UPDATE: On Sept. 9, the Denver City Council changed the nightclub’s lease to end two years early.
City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca suggested the club, which is owned by people of color, was unfairly targeted for crimes that the Denver police could not directly connect with the club.
Owners were “strong-armed into a lease amendment without a place for them to go,” she said. The club, which paid for offsite private security, was not given enough time before getting pushed out, she said.
The vote was 12 to 1 with CdeBaca dissenting.
At Denver’s 14th Street hub of performing arts, some people catch the symphony and some people catch a musical. Next door, some people catch table service and dancing at Onyx, a hip-hop club that the city wants to move out.
On Wednesday, Denver Arts and Venues, which rents the space at 14th Street and Arapahoe Street to Onyx, moved to terminate its contract with two years left on the lease. The agreement would end Dec. 31 If the Denver City Council approves.
“The current use in that space is incongruent with public safety and also the mission of the arts complex,” said Ginger White, executive director of Arts and Venues, during a City Council committee meeting Wednesday.
Four recent gun-related crimes inside a month at the Denver Performing Arts Complex parking garage — city-owned property — prompted concern from city officials. One crime was a shooting from the sidewalk into the club. The arts department pinned those and other nearby violent crimes, including assaults and robberies, on the nightclub, citing the relationship between the timing of the 911 calls and the club’s 2 a.m. closing time.
District 6 Police Commander Aaron Sanchez said the police department has responded to 235 911 calls near 14th and Arapahoe since January, often because of fights. Yet police records show just 38 recorded incidents tied to Onyx’s address since 2014. (The club used to be called Epernay.) Officers recorded 36 incidents at the parking garage in that period.
“A lot of the large fights, there are not arrests, because there simply aren’t enough officers to make those arrests,” Sanchez said. “And so you’ll have a big scuffle and you’ll have a winner, a loser, or a number of winners and losers, and those people then leaving without consequences on either side.”
Denver fined the business in May for one count of selling alcohol to a minor and one security guard bouncing without a license, according to records from Denver’s business licensing department.
Speaking of consequences, the city pressured Onyx to add security in the name of public safety. The business obliged.
Onyx now closes its east patio and stops serving alcohol at 1 a.m. — an hour before state law requires, according to general manager Tommie Ellis. The club closes at 1:30 a.m.
“I don’t think it’s fair for the acts of other individuals to affect us negatively, Ellis said, referring to the crimes that occur in the parking garage. “There’s been a few incidents in the garage up there to where I don’t think that should be part of our responsibility, to be honest.”
Still, he said he understood the city’s concern, and said the business will not defy the city’s orders.
Onyx pays for off-duty cops to monitor the area in addition to its regular security detail.
Denver has the right to suspend businesses over public safety concerns. It did just that with Cold Crush, a hip-hop club in Five Points, even though it did not have an unusual amount of violent crime compared to other Denver bars.
Onyx’s situation is different. The business operates inside of a city-owned building, and Denver aims to terminate its lease — not its business. Onyx isn’t over. Its owner is looking for a new location, according to Ellis.
As for what the city will do with the space, it’s up in the air. Public meetings starting in October will help Arts and Venues decide.
“We do have a neighbors that would love to see an amenity that is beneficial to resident hotel guests, students at CU Denver,” White said. “Frankly, there’s a lot of employees at Arts and Venues and our resident companies who would love to have a great place to go and get an inexpensive sandwich.”