The fight that Mayor Al Jurczynski began 13 years ago is finally over.
All of the city’s topless dancing bars are now closed, the last one shutting its door without fanfare two months ago.
Aquarius burst back into the news Saturday when a private party held by a DJ ended with two brothers shot, one fatally. But by then the bar’s topless dancing was long since over.
What could not be stopped by Jurczynski, the courts or several city laws was finally killed by bikinis, owner Simeon Nikolaidis said.
As part of a court agreement that allowed him to remain at his State Street location, for the past few years he had to clothe his dancers. Business dropped precipitously.
“It was more a bikini bar,” Nikolaidis said. “Customers go two blocks to Colonie to see topless girls, they don’t want to stick around and see dressed girls.”
Albany County’s strip clubs aren’t exactly two blocks from Aquarius, but the closest is only 3.5 miles away.
Nikolaidis had to negotiate for permission to stay at his location because adult businesses are no longer allowed in residential or retail neighborhoods. New businesses can open only in the industrial fringes of the city. The rule was one of many passed by the City Council during Jurczynski’s administration in an effort to close down the city’s strip clubs.
But none of the laws worked. A nudity law was ruled unconstitutional, because it did not apply to theaters. A new nudity law was passed, but club owners continued with women in bikinis.
The new adult businesses zoning convinced Adult World, a bookstore, to move to Altamont Avenue. But no one else relocated.
Jurczynski’s much-criticized raids proved to be the most effective — the Toy Box club was closed down for promoting prostitution, and the owner of the Goldfingers club pleaded guilty to cocaine trafficking after police raided his house.
That left just Aquarius in the topless dancing business. The city took the company to court, Nikolaidis countersued the city, and in the end, he was allowed to remain.
But he came to regret it, he said.
He lost many of his regulars when he had to clothe the dancers, and the new crowd wasn’t content to sit and watch. They wanted a dance-club atmosphere.
“It was more fights,” Nikolaidis said. “I used to have problems with guys fighting over who messed with their girlfriend. That’s why I went to the topless bar. I’m here 30 years and nobody got arrested for fighting in my bar.”
Mayor Brian U. Stratton said the problems came with the group of rowdy patrons who also frequented the Shanghai Bistro. That bar closed after a still-unsolved fatal shooting in 2007, an incident in which dozens of patrons fled the scene, hiding under porches and decks in nearby neighborhoods. When found, the more than 100 patrons were highly uncooperative with police, claiming to have seen nothing during the incident.
Stratton blamed the most recent murder on that same crowd, saying it had probably nothing to do with the adult business that used to be at the site.
“Many of the patrons that were displaced by the Shanghai Bistro went to Aquarius Club, unfortunately with the same result. We don’t want them here and if they go somewhere else, we’ll shut them down there too,” Stratton said. “It’s not necessarily the [adult] use. Look at the Shanghai Bistro. The zoning changes that were implemented were done for totally different reasons. My concern is when you have wanton violence going from place to place.”
However, cities are allowed to restrict the location of adult businesses because courts have found an increase in violence and crime near those establishments. Courts have ruled that the effect is so significant that retail and residential neighborhoods can be damaged if an adult business moves in.
Nikolaidis said he struggled for years to keep the rowdier crowd under control without topless dancers to entertain them.
The managers of the Shanghai Bistro also appeared to be struggling with crowd control. According to State Liquor Authority records, Officer Dwayne Johnson visited both establishments nearly every night, trying to keep patrons from congregating outside. It was a fight outside Aquarius that preceded Saturday’s gunfire.
On one occasion, SLA records state, Johnson told Nikolaidis that the patrons had alcohol outside, a violation of the state liquor laws. He asked to see Nikolaidis’ liquor license. Nikolaidis stood in the doorway of his club and refused, saying he wanted to talk to Johnson’s supervisor first. Johnson knocked him aside and arrested him.
The SLA held a hearing on that incident a year later. It found Nikolaidis guilty and in February, it pulled his license.
By then, Nikolaidis said, he was allowing just 20 to 25 patrons into the bar at a time, and then locking the door.
“That’s how I controlled,” he said. “But they want me to control the outside. I try to control — I stop them in the parking lot. I don’t let them in. But Johnson tell me if I call police [about groups gathering outside], he’s gonna SLA me. So I’m glad to lose my license, I am.”
time to quit
He tried running Aquarius as a juice bar, but closed just a couple weeks after losing his liquor license.
“I figured I better retire,” the 62-year-old said. “I thought it was a warning from God.”
He rented the building to a DJ for a party last Friday night, and said he knew nothing about the circumstances involving the killing in the parking lot early Saturday morning.
“I don’t know. I wasn’t here,” he said.
Now he plans to sell the building. He’s marketing it as an ideal spot for a restaurant.
Stratton said he was glad to see the last club go. Now he’s working on Another World, an adult bookstore on Erie Boulevard. Owner Rocco Palmer has signed a court settlement saying he will move to Lower Broadway, but he’s not happy about it.
Stratton said he wants the adult business to move out of sight to make the city look better.
“I’m not going to make a moral judgment, but I certainly supported the legislation [restricting adult businesses] and I think there’s a reason for them to be located in the adult zone. As a gateway into the city, we want to put our best foot forward,” he said. “Because of the tremendous progress we’re making, redeveloping our downtown core, we need to capitalize on that. Certainly there is a place for Mr. Palmer — on Lower Broadway.”