Zebrawood paneling on the walls. Chrome trim everywhere you look. Hundreds of custom leather couches, dozens of VIP alcoves and banks of hi-def TVs. A liquid nitrogen A/C system. And more than 100 feet of thick marble bars — black marble in one room, white in another.
This is how the Gidewons roll.
The first family of Atlanta nightlife, the exotic and enigmatic clan behind some of the highest-rolling clubs Atlanta has ever known, is getting ready to make another splash in the city’s club scene — a $4 million splash that includes two new high-end nightspots spread out over nearly 20,000 square feet of pricey real estate smack in the middle of Peachtree Street's booming Midtown Mile.
A tour of the unfinished space and a description of the amenities confirm that the two adjoining — but not joined — nightclubs will have few rivals in terms of luxury and VIPishness. Yet club owner Michael Gidewon, 36, doesn’t seem worried about going too up-market during a recession. “The people we’re going for — professional athletes, recording artists — aren’t really affected by the economy,” says the fashionable co-founder of the mega-clubs Vision, Compound and the Velvet Room.
But Gidewon is very concerned about another segment of the population — specifically, the 1,400 Atlanta residents who’ve signed an online petition aimed at keeping him from opening the clubs' doors and the hundreds who’ve shown up to neighborhood meetings calling for his defeat. He’s concerned enough that he’s appeared in person at several public hearings — unprecedented behavior for someone who shuns the spotlight and until recently had never given an interview. Since the end of July, the proposed nightclubs have become the focal points in a sometimes ugly public debate that touches on issues of public safety, racial tolerance and the very nature of urban living.
At a recent meeting of the Midtown Neighbors' Association’s license and permits committee, opponents invoked imagery of “thugs” and “bullets flying” if the clubs are allowed to open. When one activist claimed that an earlier Gidewon club, the opulent and hip-hop-centric Vision, “practically ruined the neighborhood,” the hall erupted in applause. Another Midtown resident, complaining of the noise such a club can bring, said living near Vision “was like living at Guantanamo, and we were the torture victims.” Perhaps not surprisingly, when the MNA board of directors met the following week, it voted overwhelmingly to recommend denial for the clubs’ liquor license applications.
But while community resistance to the Gidewons may be outspoken, well-organized and growing, opponents very well could find that, apart from their outrage, they have few real weapons for keeping the clubs out of Midtown.
The plan for the Gidewons’ Peachtree Street nightclub has been a long time coming. Even before Vision closed in August 2006 — having lost its lease after the property owner sold out to condo developers — Michael and his older brother Alex bought the leases of the old Velvet Room nightclub and the Touch of India restaurant across Peachtree. Michael received a building permit in late 2006 to begin overhauling those spaces into another Vision-style mega-club. But a year later, work had ceased and the space was seemingly abandoned.
“I got screwed,” says Gidewon, who explains that the city revoked his permit in 2007, claiming it had been issued in error. Under the guidelines of Midtown’s zoning overlay, which was adopted in 2001, a new nightclub can’t be larger than 10,000 square feet. “Instead of taking legal action, we decided to give the city what it wanted,” Gidewon continues. “In hindsight, we think it’s for the better.”
The current plan calls for two spaces, a nightclub and a lounge, each slightly smaller than 10,000 square feet. They’ll have separate entrances and no doors connecting them. (In a joking nod to the surrounding Special Public Interest zoning district, the working name of the clubs are SPI Club and SPI Lounge.)
“Vision was a beast,” Gidewon says. “It was 27,000 square feet and had room for 2,500 people. But the days of the monster club are over; now people want a more intimate experience.”
If anyone has their finger on the pulse of nightlife trends, it’s the Gidewons. Nearly two years into Vision’s successful run, they famously shut the club down for five months while completing a glitzy $2 million renovation. After Vision closed, they took the party to the Westside by buying Compound, a competing mega-club now also closed for renovations. Then, in 2007, they recycled the Velvet Room name for an expansive new nightclub in a shopping center off I-285 near Doraville.
Each of their clubs has served as a draw for celebrities, celeb-watchers and big-spending wannabes. Britney Spears and Sean “Diddy” Combs helped put Vision on the map, while Velvet Room has played host to such hip-hop stars as Big Boi, Jay-Z, Young Jeezy, Snoop Dogg and T.I.
Gidewon explains that, with the extinction of the raunchy Buckhead club scene and the rise of hotel watering holes such as the W Buckhead’s Whiskey Blue and the Glenn hotel’s rooftop bar, intown club-goers are looking for a more laid-back, cosmopolitan vibe — with plenty of opportunities for flossin’.
