Birmingham City Council

Birmingham Council Considers Pulling License of Onyx Lounge

Birmingham City Councilor Steven Hoyt, left, is among the council members who questioned Onyx Lounge’s license, while Councilor John Hilliard said he saw racial motives at work in the attempt to close the bar. (Source: Sam Prickett)

Nov. 7, 2017 — The debate at Tuesday’s Birmingham City Council meeting was in many ways a retread of last week’s discussion, with approximately three hours dedicated to a public hearing on the potential revocation of a nightclub’s business license after reported incidents of violence and crime.

This time the venue in question was Onyx Lounge, at 615 Eighth Ave. W. The discussion drew a large enough crowd that, early in the meeting, the fire marshal refused to allow any more people into the council chambers.

At multiple points in the debate, the crowd became vocal, prompting Public Safety Committee Chairman Hunter Williams to warn them to stay silent or remove themselves from the chambers.

The most recent instance of violence at Onyx, often cited during the meeting, was the fatal shooting of Maurice Morris on the club’s back patio on Oct. 15. During the council’s previous term — and just one day after Morris’ death — the Public Safety Committee and Transportation Committee had recommended revocation of the license; Councilors Steven Hoyt and William Parker had both voted in favor of that recommendation.

Residents of the surrounding communities who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting cited Morris’ death, as well as other instances of violence and early-morning noise, as a reason the club should be closed or, at the very least, moved out of the neighborhood.

Speaking to the council, Birmingham Police Lt. Sheila Finney called for the revocation of the club’s business license and said that officers in her precinct have responded to 81 calls involving Onyx in the past six months, and 207 during the past two years.

But the number of people who attended the meeting in support of Onyx far outnumbered those arguing for its closure. Several speakers spoke highly of Onyx owner Keith Davis’ character and involvement with the surrounding community. When Hoyt, questioning Davis’s character, read from several profanity-laden Facebook posts Davis had made, several members of the crowd stormed out of the chamber.

“He’s really starting to make my blood boil,” muttered one attendee as she stood up.

Targeting Onyx

That sense of indignation spread to some members of the City Council. Councilor John Hilliard, who said he had made his mind up on the issue before the meeting, said he saw a racial element to the targeting of Onyx.

“It’s almost like on a plantation,” Hilliard said. “We just beat you down, talk you down … . How will history write the people here?”

Councilor Lashunda Scales said that she felt Davis was being unfairly blamed, citing her own memories of her father, who had owned a club during her childhood, being blamed for prostitutes frequently working near his club.

“I hate that for you, and I don’t care if anybody on this dais will castrate me for saying it,” she said.

In response to these criticisms, representatives of Onyx brought forward a proposal of how they could change their business to remain open. Because the proposal had initially been submitted at 10 p.m. the night before, council President Valerie Abbott said the council had not had time to “absorb” it, but she said she was impressed by the proposal.

Iva Williams, the venue’s general manager, elaborated on the proposal, saying Onyx would “change the way we do business” in response to the instances of violence and complaints from the community. The new business strategy, he said, would be for the club to be “open when (neighborhood residents) are up, and closed when they’re asleep,” with events including a Sunday gospel brunch, Monday night football and Tuesday bingo.

“This is going to be a neighborhood-friendly place,” Williams said. “We don’t even want that (criminal) element there.”

Councilor Darrell O’Quinn suggested the problem was more systemic than just one club.

“Our city government has failed us, quite frankly, with regard to providing protection for its citizens,” he said. “Our police department is understaffed, and that has an impact on this particular issue … . It’s appropriate for us to consider that in this context.”

After some deliberation, the council voted for a 16-week delay of the matter, during which time owners of Onyx would report to the Public Safety Committee on the implementation of their proposed business changes. At the end of the three-hour discussion, Abbott thanked attendees for their patience.

Baptist Rezoning

Also during the meeting, the council voted to amend the zoning for a property on Montclair Road from a Health and Institutional District to a General Business District. Representatives for the owners of the property, Baptist Health Systems, said they planned a personal storage facility for the property.

Hoyt was a vocal opponent of the proposal, describing it as “spot zoning” and suggesting that a better use could be found for the property.

“I know a train wreck when I see it, and this is a train wreck,” he said. Regardless, the item passed, with Hoyt being the sole dissenting vote.