Police Shut Down Another Gaia Arts Center Party--Shots Fired in Aftermath

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Sunday February 01, 2009 - 10:15:00 AM

The Berkeley Police Department shut down yet another party at the Gaia Arts Center in downtown Berkeley Friday night, after it attracted a large unruly crowd which blocked streets at Shattuck Avenue and Allston Way, and led to gunshots being fired in its aftermath, authorities said Saturday. 

Lt. Rico Rolleri of the Berkeley Police Department said that the party had started out “OK” with 150 to 200 teenagers inside the venue, but turned uncontrollable when at least 100 others tried to crash the event by entering through the Gaia Building garage, climbing over a back fence and pushing their way through the front door. 

Rolleri said that police officers patrolling the neighborhood had come across the large crowds and contacted the organizers—whose name Rolleri was not able to confirm— who admitted that they were unable to handle the situation. 

At least 20 Berkeley police officers began dispersing the crowd around 9:04 p.m., a process that took them about two hours, Rolleri said. 

“People were very uncooperative and large groups were pushing one another,” he said, adding that 45 minutes into the officers’ efforts to send everyone away someone fired a gun three or four times on the 2200 block of Shattuck. 

Rolleri said that nobody had been injured in the incident and that police had not been able to track down the person discharging the firearm. 

No one has yet reported any damage to property. 

Last October a similar incident forced Berkeley police to declare the Gaia Arts Center, located on the lower floors of the Gaia Building at 2120 Allston Way, a public nuisance after its owners failed to control the rowdy behavior of the guests, some of whom tried to crash the party by climbing through the windows of Anna’s Jazz Island, another first floor tenant in the building. 

The notice of nuisance which was posted at the door of the facility in October states that the city would impose a fine on the owners if a similar incident occurred within the next four months. 

The Gaia Building’s owner, Equity Residential—headed by real estate magnate and Tribune Co. proprietor Samuel Zell--has leased the Gaia Arts Center premises back to Berkeley developer Patrick Kennedy, who built the building and sold it to Equity in 2007. 

Calls to Kennedy at his real estate firm Panoramic Interests and to the Gaia Arts Center were not returned. 

At least three Berkeley residents have sued the city in the past for failing to impose the cultural mandates outlined in the Gaia Art Center’s use permit.  

The center’s website www.gaiaarts.com lists theatre and mezzanine space available for art exhibits, business meetings, conferences, concerts, private parties and weddings—all at rates ranging from $350 to $1,800—and notes that all events are required to be staffed by a Gaia Arts representative at all times. 

Anna de Leon of Anna’s Jazz Island, the other ground floor tenant in the building, said that she has repeatedly complained to the city that the arts center was unlawfully renting space out to churches, weddings and private parties. 

At a Zoning Adjustments Board meeting last year to determine whether the owners were violating a condition on their original permit requiring a certain amount of cultural activities in the arts center in exchange for higher density, zoning commissioners voted to give Equity Residential six more months to promote culture use in the space. 

Kennedy, and subsequently Equity’s lawyer Allen Matkins, have informed city officials that finding tenants who would use the space for cultural use has proved difficult in the past. 

De Leon told the Planet that Friday’s party had once again exceeded the expectations of its hosts—just like the one in October—and that college-aged people started “mobbing” outside the Gaia Building when they weren’t able to get in, forcing her to call the police around 9:15 p.m. 

“There were hundreds of young people all around, and I knew there was going to be a problem,” she said, adding that one of the party organizers told her that they were going to shut down the party early. “My customers were not able to get in.” 

De Leon said by the time the police arrived, the situation had turned pretty bad, prompting Berkeley police supervisor Sgt. Katherine Smith and several police officers to shut the party down. 

There were at least six to seven police cars on the scene, de Leon said, and part Shattuck Avenue had been closed down, making it difficult for anyone to access the neighborhood restaurants and bars. 

“After the streets were cleared, the police made everyone leave the party,” she said. “Then I heard gun shots on Shattuck and everyone ran back inside the Gaia Building. But the police told everyone that they couldn’t stay there and made them leave again, and told me to keep my customers inside.” 

De Leon said that the city’s and the owner’s failure to control these parties and the lack of a resolution about the building’s cultural use permit were unacceptable. 

“The city must like these parties—that’s why they approve them,” she said. “They’d rather have me move out of town, because that’s what I am thinking of doing.” 

Jorge Saldana, who owns Cancun restaurant on Allston Way next to the Gaia building, said that he too was frustrated with what he called the Gaia Arts Center’s poor management and lack of respect for its neighbors. 

“One of my managers called me last night around 8 p.m. and said that he was going to shut down the restaurant early because the party was going out of control,” he said. “He said that the people were looking aggressive and he didn’t know whether he should sell them alcohol. He was afraid they would turn violent or break in. So I told him to shut down the restaurant for security.” 

Saldana, who said Cancun usually stays open until 10:30 p.m. on weekends, closed the restaurant almost two hours early Friday. 

“I am very concerned that these parties are hurting my business,” he said. “I don’t know why they continue to be held. On top of that they are violent and close the streets. I am losing my customers.” 

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who represents the downtown district, said that he was sympathetic to the businesses being affected by these parties. 

“It’s ridiculous that another uncontrollable party is happening at a place that should not be holding them,” he said. “I feel bad that Cancun, Anna’s Jazz Island and other restaurants have to deal with so many people. Is that good for the city, for the downtown?—No.”