An out-of-control party at the Gaia Arts Center in downtown Berkeley two weeks ago prompted Berkeley Police to label the venue a public nuisance, leaving its owners susceptible to a fine from the city if a similar incident occurs there in the next four months, authorities said Thursday.
Sgt. Mary Kusmiss of the Berkeley Police Department (BPD) said that around 11:20 p.m. on Oct. 25, BPD supervisor Sgt. Katherine Smith noticed a large crowd spilling out on the sidewalk of the 2000 block of Allston Way, trying its best to get into a party at the arts center, located inside the Gaia Building at 2010 Allston Way.
Gaia’s owners Equity Resi-dential—headed by real estate magnate and Tribune Co. proprietor Samuel Zell—have leased the Gaia Arts Center to Berkeley developer Patrick Kennedy, who built the Gaia Building and sold it to Equity last year.
Calls to Kennedy at his firm, Panoramic Interests, and requests for comment made to Equity Residential through its attorney, Allen Matkins, were not returned.
The Gaia Building has had a long and often controversial history with the City of Berkeley, with at least three Berkeley residents going as far as to sue the city for failing to impose the cultural use mandates listed in its use permit.
Anna de Leon, who owns Anna’s Jazz Island, another first floor tenant in the building, has repeatedly complained to the city that the Gaia Arts Center was violating its permit by renting space to churches, weddings and private parties.
A recent Zoning Adjustments Board meeting tried to determine whether or not the building was in violation of the condition on its original use permit that required a certain percentage of cultural activities to take place in the space in return for allowing two extra stories above what area zoning ordinarily allows. The board voted to give Equity Residential six months to hire a marketing firm to promote the center for cultural events.
At this particular Saturday-night party, Sgt. Smith learned from some of the young “predominantly college-age” boys and girls lining up outside that the event had been advertised as an after-Cal football game party hosted by Kappa Alpha Psi, a UC Berkeley black fraternity, which has chapters worldwide. The Cal Bears won the game against UCLA that Saturday.
After speaking with Tyler Null, a Gaia Arts Center employee, inside the Gaia Building, Smith learned that the fraternity had rented the center’s theater and mezzanine level for the party—which was not serving any food or alcohol—and was charging a $20 entry fee per person.
On Monday, Gerald Lee, the undergraduate adviser for the UC Berkeley student chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi, said that, although its members had been present at the party, the event had not been sanctioned or endorsed by the fraternity. Lee said that he did not have any information about who had hosted the party.
Kusmiss said that the total capacity of the theater and mezzanine together was 275, and that the fraternity had also hired American Liberty, a private security company, to manage the event.
“It’s a very common practice for fraternities to hire private security guards,” she said. “With the ability to text these days, word gets out very quickly. It’s a good measure to take because of the capacity issue.”
Although the private guards were doing their best to control the crowd, Kusmiss said, several young men tried to crash the party by climbing through the windows of Anna’s Jazz Island, frightening the bar’s patrons.
Calls to de Leon Friday were not returned. Her account of events appeared in the Planet's Public Eye column two weeks ago.
Kusmiss said that a DJ was spinning loud music at the party, causing several neighbors to complain to the police.
Smith also called for additional officers to control the raucous crowd outside the Gaia Building.
“The people were yelling and making a lot of noise outside, and they were also blocking traffic on Allston Way, causing a safety hazard,” Kusmiss said. “With the help of the private security guards, BPD officers tried to move the crowd out of the area telling them that the party was filled to capacity and that they needed to go home. Once they heard the news, some of the young people became unruly and started throwing plastic bottles at the officers.”
Kusmiss said that although no one was injured, the incident led to 17 Berkeley police officers being dispatched to the area around 11:43 p.m. and Smith issuing to the property a public nuisance notice also called a second response ordinance notification—under a law passed by the City Council several years ago to address community concerns around loud parties, especially those taking place in North and South Campus.
The notice warns that if the police are called to look into a similar disturbance at the Gaia Arts Center within the next 120 days of its issuance, the responsible parties will be fined by the City of Berkeley.
“The event was violating the city’s noise ordinance by disturbing the peace after 10 p.m.,” Kusmiss said. “The people were yelling and rolling out on the streets and posing a threat to public safety. It created a significant impact. There were officers on the scene till a quarter to one. Officers were taken away from patrolling other parts of the city they are responsible for.”
Kusmiss added that Berkeley Police had not had any problems from either Kappa Alpha Psi members—which she described as a highly reputable fraternity—or the Gaia Arts Center in the recent past.
“BPD officers had a very fruitful meeting with the Gaia Arts Center’s employees, who were very concerned about the public nuisance posting,” she said. “They came to an agreement about renting out the spaces and making sure the property was properly managed.”
Calls to Kappa Alpha Psi’s Berkeley Alumni Chapter in Oakland and Dr. Grahaeme A. Hesp, director of fraternity and sorority life at UC Berkeley, were not returned.