez, a spokesman for La Boom, in a December interview.

"If you want to survive in this city, you have no choice but to take on multiple revenue streams," Seres added. 

Blair says he's seen clubs come and go over his time in the business, but that each generation makes a return to the huge clubs of yore.

"I've seen many generations of gay culture over my 35 years," he said. "Five generations ago, they thought they were different. Now they think they're different. They're really not." 

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