The Peachtree Street side of the lounge is lined with VIP stalls and floor-to-ceiling windows to show off their free-spending occupants to passers-by. Next door, the windowless nightclub has a 5,500-square-foot dance floor, but nearly half of the building’s space is devoted to 22 separate VIP niches on two levels overlooking the dance floor. At the end of the room is a larger VIP area set aside for top-tier celebrities that boasts its own bathroom and a backdoor to the parking lot.
The lounge and nightclub each have a capacity of 658. Both spaces are noteworthy for their open floor plans, a departure from the private nooks and crannies found in many upscale clubs. In the world of the Gidewons, people come out to see and be seen.
“I want the space to be inviting,” Michael says. “We have nothing to hide.”
Some opponents argue that the proposed clubs would bring noise, traffic and a criminal element to the area. Others maintain that the Gidewons have proven themselves unresponsive to community concerns. Still others, as suggested by dozens of online comments, seem to have a problem with the hip-hop scene in general and urban clubs in particular.
“Freaknik was outlawed once in Atlanta, why let it retrun?” asks one spelling-challenged commenter on the online petition hosted by www.keepmidtownsafe.com, whose creators haven’t identified themselves. Another asserts that the Gidewons are illegal immigrants. A third recalls a shooting a few years back at the nearby Club 112, a black nightclub not affiliated with the Gidewons, arguing that “hip-hop clubs nurture this type of crime.”
At a recent MNA public hearing, several speakers complained of the racially tinged tone of some of the opponents’ comments, one woman saying she was “taken aback by the fear-mongering and prejudice” she was seeing.
“They’re using fear and misinformation to stir up opposition to the clubs,” says Chris Kappy, the Gidewons’ young, white marketing guru with a background in radio. In fact, he says, the nightspots will target a diverse demographic, with different audiences on different nights. In the lounge, Wednesday nights will feature Latin music, Thursdays will be “urban” and Fridays will be promoted to an Asian crowd. The nightclub will only be open two nights a week, with Fridays aimed at Midtown’s large gay population. Saturday nights in both clubs will be given over to the Q-100 (WWWQ-FM 99.7) jocks, who’ll play a blend of house, techno and rock designed to appeal to a mixed audience.
The only common denominator among all these customer demographics, Kappy says, is that they’ve got to have money. “It’s a high-end crowd with an affluent lifestyle,” he says.
But Peggy Denby, president of the Midtown Ponce Security Alliance and one of the Gidewons’ strongest critics, says the brothers’ track record with Vision is ample reason to consider the proposed clubs a menace to law and order. “We don’t want the shootings, loud music, cruising and litter that come with their clubs,” she says. “We know from their history that they’re bad neighbors.”
Denby predicts that, as happened during the heyday of the Buckhead Village party scene, the “hangers-on” who can’t afford to get into the clubs will simply cruise Peachtree, blocking traffic and blaring their car radios till the wee hours. But is that the Gidewons’ fault?
“We’re not saying it’s their fault,” Denby says, “but it’s a reason for not wanting a nightclub here. Why don’t they put it in Underground Atlanta, where they want clubs, instead of in a residential area?”
DeWayne Martin, the Gidewons’ attorney, challenges that notion. “I think it’s a misnomer to call this a residential area,” he says. “It’s a mixed-use neighborhood and we believe a nightclub is appropriate.”
For longtime Atlanta residents, it may seem strange to think of the Peachtree corridor or central Midtown as neighborhoods. With the exception of Colony Square and scattered apartment buildings, the area had long been the domain of office towers and such nightspots as the Cotton Club, Kaya, Club Anytime and the fabled Stein Club. Two decades ago, Petrus, owned by nightclub impresario Peter Gatien, was the cause of many a Peachtree Street traffic jam as club-goers vied to get into the space now occupied by Opera.
Only in the past few years has Peachtree Street become a magnet for condo developments, such as Spire, Metropolis and Viewpoint. Ironically, a number of the Gidewons’ opponents hail from the new 1010 Midtown condos, which was built where Vision once stood. Other condos will be added atop the 38-story Loews Hotel, directly across from the SPI Lounge site.
With the adoption of development guidelines that envision an upscale Midtown Mile, many residents now say Peachtree should be reserved for retail, offices and residential towers. But Curt Flaherty, a board member for the surrounding Neighborhood Planning Unit E, says that while he’s not a nightclub advocate, it doesn’t make sense to bar them from urban areas like Midtown.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Why would you put a big, noisy club on Peachtree Street?’” he says. “And I’m thinking, ‘Where else would you put a club like that?’”
