WILKES-BARRE — The latest controversy with the Ali Baba Lounge isn’t about an act booked to perform at the downtown venue, it’s about the club’s zoning.
A city official Thursday confirmed the lounge on South Main Street isn’t zoned for entertainment, despite hosting live events for years.
A DJ and dance contest were advertised for Thursday night at the lounge and manager Ali Abualburak said the show would go on.
Abualburak contended his state liquor license allows him to have live entertainment. But he said he’s willing to work with Bill Harris, the director of planning & zoning and zoning officer for Wilkes-Barre. The two have a meeting scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday, Abualburak said.
“Whatever the city wants us to do, we’ll do,” Abualburak said.
Harris said he had no idea how the lounge was allowed to operate without the proper zoning. He said Abualburak will have to file an application with the city’s zoning hearing board that would schedule a hearing on the matter.
The club has had its share of notoriety. An April 21 show by Rapper 6ix9ine was cancelled. He was awaiting sentencing for his guilty plea to the use of a child in a sexual performance.
But some of the bad press has been unjustified, from Abualburak’s perspective. He used the shooting around 1:40 a.m. Thursday on South Main Street as an example. Police reported a man from Brooklyn, New York, was injured when shots were fired “in the area of the Ali Baba Lounge.”
The city had a valid reason to shut down the club earlier this year for a code violation. An interior wall was removed to create a new space. After being made aware of the renovation, the city ordered the club closed temporarily until new safety measures were put in place and required the installation of a sprinkler system.
The club grew out of the hookah lounge proposed by Abualburak’s father, Nabil, who went to the zoning board three times for approval to operate within a C-1 zone. Downtown residents opposed the lounge and complained the owner was unable to manage his business operating at the time as Mr. Pizza, given the arrests for public drunkenness outside of it.
On the final attempt on Oct. 16, 2013, the board issued the special exception sought because the property at 219-225 S. Main St. was not a use addressed within the city’s zoning ordinance. It also allowed him to share a parking lot across the street in order to comply with the zoning. The lounge opened in late 2015.
Uses in focus
Ali Baba could follow the lead of another venue that opened downtown this year, Harris pointed out. He noted that at the Feb. 21 zoning board meeting, Karl Hall LLC sought a special exception for the property in a C-3 zone at 59 N. Main St.
“I think he went for a live entertainment venue instead of a nightclub,” Harris said.
Still the younger Abualburak maintained the lounge was operating under a permitted use and pointed out the state issued Ali Baba Lounge and Omnia Bar & Grill an amusement permit liquor license.
The zoning board had to approve the application for the liquor license and should have understood that it was for entertainment purposes, Abualburak said.
The court might have the final say, added Shawn Kelly, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
“The PLCB cannot refuse an application for a permit on the basis that it violates a local ordinance or even a lease,” said Kelly. “Whether the liquor code or some other law prevails when they are in conflict is not for us to decide, but rather for a court of general jurisdiction to decide.”
Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.