Page One

No More Youth Parties at Gaia Arts Center

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday February 18, 2009 - 06:56:00 PM

Berkeley developer Patrick Kennedy announced at the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board meeting last week that the Gaia Arts Center in downtown Berkeley will stop renting out space for youth events in light of a series of out-of-control parties there, with the most recent one leading to shots being fired in its aftermath three weeks ago. 

Kennedy, who leases the multi-level venue on 2120 Allston Way from real estate tycoon Sam Zell’s Equity Residential, told the zoning board that the space was rented out to the Oakland chapter of the national nonprofit, Jack and Jill of America, Inc., for the Jan. 30 party with the belief that it would be “tightly controlled in order to prevent any kind of overcrowding or other neighborhood nuisance.” 

The Gaia Arts Center was labeled a nuisance by the Berkeley Police Department last October after a rowdy post-football party resulted in young men and women trying to gatecrash the event, with crowds spilling out on the sidewalk and blocking streets, leaving the venue susceptible to a fine from the city in the event a similar incident occurred there in the next three months. 

As a result of the latest unruly party in January, Gaia’s owners will be fined $750 for violation of the notice, with the amount subject to increase if the incident gets repeated. Additionally, a new 120-day nuisance notice will be posted at the location, officials said. 

At last Thursday’s zoning meeting, Kennedy apologized for the inconvenience caused to local businesses when large groups of teenagers started to crowd the sidewalk and block the streets, forcing Cancun restaurant and Anna’s Jazz Island on Allston Way to close. 

“We thought they [Jack and Jill of America] were a valuable organization,” Kennedy told the board, adding that the event had been “purported to be a youth event where teens would gather for a dance.”  

Kennedy added that the situation was under control and that future events at Gaia Arts included a reggae performance and a blues and jazz benefit for the Berkeley Food and Housing Project’s homeless women and children on March 27, which he said would bring concerts at the facility tto an end for now. 

In a letter to Wendy Cosin, the city’s assistant principal planner, Kennedy and John Hyjer of Equity Residential said that in an effort to prevent another unruly party, Gaia’s owners had established several policies, including requiring a high chaperone ratio—one adult to 15 teens—as well as four hired security personnel who would assist with security. 

A flyer for the Jan. 30 party obtained by the Planet describes the event as a New Year’s fundraiser with a $15 entry fee, with music being provided by Russell’s DJ Co. and the dress code—“no white Ts or doo rags”—strictly enforced. 

It also mentions that only individuals who were between high school age and nineteen and were on the guest list would be allowed into the party with ID, that security would be present and that the doors would open at 7:30 p.m. and close by 9 p.m. 

The party, scheduled to end at midnight, was shut down by Berkeley police around 9 p.m. Officers started dispersing an uncooperative crowd, during which three shots were fired on the 2200 block of Shattuck Ave. 

Police reported about 300 teenagers inside the Gaia Arts Center, with at least 100 others trying to enter the party through the Gaia Building garage, climbing over a back fence and pushing their way through the front door.  

The admonition from the Berkeley police about the rowdy parties comes at a time when the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board is grappling with the question of whether Gaia’s owners are violating a condition in their use permit—which requires a certain amount of cultural activity in the arts center in exchange for higher density—by renting out space to churches, weddings and private parties. 

At a zoning meeting last September, the board gave Equity six months to hire a marketing firm to promote cultural use at Gaia Arts. 

Calls to Allen Matkins, Equity’s lawyers, for comment from company officials were not returned. 

Steve Ross, the city’s principal planner, said that the status of the Gaia Arts Center use permit would be returning to the zoning board in April or May for review of the marketing plan that is now under way.