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Dance This Mess Around

However bohemian its reputation, here's the truth: Santa Cruz is a city with live-music laws straight out of 'Footloose.' From the bureaucratic nightmare of the permit process to the checkered past of noise enforcement, the way this town treats arts and entertainment is a joke--and no one's laughing.

By Mike Connor

If you don't believe this town is slanted against live-music lovers' pursuit of happiness, let's start with a simple but little known fact: There's not a square inch in Santa Cruz zoned specifically for entertainment use.

For some, the process of getting the special use and entertainment permits that eventually allow venues to host music is not only expensive to the point of being cost-prohibitive, it's a bureaucratic nightmare--even if all you are looking to do is have an open-mic night in your cafe. And did we mention that between the hours of 2am and 10am, dancing in the city of Santa Cruz is illegal? Haven't people around here seen Footloose?

Indeed, Section 5.44 of the Municipal Code, which spells out the rules governing entertainment use for a business, sometimes reads like a bad joke, but it's a 43-year-old joke that many club owners and managers, past and present, haven't found particularly amusing. Far from being embraced as valuable cultural assets that also happen to draw throngs of people (and even more dollars) into business districts, entertainment venues face an uphill battle getting started, and once they do, they're left in a situation where their only lifeline--the precious entertainment permit that keeps them alive--is controlled by the police, to whom businesses must reapply each year to renew their permit.

Not that the police are inherently anti-fun, but the recent decision against them by a federal court in the Blue Lagoon harassment case doesn't look good, and has some club owners and managers wondering--off the record, of course--whether the police are really the best administrators of the permit process. A Mayberry-type Santa Cruz might seem easier to manage, and is perhaps even more appealing in an economic environment where over $1 million in cuts have stretched the Police Department thin. But is that really what the people of Santa Cruz want?

Rumors abound that Santa Cruz is divided down some invisible line, with conservative, alcohol- and entertainment-hating powers-that-be on one side and carousing, bohemian art- and culture-loving types on the other. It's a portrait of good vs. evil (depending on who you're rooting for) that is obviously more simplistic than the reality.

Local politicians as well as planning and police officials are always ready to pay some lip service to the positive aspects of entertainment. Redevelopment Agency brochures that are used to lure new business into the downtown even tout the glory of our music venues: "Santa Cruz's downtown renaissance has been ushered in on the strength of our entertainment offerings and the retail spillover effect ... Downtown also boasts the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, the finest jazz club on the Central Coast, and top-name concerts at local nightspots like the nationally known Catalyst nightclub."

Chaos Theory

But while the clubs sound great in a brochure, some residence downtown say they're way too close to commotion caused by nightclubs.

After the earthquake, the downtown was intentionally designed as a "mixed use" zone, meaning that there would be some combination of business and residential use. The idea behind the plan is that a downtown that has no residence would be completely empty after all the bars and clubs closed, leaving the city wide-open to vandals, junkies and the like. Nancy Boyle of the Department of Planning and Community Development recalls the community meetings and "chatauquas" that led to the mixed-use plan for downtown.

"What's kind of created an internal conflict is that we have regulations that say no offensive noise after 10pm until 8am," says Boyle, "but then by approval of permits, we're allowing commercial uses [near] residential uses, in keeping with the vision that we had for the downtown area--nightclubs, restaurants with entertainment--that was always envisioned. We're now finding, with all the new development projects downtown, that it's come more to the surface. There are more bodies downtown and it's been affecting more people than it had in the past."

There are plenty of existing residences downtown, from the St. George apartments at the north end of Pacific down to the apartments above the Palomar, as well as the El Centro residences and UC housing further south. But the structure with perhaps the most potential for use conflict is the brand new residential building at 1010 Pacific Ave., directly across the street from the city's oldest and largest nightclub, the Catalyst. It's like the "Odd Couple" of planning arrangements.

While the residents across the street should be able to expect some level of peace and quiet, the Catalyst, like any properly permitted venue, is allowed to make a certain amount of noise. The particular amount is determined on a case-by-case basis, based on a third-party acoustical study required by the Planning Department. The acoustic engineers take readings of the ambient noise levels at various times throughout the day, which the venue is allowed to exceed by a small degree, also determined by the sound engineers.

It all seems very scientific--that is until you bring a crowd of some 600 people leaving their favorite rock show.

Catalyst booking agent Gary Tighe says that the police made a helpful suggestion that the club install bright lights outside of the venue to help discourage concertgoers from loitering after a show, a plan which has already been implemented.

Lt. Rudy Escalante, who's responsible for issuing entertainment permits with the police chief's approval, says that the Catalyst has done a really good job lately of keeping track of its sound and its crowd.

"They're more than willing to work with anybody," says Escalante, "and based on how they're willing to deal with things, I'm not too concerned about it. But I think it's going to be a bridge that we're going to have to cross."

Ciel Cirillo, the executive director of the Santa Cruz City Redevelopment Agency (which, incidentally, was involved in the 1010 Pacific project), says that the matter will resolve itself as a lifestyle choice.

"You don't have to live in that housing," says Cirillo, "you move into that housing being aware of all the land uses around you when you move into a downtown area; you're subject to whatever those 18-hour uses are in the downtown, so I think it's a choice, a personal choice of whether that's the environment you want to live in or not. And there are lots of people who make that choice. ... Those residential units went in with the clear knowledge that the Catalyst exists across the street."

City Council member Ed Porter recognizes the potential for problems, but hopes for the best.

