New Year’s Eve, the biggest party night of the year, and UC Berkeley Junior Adam Weiss knows where he’ll be hours before the clock strikes midnight.
“On the BART platform getting ready to party...in San Francisco.”
Weiss said one of his toughest challenges in attending UC Berkeley has been finding local venues that he would want to go to or that would invite him, a 20-year-old, in.
“I’ve learned that being a college town and a party town are two very different things,” he said.
Berkeley, home to one of the largest universities in the country, has avoided the glut of bars, clubs and late night eateries that typically accompany other schools.
In Chico, Ca., for instance, home-base for the 15,000-student state university, there are 13 nightclubs featuring live music or a DJ within a 20 block radius, according to Becky Watner, assistant director for the Downtown Chico Business Association. Berkeley has eight.
Since the 1980s several of the city’s top venues have folded or been shut down by the city. They include Keystone Berkeley and Berkeley Square on University Avenue, the Jabberwock on Telegraph Avenue, the Longbranch on San Pablo Avenue and Earl’s Solano Club, a North Berkeley Jazz house.
“Berkeley used to have so many more clubs,” said Billy Jam, owner of Hip Hop Slam Records and a radio host on UC Berkeley’s KALX Public Affairs. “Touring bands used to have a San Francisco date and a Berkeley date, but now Berkeley doesn’t have a big enough venue to attract national acts.”
Berkeley Planning Director Dan Marks said a combination of police apprehension towards new bars and neighborhood concerns about noise had kept Berkeley’s youth-oriented nightlife in check.
“There aren’t a lot of locations where people getting out of a club at 2 a.m. aren’t going to disturb someone” he said.
The police department wields heavy influence in granting permits to would-be club operators in Berkeley. Under State Department of Alcohol Beverage Control rules, Berkeley has surpassed its quota for alcohol serving establishments so any new bar or club seeking a use permit requires the Zoning Adjustment Board (ZAB) to make a finding of public convenience and necessity. Although the police declined to comment for this story, several city officials said the police typically oppose the permits on grounds that the BDP doesn’t have the staff to deal with more drunken youth leaving clubs early in the morning.
“Because of police objections to late night drinking, the city has become increasingly restrictive in its zoning review process for late night venues,” said Dave Fogarty of the city’s Office of Economic Development.
He recalled several cases where applicants were either discouraged from operating a nightclub or told not to bother trying for the hours of operation they wanted.
Anna De Leon, who is preparing to open a Shattuck Avenue jazz cafe in the coming weeks, said she didn’t ask for a 2 a.m. closing time on weekends—the latest hour allowed for an establishment that serves alcohol—because she knew she wouldn’t get it.
De Leon, who will close her club at 1 a.m. on weekends, faced neighborhood opposition seeking a permit to open her cafe both on Shattuck and at its former home on University Avenue.
“I have a hard time understanding the level of quiet people seem to need,” she said.
Country Joe McDonald, who moved to town and joined Berkeley’s folk music scene in 1965 said, “Berkeley has never been a late night town.
“Whenever friends would visit and ask what there was to do late at night, I’d just laugh.”
Now, along Telegraph Avenue, there appears to be some will among city leaders to allow bars and restaurants to keep their doors open later for nearby students. This fall, against the recommendation of the police department, the ZAB approved later hours for Kip’s a popular student bar on the southside of campus. That ruling came on top of similar decisions allowing the Durant food court to stay open later and Raleigh’s, a Telegraph Avenue bar and restaurant, to keep its outdoor patio open during late night hours.
The city’s draft land use plan for the south of campus area calls for allowing all eating establishments including cafes to remain open until midnight without a use permit and conditionally allowing 24-hour cafes near the UC Berkeley campus. Currently, without a permit cafes must close at 10 p.m.
“The direction the city is moving in is that nightlife is encouraged,” said ZAB Chair and UC Berkeley graduate student Andy Katz.
Katz said that extending hours for cafes and bars along Telegraph would improve safety and increase business along the corridor. The biggest problem so far, Katz said, has been convincing the mostly family owned sit-down restaurants to stay open into the earlier hours of the morning, when the relatives who run the restaurants would rather be sleeping.
If Telegraph Avenue does adopt later hours, not all of the residents will be pleased.
Doug Buckwald, a south campus resident, said he is frequently awakened on weekend nights by students shouting and singing as they walk back to their homes from Telegraph Avenue.
“It’s absolutely a quality of life issue,” said Buckwald, who feared that later hours for bars and restaurants could discourage families from relocating to the area—another goal of the draft land use plan.
Pat Romani, the co-owner of Blakes On Telegraph, the south campus’ only dance venue, didn’t think relaxed city regulations would help the Berkeley club scene, whose decline he attributed to market forces.
“It seems that a lot of students are more into socializing with their friends or drinking than seeing live music,” he said. “Right now a lot of clubs in the area are closing or hanging on by their fingernails.”
When it comes to live music Berkeley still offers a variety of options. Blakes has rock and hip hop music, the Shattuck Down Low has a mix of DJs and live rock and hip hop acts, the Freight and Salvage offers a predominantly folk line up, Ashkenaz specializes in world beats, 924 Gilman is a youth oriented punk club, the Starry Plough offers rock music on weekends and Jupiter also hosts live acts. Live jazz can also be seen at Downtown and at the Jazz School.
If Berkeley were ever to create a concentration of clubs, like in Chico, the downtown area would seem like the likeliest location. But with a slew of new housing development, the downtown might not be so fertile anymore.
Councilmember Dona Spring, who represents the area, fought Berkeley Square and fielded numerous complaints about the Shattuck Down Low when it first moved in, isn’t eager to see many new arrivals.
“If you want to go dancing you should go to Ashkenaz,” she said. “The regular population prefers a play or a concert to boozing it up.”