Public Comment

Commentary: Will City Enforce Gaia Cultural Use? By ANNA DE LEON

Friday March 10, 2006

We of Anna’s Jazz Island were excited to move into downtown Berkeley where there has been a push to create a vital Arts District. We were thrilled to be part of a genuine arts center, with a live theater, arts organizations and our jazz venue—10,000 square feet of cultural use. The Gaia Building has a mission for cultural use that originated in a “cultural density bonus” agreement made between the developer, Patrick Kennedy, and the city. In this current real estate market, new downtown cultural spaces can come into being only with such agreements. After lots of community discussion, our Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) voted to give Mr. Kennedy two extra floors of apartments from which he generates extra revenue. In exchange, ZAB also voted, and he agreed, that he would place the ground floor in cultural use and that he would divide the huge mezzanine into four spaces for arts organizations. Anna’s Jazz Island opened in late May of 2005; we use only 15 percent of all the promised cultural use space.  

Mr. Kennedy has already received more than two million dollars in revenue from the extra floors of apartments. However, instead of placing the rest of the ground floor and mezzanine in cultural use, Mr. Kennedy is now in business with an upscale for-profit caterer who throws expensive private parties. The city did not subsidize this project for cultural use so that a few people could financially benefit from exclusive or private events. These events have included huge private dinners for several hundred people and raucous parties, one recently closed by the police. 

Because of the for-profit enterprise currently controlling the Gaia, there have been many code violations in order to generate more revenue. A concert for more than 200 was held where occupancy is only 96. A concert promoter recently told ZAB he has Mr. Kennedy’s approval to hold rock concerts for 400 teenagers at the Gaia. 

The caterer rents the theater space to The Marsh theater on Wednesdays and Thursdays until July 2006, keeping the more desirable weekends for their own profitable private events. Under these terms, it is likely The Marsh will not renew their lease. In addition, the caterer rents the theater to a church on Sundays, which staff says is a religious, not a cultural use. Due to Alcoholic Beverage Control licensing regulations regarding proximate churches, this may place our alcohol license at risk. It also places at grave risk any license the future David Brower Center would want for a restaurant in the new facility. Cultural spaces often need the option of selling alcoholic beverages to financially survive. 

So what happened at the Gaia Building? 

Although ZAB voted only for cultural use, the city staff has decided that 30-percent cultural use of the facility is sufficient to honor the cultural density bonus agreement. City staff has allowed the mezzanine to be used as a huge open space for parties rather than for the four separate spaces for arts organizations that ZAB voted for. Staff admits that the private parties and church use are not cultural. Even so, staff has not even required Mr. Kennedy to come before ZAB for a use permit modification so the large concerts, the parties and the church use can be discussed in public. Until now, these use approvals have been done privately by city staff, with no public scrutiny and no discussion even by ZAB. The impact of a rock and roll venue for 400 teenagers has had no input either from citizens or from the Police Department. All these new uses with large numbers of people, chaos and noise severely impact all of us. 

ZAB is made up of citizens who offer their time and dedication to protect community land use needs. As a citizen board, ZAB must be able to rely on staff to implement their votes and directives. Many of us feel betrayed by this unilateral staff action. 

What will become of the cultural density bonus? 

This bonus should be a good thing for our community, a way to enrich our lives. After lengthy community discussion and debate, ZAB voted what should have been a win-win at the Gaia. The staff has no confusion about what constitutes “cultural use.” They agree the private parties and the church are not cultural use. The central issue is that staff have arbitrarily decided that 70 percent non-cultural use by the developer is just fine. There are many arts organizations who can provide cultural activities and who need space. The cultural density bonus assumes that the cultural use space will not be rented for market value to these organizations. Of course Mr. Kennedy can get much more rent from a for-profit caterer than from a community arts organization.  

Now, Mr. Kennedy gets paid twice because staff will not implement the requirement for cultural use. First, he receives rents from the two extra floors of apartments; again, because he has a commercial tenant in a space that was promised for culture. Who can be surprised that The Marsh is given only Wednesdays and Thursdays? The caterer takes the profitable weekends and the community suffers the denial of the culture we were promised. 

Finally, we call on ZAB to direct the staff to carry out their vote of long ago: 100 percent cultural use and the mezzanine divided into four spaces for arts organizations. This building is a pilot partnership agreement between the arts and real estate development. If city staff will only enforce 30 percent cultural use, the cultural density bonus becomes a sham. It will be a cultural density bonus with almost no culture and a big bonus to Mr. Kennedy. 


Anna de Leon is the proprietor of Anna’s Jazz Island in the Gaia Building.›