"I think a lot of tenants who move in will be well aware and probably will be tolerant, says Porter. "I really stressed that the building should have soundproofing, and should derive its ventilation from the center of the building. If we're lucky and they followed through, then the building has some resistance to loud noise on the street and ventilation on roof level."

I decided to have a look at the apartments myself under the guise of a potential renter. When I asked the leasing agent how the noise was, she told me it was "not bad," and that the double-pane windows and cement in the walls keep out most of the sound. But as obvious as the nightclub is across the street, she didn't specifically warn me that I would be moving in across the street from a nightclub, and that people will inevitably make some noise as they exit when it closes at 2am--noise that may be particularly disruptive if I want to keep my window open for some fresh air.

The Poet Game

So what can we do to find a happy middle ground? Peace-and-quiet-loving people living in strictly residential areas have a right to expect peace and quiet. Shouldn't music-and-dance-loving night owls have a corner of town they can call their own? The answer is, that's entirely up to the Planning Department.

"The downtown area specifically says any entertainment requires a use permit," says one Planning Department source. "I think the main reason for that is there's so much residential going in down there, and we've had issues where there's entertainment next to a residential use and people are concerned, and so we need that level of control. But just because we require a review doesn't mean we're going to deny it or anything, I think it's just to make sure there's controls. But it is another step to locate entertainment downtown. Elsewhere in the city, it seems, in our commercial districts, it's only nightclubs that really trigger the problem."

Or, if you're Chris Matthews, owner of the Poet & Patriot, a microphone for your open-mic night could trigger a problem. Any sort of amplified music requires an entertainment permit from the police, which in turn requires the proper use permits from the Planning Department. While the planning department maintains that the permit process usually takes about six to eight weeks from start to finish, Matthews says he's spent two years and $2,000 trying to get the proper permits to have a microphone, mostly because of a neighbor who's been fighting the Poet's permit throughout the process. Matthews praises the police and the City Council for their helpfulness, but says that the Planning Department complicated matters.

Says Lt. Escalante: "Part of the problem stems from the fact that people don't plan properly, when they finally decide, OK, I wanna have some entertainment, because they're looking at ways of expanding their business. They come to me and I have to send them to Planning and they have to go through modifying their use permit, which can be time-consuming, and it can be expensive, depending on what they wanna do. And if they would've known that or done that at the beginning, it would've saved them some time."

In an effort to save some time for those who would like to host intermediary forms of entertainment, the Arts Commission has set up two committees: one to make a recommendation to planning to introduce intermediary definitions of entertainment, working on language to recommend to planning. and another to streamline the entertainment-permit processing so the city can be more supportive of venue owners and management.


Santa Cruz Arts Commissioner and Santa Cruz Institute for Contemporary Arts co-founder Chip, for one, would like to see a clearly defined arts district.

"I think the Med is a really good example (see story here); you're talking about having a club in a mixed-use district, and that's challenging. I think it's really important when coming from a city planning perspective to have an understanding of what goes where."

Currently, the SCICA is trying to brand downtown as an entertainment district, dubbing it "SoWat," a play on SoHo and SoMa, meaning "South of Water Street."

"A year ago, when working with the 418 Project," says Chip, "I was trying to get the hours we could have live music extended past 10 at night, because there was definitely a need in the community. It made a lot of sense to have a music venue in the space, and we were trying to get our hours extended, but the zoning administrator denied the application because of the residential units going in at 1010--we're talking about residential being built right next to SC's biggest and oldest concert hall."

Ex-Palookaville owner and promoter Michael Horne believes an entertainment district might be the answer we're looking for.

"Ideally there's an entertainment district or club district, like there is in other places; we don't have one here, it is sort of nuts. We have a civic responsibility to deal with an entertainment district and deal with the ups and downs that brings. The Police Department should be more proactive in embracing safe and sane presenters and people who want to do a concert in a safe environment."

Lt. Escalante says that the Police Department is very supportive of new businesses, and he does what he can to help new ventures avoid the pitfalls of unsuccessful ones. Ed Porter points to alcohol as the main problem.

"The alcohol is related to the harmful sides of the problem, not the music," says Porter. "And so it's obvious to me that we haven't figured out all the answers to how to deal with that yet. This country has such a history of love and hate with alcohol, and having gone through prohibition, and to a great degree what we do now is still reacting to all of that, it's not very proactive at all. When the bars get out downtown, it's a problem. There's no denying it--it's a problem. It's some of the worst times for our Police Department, some of the worst times for the residents. Can you educate people that go to bars and say, please be quiet as you're going out through our neighborhood? I don't know if that can be done or not."

Maybe not, but Chip and others agree that, right now, the only way to pay for entertainment is to sell booze, and there's no city subsidy for entertainment. And while it may or may not be reasonable to start thinking about entertainment subsidies during a budget crisis, is cooperation too much to ask for?

"I met this guy in New Orleans," says Horne, "a former city councilmember, and he said anybody that's fool enough to get into the nightclub business, they are happy to embrace and make it as easy as possible. It's sort of a giant baby-sitting service--you're putting together a public function on your dime, providing security and insurance, alcohol beverage control and carding people; for a period of five or six hours you're containing this large group in your community, and monitoring them on your dime in exchange for alcohol sales and commission. They felt like if you can get a good club, an aware club manager/owner to take that on, that it was a good thing, and it was encouraged and made sort of easier because it was a giant task."

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From the August 25-September 1, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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