Below is a photograph of a charming new downtown bar called the Layover.
I love the Layover. It’s been great to watch downtown transform over the past several years, and have all this wonderful new nightlife. But it has always bothered me a little bit that every new place that opens is so fancy. Penelope is very nice, and their spicy cocktails are delicious, but I’ve always just felt more comfortable hanging out somewhere a little more low key. The Layover is exactly the type of place I’ve been wishing would open downtown for years, and if you haven’t been yet, I strongly encourage you to go check it out. (It’s at 15th and Franklin. There is also a very flattering article in today’s Trib about it.)
Anyway, the reason I mention the Layover not just because I love it, but because this picture I snapped last night provides a nice example of a very common style of bar these days, where a DJ provides background music, but there is no dance floor.
This sort of bar currently exists in a legal grey area. The issue is whether or not such an establishment should be required to obtain a cabaret license if they are going to have DJs. Some do, others don’t. Some apply for one, only to find themselves sucked into an expensive and seemingly endless bureaucratic nightmare. Others send the City letters quoting the code governing cabarets and arguing that they should be exempt, and just cross their fingers that nobody will try to bother them about it. Others are simply told straight up by the City that they don’t need one. Still others do nothing and hope to fly under the radar. (I have not asked the owners of the Layover what route they choose, so I don’t know if they have a cabaret license or not, although I don’t remember seeing anything about a hearing.)
For the most part, the City has agreed that if all you’re doing is letting DJs play background music without a dance floor, then you don’t need a cabaret license. After all, the City already has regulatory power over bars through permitting alcohol sales, so there’s really no need to add another layer of hassle. But as we all know, the City can be infuriatingly inconsistent, and every so often, the fun police will do a little run around town issuing warnings (and sometimes tickets) to such businesses for acting as an unlicensed cabaret. (In one case last year, a bartender was threatened with a cabaret ticket after an office saw him changing a CD behind the bar.)
DJ bars are not the only type of business unfairly impacted by the City’s confusing cabaret law. Coffee shops that want to offer low key live entertainment may also find themselves subject to the annoying and expensive cabaret permitting process. Requiring a cabaret permit for any live music leads to ridiculous situations like the one Piedmont Avenue’s Caffe Trieste found themselves in a few years ago, where they wanted to have people occasionally sing opera music, but didn’t qualify for a permit because they were located too close to the library. The situation was eventually resolved by an amendment to the law (PDF) that allows the City Administrator’s office to overrule the 300 feet from a school or library requirement at their discretion, but the underlying absurdity of the law remained unchanged.
Anyway, the good news is that the City Council is finally talking about cabaret reform. A revision to the cabaret ordinance (PDF) proposed by Councilmembers Nancy Nadel and Rebecca Kaplan will be discussed by the Council’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday. The bad news is that the proposed reforms are stupid.
Here is our current definition of a cabaret:
A cabaret shall be construed to include any place where the general public is admitted where entertainment is furnished by or for any patron or guest present upon the premises including but not limited to singing vaudeville and dancing and where liquid refreshments or foods are sold, provided however that any place where entertainment is furnished by the mechanical or electronic reproduction or pre-recorded music or radio broadcasts or by motion picture shall not be construed to be a cabaret within the meaning of this section unless dancing privileges are afforded in connection therewith.
Clearly, the law is antiquated. You might think that now that we’re finally getting around to revising the ordinance, it might be a good opportunity to strike references to, oh, I don’t know, vaudeville from our municipal code. As if.
What is need is a fairly simple revision of the law to clarify what is and what is not a cabaret. Special cabaret restrictions and regulation makes sense for the City, since the large crowds generated by live entertainment can lead to special problems. The easiest way to address the inconsistent enforcement of cabaret rules would to amend the definition so that it only applies to large venues with dance floors or amplified live music.
Nadel and Kaplan’s recommendation is twofold. One, that businesses with an occupancy rate of 50 people or fewer and whose primary zoning is not “entertainment,” will not have to get a cabaret permit. That part makes sense.
The second half doesn’t. Instead, these businesses will now have to obtain something called a “small cabaret exemption.” The proposed cost to apply for the exemption is $600, with an annual $250 renewal fee.
So basically, this proposal takes a group of businesses that were not required to get a cabaret license under most interpretations of existing law, and imposes on them a brand new regulation and annual cost. The staff report estimates that between 50 and 100 businesses would be forced to apply for the new “exemption.”
Cabaret reform should be an opportunity to make it easier for nightlife businesses to operate. Instead, we are talking about making it even more difficult. I just don’t get it. The Council is always talking about how they want to make Oakland more friendly to small businesses. Any small business owner will tell you that the best thing the City can do to make life better for them is to just leave them alone. I doubt you could find a single one willing to say that the City can help them by demanding a couple hundred extra dollars per year.
Will the Public Safety Committee care? I don’t know, probably not. After all, the last time cabaret licenses came up, when there was a proposal to double the permit fee from $300 to $600, Committee member Jean Quan’s response was:
They can afford it. Cabarets make a lot of money.
The Public Safety Committee meets at 4 PM on Tuesday (PDF). At the same time, they will discuss a proposal to allow certain cabarets to obtain permits that would allow them to stay open past two (read about it in the Oakbook). That idea also came up a few years ago, and back then, the Committee wasn’t having it. Jean Quan said then that she would rather see the law changed to force them to close earlier. Sigh.