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Nightclub or nuisance?

Marc Stein, owner of Club Aura in Northern Liberties, has filed a lawsuit against his critics, claiming they've hurt his business.

Club Aura in Northern Liberties has filed a defamation suit against the civic association there, the police and Philebrity. The club is seen on Friday, December 20, 2013.  (  Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )
Club Aura in Northern Liberties has filed a defamation suit against the civic association there, the police and Philebrity. The club is seen on Friday, December 20, 2013. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )Read moreSteven M. Falk

WHEN THE MOOD strikes and the music's just right, patrons of Club Aura in Northern Liberties can get up out of their seats . . . and stand there.

Owner Marc Stein said no customer, not even comedian Dave Chappelle, who stopped in over the weekend, is allowed to dance there, because the club doesn't have a special-assembly occupancy license required by the city. And he now realizes that he'll probably never get one.

"I actually have to tell the bouncers to intervene if they see someone dancing in here. It's like 'Footloose,' " Stein said yesterday, beneath pulsating blue lights on the club's second floor.

Stein believes there are countless other bars in the city in which people dance to DJs and jukeboxes without the license. But in his case, there are people checking up on Aura all the time, he said, making sure there are no hips moving on his hardwood floors.

Chris Sawyer, founder of the website, is one of the many people whom Stein is suing over Club Aura's current situation. Sawyer admitted that customers might be dancing in bars all over Philly without a special license. But he said Stein brought all the scrutiny upon himself by being a bad neighbor at Front Street and Fairmount Avenue.

"Tough s---," Sawyer said. "When someone operates so far outside of the bounds of the code, it becomes a problem. He wore out his welcome mat."

Stein, a Blue Bell, Montgomery County, native, insists he's been denied the special license because of a barrage of unfounded complaints, constant visits by the police that he claims are unwarranted, and even racism against his mostly black and Hispanic demographic.

In August, he filed a federal lawsuit against a slew of individuals and organizations, including Sawyer, the city of Philadelphia, the Police Department and specific department supervisors, the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association and some of its members,, and former area residents. It claims they all worked together in a trash-talking cabal on social-media websites, blogs and emails to try to get Club Aura closed down.

Club Aura, the complaint alleges, is "the only bar, restaurant, or nightclub in Northern Liberties that has been persecuted in this fashion, and not coincidentally, is the only such establishment that caters to the 'upscale urban' demographic."

Stein, who previously ran a nightclub in Old City, said he laid out his plans for Club Aura in detail in 2011 and had his liquor license approved in January 2012 with no opposition from any neighborhood group. The location was the former 2nd Street Annie's, and Stein said he always intended it to be a nightclub, a destination that could also be used for bar mitzvahs, birthday parties and fundraisers.

Stein said he invested more than $625,000 in the building, including the elaborate LED light displays direct from China. But Jordan Rushie, a lawyer representing Sawyer and several other defendants, said Stein didn't invest anything into neighborly relations in Northern Liberties when problems began in the very beginning.

"Nobody had a problem with this place prior to it being opened; that's why there was no opposition. I don't think him suing his neighbors is good on his part," Rushie said.

The complaints made about the bar, according to the lawsuit, included major noise issues, crowd control, lack of security and even a picture of a woman allegedly relieving herself outside. A June 21, 2012, post on Philebrity, titled "Fare Thee Well, Club Aura: You Totally Sucked" is one of several included in the defamation claim made against the website.

J. Conor Corcoran, Philebrity's lawyer, said the lawsuit is "much ado about nothing."

"It's a nonsense lawsuit and we intend to fight it to the end," he said.

Several defendants have been dismissed from the case already, and Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, believes the whole case is a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP suit, filed simply to stifle critics.

"The city is full of mixed-use neighborhoods and blocks, and in the majority of places, they go on without lawsuits," Ruben said. "We don't make it a habit of being sued."

Stein said he's operating just eight hours a week - a nightclub that can't be a nightclub - but claims he's not ready to walk away.

"I'm just getting by," he said "The business is struggling now, but we can't close."