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Shortly before 2 a.m. on Sunday, April 20, residents of a North Broadway high-rise awoke to the kind of clatter one might associate with television cop dramas: A paddy wagon, a pair of canines and almost a dozen police officers were parked outside. A helicopter hovered in the air, its searchlights shining down.
Several dozen people were throwing punches inside the adjacent Dolce' Ultra Lounge & Bistro. Numerous calls to police went out. The fight spilled onto the street. When it finally ended, one man was arrested for disturbing the peace, and a club manager was hauled away for failing to post a liquor license.
Just two days prior, 29-year-old Tony Trupiano, the club's operator, sat down with St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department brass to discuss noise complaints and ways in which Dolce' might be a better downtown neighbor.
"I have no excuse for what happened that night, and I'm not going to sugarcoat the fight, because it was pretty crazy," says Trupiano. "But it was also really bad luck, because we were already trying to work with the police department and improve things."
The condo association of the Marquette Building begs to differ. Board members and residents who are trying to put the kibosh on Dolce' say the latest disturbance is further proof that 200 North Broadway is the wrong corner for a nightclub.
As board member and real estate developer Flora Denton puts it, "We have some neat things going on down here, but this is one black eye that we have to get rid of."
Though city officials are taking a close look at Dolce', they are not ready to shutter it. "Three hundred years ago, there was sword-fighting in bars, so this is nothing new," explains Bob Kraiberg, the city's excise commissioner. "Our purpose is to try to fix the thing and we have a lot of ways to do that. We don't want to just throw the baby out with the bath water."
Occupying the split-level space inside the St. Louis Place building, which the former Frank Sinatra-themed restaurant Summit once called home, Dolce' opened to considerable fanfare in October 2006. The restaurant/club featured a contemporary Italian culinary bent but captured more immediate attention for its sparkling interior — "a glittering chrome-and-glass bauble," as RFT restaurant reviewer Ian Froeb described it.
Dolce' quickly became a hot spot for functions hosted by such bold-faced names as Cedric the Entertainer and Marshall Faulk. Trupiano and his childhood pal, Rob Olsen, Dolce's owner, thought they had hit on the perfect location at the crossroads of corporate, residential and athletic facilities.
Next door, the Marquette Building is an equally high-end paragon of downtown's ongoing urban renaissance. The twenty-floor property was renovated by The Lawrence Group and also opened in late 2006. Swish interiors, a lush midlevel courtyard and a rooftop pool were among the top selling points for professionals like Paul Brown, an attorney with Thompson Coburn. Brown says he and his wife closed on their condo in 2004 long before Dolce' was on the scene. The high-rise's location was key.
"We didn't want to be right near Washington Avenue," explains Brown, "where all the bars and nightclubs were located."
But almost immediately, Brown recalls, the condo became unlivable come weekends. Residents complained of limos and cars triple-parked on Olive Street, blocking the entrance to the Marquette's parking garage. There were also complaints of ear-splitting music and rowdy patrons pouring out of the club after 2 a.m., yelling and throwing glass bottles on the sidewalk.
"I remember the very first weekend I spent here, I woke up to a bloodcurdling scream," recalls Linda Kasparek, a local management consultant. "I jumped out of bed immediately because I thought somebody was being attacked."
At her constituents' request, last summer Alderwoman Phyllis Young convinced Dolce's operators to move the valet stand off of Olive Street to alleviate late-night noise. But condo owners continued to call police with complaints. Then, in the wee hours of March 16 of this year, Marquette residents awoke to the rat-a-tat sound of an automatic handgun shooting at the St. Louis Place building.
"That was scary," says board member Denton. "Noise is one thing, but bullets flying? I think the place has gotten out of control."
Police Captain Jerry Leyshock, commander of the downtown district, characterizes the incident as a drive-by and says it's important not to jump the gun, so to speak. "There were two bullet holes found on the side of the [St. Louis Place] building, and a window was shattered, but you have a hard time tying that into anything at Dolce'," he explains. Leyshock adds that only one witness could be located.
Over the past year, Leyshock says police have received between 20 and 30 calls concerning Dolce' — enough to prompt the city counselor's office to issue a cease-and-desist order to the club's landlord, Behringer Harvard, of Addison, Texas.
It was a rare move, says associate city counselor Matt Moak: "Bars are a little different animal than most of what [our Problem Properties unit] deals with. We really try to avoid closing down a commercially viable enterprise because we want people to come downtown for entertainment purposes."
Behringer Harvard subsequently filed a lawsuit in St. Louis Circuit Court, seeking to remove Dolce' from its premises for non-payment of rent since November 2007.
"Hopefully, the judge will award the owner the right to evict them immediately," says Alderwoman Young. Young says she was inundated with requests to shut the place down after the fight on April 20.
"They have no shot at shutting us down," counters Tony Trupiano. The club's rent money is sitting in an escrow account, he says, explaining that the case boils down to a fight over who's responsible for an allegedly faulty air conditioning unit.
"We have tried to pay them four times, and they won't accept it," asserts Rob Olsen. Attorneys for Behringer Harvard did not return repeated phone calls for comment.
Trupiano says he and Olsen have gone out of their way to accommodate Marquette residents, by turning the music down when requested and relocating the valet stand. "This is about one guy making a smokescreen," argues Trupiano.
"I just don't get how people think they can move downtown and not hear some noise," adds Olsen.
Trupiano and Olsen also deny that the club is in any way dangerous. They say that after the drive-by shooting they hired someone to videotape the club and its surroundings and then play it for Associate Circuit Court Judge Michael Mullen to show him the place is safe.
Dolce's operators have also pledged to hire off-duty police officers for security outside the club. Says Trupiano: "I don't want anything like that fight to happen ever again."