More than mere club owners, the Gidewon siblings ushered in a new phenomenon in Atlanta’s nightlife scene: the party promoter as king.
In addition to Alex and Michael, who were born in Eritrea, are younger brothers Simon and Gebriel, and sister Rachel. They fled the east African nation with their parents in 1974 during a civil war and spent 10 years in Italy before relocating to Dallas.
Alex, born Ainealem, moved to Atlanta in the early ’90s, and Michael followed in 1996 after graduating from the University of Texas. Having cut their teeth throwing college parties, the brothers parked cars to make ends meet while learning their way around the city’s nightclubs.
Tongue & Groove owner Michael Krohngold recalls hiring Alex to promote his downtown club Velvet (not to be confused with either incarnation of the Velvet Room) to an urban crowd on a weeknight. The pairing proved successful. “Alex always dreamed big, while Michael was the numbers guy,” Krohngold says.
Philip Boone, who owned the Warehouse on Marietta Street, says the brothers ran buses over to the Atlanta University Center to get customers for his club. “They were good-looking guys, had swagger — and the women loved them,” he says. “They were good businessmen who came along at the right time.”
Along the way, Alex was making connections with up-and-coming recording artists that would prove invaluable to his promoting business. His breakthrough was arguably befriending Combs, then known as Puff Daddy. Photos of Alex socializing with virtually every major hip-hop star are now a Google search away.
By the end of the decade, all the Gidewon siblings had moved to Atlanta to take part in the family business of nightlife promotion and management. Kaya owner Tia Landau remembers Rachel manning the door while a younger brother worked in the back office. But it was Alex’s marketing instincts that helped transform the nightclub business in Atlanta from one where each club had its own devoted clientele to one in which the crowds followed independent promoters from one venue to another. Nowadays, every sizable club has a battery of promoters that reach various audiences on different nights.
“Alex always had the ability to make his party the place to be,” says Landau, who now owns the Albert pub in Inman Park. After six years with Kaya, she handed off her lease to the Gidewons, who reopened the club as Vision in January 2003. They later bought out their neighbors, knocked out walls and expanded it into a spare-no-expense mega-club.
Michael Gidewon says he and Alex opened Vision to realize the American dream of immigrants starting with nothing who work until they have their own business. In 2004, they launched the Gidewon Foundation, which raises money for college scholarships and children’s causes. Their June fundraiser at the Fernbank Science Center was attended by Mayor Shirley Franklin and mayoral candidate Kasim Reed.
“I always knew they could take it to the next level,” Landau says.
On Sept. 8, the Gidewons continued the quest to open their Peachtree Street clubs. They went before Midtown’s Design Review Committee, which must confirm that the clubs’ exterior design elements — windows, doors, parking areas, etc. — meet the SPI guidelines before they can open for business.
“All it takes to meet the requirements are time and money,” says DRC member Penelope Cheroff. “If what they want to do is legal, I can’t imagine there’s anything anyone can do to stop them.”
The only other remaining hurdle is obtaining a liquor license, a process that has tripped up numerous other clubs. At press time, there was no appearance scheduled yet before the city’s independent License Review Board — which makes recommendations to Franklin that she nearly always follows — but it’s shaping up to be the battle royale.
In theory, the LRB isn’t supposed to recommend denial without a strong reason, such as a flawed application or an applicant’s criminal record, but the board can also consider community sentiment and police testimony about violence or drug use associated with a club or owner. Denby says she hopes the LRB will be swayed by a 2007 shooting at Compound and anecdotes about members of the Black Mafia Family drug cartel hanging out at Vision.
For his part, Michael Gidewon calls the Compound shooting “an isolated incident” and promises heightened security at his new clubs, with metal detectors and 10 off-duty cops. As for BMF, he says they were treated like any other VIP customers and didn’t cause a disturbance at the club.
Councilwoman Anne Fauver, who represents Midtown, also says she plans to speak against the clubs at the LRB hearing, but she concedes that the board isn’t likely to vote thumbs down on the application unless it can be shown that “there was significant criminal activity at their other clubs to suggest they wouldn’t be good stewards of a license.”
If things go the Gidewons’ way, they could be open as soon at Halloween or mid-November, Michael says, adding that a renovated Compound should reopen early next year.
“In the nightclub business, you’ve got reinvent yourself every three years,” he says. “We’re trying to set the bar even higher."
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