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Gaia Building Permit Review Postponed; Building’s Owners Given Month to Negotiate with Marsh Theater

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday April 16, 2009 - 07:15:00 PM
The Gaia Arts Center has been the subject of controversy following a few rowdy parties which drew police to the scene.
Richard Brenneman
The Gaia Arts Center has been the subject of controversy following a few rowdy parties which drew police to the scene.

The Berkeley Zoning Adjust-ments Board last week postponed discussion on whether the Gaia Building was adhering to its use permit, in order to give its owners, Equity Residential, a month to negotiate leasing terms with the Marsh Theater. The zoning board will resume the discussion May 14.  

Gaia’s permit mandates that a certain proportion of cultural activities take place at the building’s ground-floor Gaia Arts Center in return for two more stories above what the city’s zoning law normally allows.  

Originally, the Gaia Bookstore was set to move into the 10,000-square-foot space, but the store went out of business before construction was completed in 2004.  

Later attempts to find suitable cultural use for the space were unsuccessful.  

In 2007, Equity bought the Gaia Building from local real estate developer Patrick Ken-nedy, who retained a lease under which his company, Panoramic Interests, has rented out Gaia Arts for various events, including weddings, bar mitzvahs, parties and church services, which some argue abuse the “cultural use” requirement.  

Last fall, the Zoning Board agreed, under a request from Equity, to give the landlords six months to hire a consulting firm to prepare and implement a marketing plan for Gaia Arts.  

Berkeley Deputy Planner Wendy Cosin did not elaborate on the report at the meeting because the board voted to continue the discussion.  

Prepared by management consultant Niloofar Nouri, the report compares Gaia Arts with similar venues in the Bay Area and evaluates the amount of space potential tenants would require. The report is based on 19 interviews, informal conversations, an online survey, and site visits and tours.  

Nouri represented Kennedy in the redevelopment of the former Act I & II Theater on Center Street, a project approved by the Zoning Board last year.  

The Daily Planet was unable to reach Nouri for comment before press time.  

In her report, Nouri says that many Bay Area cultural organizations and theater groups are clueless about the Gaia Building’s existence and misinformed about its history.  

She adds that, despite the high concentration of cultural nonprofit organizations in the Bay Area, most are seeking smaller mixed-use office and rehearsal space.  

“In the case of the rare theater companies whose performances have limited cast and set requirements,” the report states, “the economics of the space make it unfeasible to lease.”  

A company must have an annual budget of $300,000 to rent Gaia on a permanent basis at current rents, the report points out, and organizations with similar budgets already have dedicated theater spaces and are committed to stay there, based on arrangements for city subsidies and a strong relationship with their audience.  

The report also talks about the current economic crisis, which has made it difficult for the creative and performing arts to flourish and receive grants and endowments.  

Average monthly expenses for Gaia Arts come to $18,881, which includes $7,500 in rent and around $10,000 in part-time staff.  

The report recommends extensive outreach to Bay Area cultural nonprofits likely to rent the space or revising the use permit to include mixed-use office and rehearsal space instead of a performance-event space.  

Another option, the report says, would be to lease the space, as well as that occupied by Anna’s Jazz Island, another ground-floor tenant at Gaia Arts, to the same tenant, which it suggests would settle disputes arising from noise and other issues.  

Cosin also informed the board about two out-of-control teen parties that took place at Gaia Arts in the last six months, one of which ended with gunshots.  

Both events attracted between 250 and 300 people, she said, and resulted in police action and neighboring businesses closing early to avoid unruly crowds.  

Cosin told the board that Kennedy had agreed not to hold any more teen dance or music events at the venue.  

“We don’t see any imminent problems,” she said. “If a theater company takes over, then these problems are unlikely to happen.”  

In the past, Cosin said, the city has closed down businesses due to rowdy behavior.  

Berkeley’s municipal code allows the Zoning Board to hold a public hearing for an abatement procedure that would give city officials more control over out-of-control parties at the Gaia Building.  

Board Member Terry Doran said that it would be premature to have a discussion on “nuisance abatement” without finding out how the negotiations with the Marsh Theater went. 

The Marsh Theater has held performances at the Gaia Building in the past. 

“We would love to come back,” said Stephanie Weisman, the theater’s founder and artistic director. “But there are some issues we still have to work on. We have to see if it’s financially viable for us.” 

Weisman said the theater had occupied the Gaia Arts Center all through 2006 and the first half of 2007, when the building was still owned by Kennedy. The Marsh subleased the space from a catering company at that time. A colleague of Weisman’s who knew Anna de Leon of Anna’s Jazz Island, had alerted her about the venue.  

“We were able to perform on weekends at first, and that was great,” she said. “But then we moved to weekdays, only because the caterers needed the space.” 

Weisman said the Marsh had to move out of Gaia Arts in 2007 after being told that the “catering company was not leasing anymore.” 

“We were told that things were up in the air,” she said. 

Weisman said, if the Marsh succeeded in finalizing the deal with Gaia Arts, then the focus would be on re-creating the old experience. 

“In time we’ll need to put in risers and things like that, but that’s all still to be determined,” she said.