Slammed by permit requirements, Oakland arts space 21 Grand fights for life
on October 18, 2010
The signature teal color of an old-school iMac stood out among a hodgepodge of items. There was a Sierra Nevada box filled with torn packaging envelopes, complete with stamps and postmarked dates. The one-man crew of 21 Grand—a downtown Oakland gallery and performance space—was purging everything that had accumulated in storage for the last decade, but the venue’s “emergency rummage sale” a couple of weeks ago wasn’t just an effort to collect a few bucks. It was to make the month’s rent.
Since June 2000, when it first opened at the Grand Avenue address that inspired its name, 21 Grand has been hosting live performances, book readings, and workshops, as well as giving local artists a platform to showcase their work. But early last month, 21 Grand director Darren Jenkins received a “cease and desist cabaret activity” letter from the City of Oakland. That means no more live performances until the city approves the space for a cabaret permit, which requires the building to undergo renovations to meet building and fire safety codes.
So the live performances stopped. The revenue—which had only been enough to cover each month’s expenses—plunged three-quarters, because 21 Grand’s livelihood came almost exclusively from people paying the performance door fees, $5 to $10, according to what 21 Grand called a “pay-what-you-can sliding scale basis, with no one turned away for lack of funds.”
And that’s how Jenkins found himself holding the 21 Grand rummage sale. “What they’re saying is ‘You need to do this many things to the physical property of the building—and at the same time, you can’t have any income,’” said Jenkins, whose title is “executive director,” though he makes no salary (and never has), and functions more as the venue’s one and only fulltime volunteer after the previous director stepped down this past summer.
Even though he hasn’t been ordered to close the business altogether, Jenkins said, the permit order amounts to the same thing—and if 21Grand shuts down, he said, it will be the city’s loss. “For a lot of people in the arts, for people interested in the avant-garde or out of the ordinary, we’ve been a fixture in Oakland,” Jenkins said. “It’s been about the art that we present and about that community of artists that we’ve worked with. And I could go down the list of so many things that are around now, that weren’t there when we started.”
Jenkins said 21 Grand has been vital in carving out the current Oakland art scene. For the last decade, the venue has worked to present broad-range and experimental music and art to a community that never had that kind of creative outlet. At the original location, they hosted jazz musician Damon Smith and percussionist Moe! Staiano. After two years, when a larger location on 23rd Street became home to the nonprofit, performers included Technomania Circus and musician and songwriter Jason Webley. Then that building was sold to developers and torn down to make way for luxury condos, so it was time for another move. At the current venue, which has been 21 Grand’s home for nearly five years, they’ve exposed the community to French experimental guitarist Richard Pinhas, and composer and instrumentalist Weasel Walter.
The performance space, which also serves as an art gallery, was one of the founding organizations of Art Murmur, the monthly downtown Oakland art event on the first Friday of each month. Jenkins also said 21 Grand has provided artists and performers an ideal venue because “their [the artists] standard milieu is alternative and warehouse spaces, which are more underground, more illegal, less fire-safe.”
Arturo Sanchez, an assistant to the city administration, said that what recently spurred the city to realize that 21 Grand did not have the proper permits was a police department notification that the performance space appeared to be hosting events considered “cabaret activity.” As police investigated the issue, they determined that 21 Grand had never received cabaret clearance by the city.
The Oakland municipal code definition of a cabaret is this: “Any place where the general public is admitted, for a fee, entertainment is provided, and alcohol is served.” And even a place that does not charge admission “shall also be construed as a cabaret,” the code says, if it admits the general public, serves alcohol, allows dancing, and operates past midnight.
Jenkins objects and said that extending this definition to 21 Grand doesn’t seem fair. He says the venue, for example, has never served alcohol. The cabaret permit costs $750 per year, for venues that regularly attract more than 50 people, as 21 Grand does. Obtaining one requires filing an application with the Office of the City Administrator, and providing “proof of fire inspection, health inspection and permit, business tax license, ABC license and conditions, and zoning clearance.” Then the application goes to the Chief of Police. That requires another investigation, review and recommendation for the permit.
And passing all those necessary inspections, at 21 Grand’s current address, would require building modifications costing more than $100,000. “All said and told, the lowball estimate is $120,000 on a building we don’t own—on a lease that’s just about to be up,” Jenkins said. The lease, already on a one-year extension, is up for renewal next February. “And at the same time, having to find creative ways to make income outside of that,” he said, “because the major source of income we had is not there.”
When asked why building renovations aren’t the landlord’s responsibility, Jenkins said the law makes no requirements of the landlord in this case. The fire safety codes Jenkins must meet are contingent on how he as the business director chooses to use his rented space in the building—in this case, as a performance venue where crowds will be present. The landlord, because he is not making these decisions about the tenants’ use of his building, is not obliged to make renovations that would earn 21 Grand its cabaret permit.
“The issue here is safety,” said the city’s Arturo Sanchez. “We want all businesses in the city of Oakland to comply with the law. It’s for the safety of the patrons, employees and the owners.”
But Jenkins counters that it’s unfair to single out 21 Grand for fire safety hazards when other nearby businesses are allowed to operate with hazards of their own. “We’re seeing a lot of people being granted ABC [Alcohol Beverage Control] license to operate bars without all the proper security they need, but hey, that’s on the books—that’s fine,” he said. “I’m talking to people who actually live on this block who take issue with that, but don’t take issue with us. We have a pretty well-behaved audience, because they’re coming here for a specific thing. We’re not going to get people brawling in the street.”
Jenkins also said that starting in 2008 he spent a year researching how the building could meet fire codes, but that the response was not what he expected. He said he initiated visits with the city, had inspections from different city departments, hired a structural engineer to perform an assessment of the building, met with the Fire Marshall and someone from the City Administrator’s Office, and applied for special event permits for performances.
He said the fire inspector, Kim Catano, took nearly a month to deliver reports of what was required, even though he regularly called and e-mailed her. Then she finally responded—only to tell him “cited passages that you can find online,” he said.
Catano did not return repeated phone calls asking for comments about the inspection.
Jenkins said he was not willing to make renovations if there was a possibility they wouldn’t pass fire and building inspections. Because fire and building codes had just changed, he said, “there was postulation about different measures that could be taken to mitigate some requirements, but no official determination. After nearly a year of intensive concentration, we’d hoped for better responses than that.” It was early 2009 and he decided it would not be reasonable to make renovations when the lease was up at the end of the year. At that time they had not yet extended the lease.
The financial burden with no guaranteed return was not an option. Now with even less revenue, there’s nothing Jenkins can do.
Jenkins said the only revenue-generating activities he can now hold are workshops for a nominal number of people or use of the venue as a rehearsal space. Neither can generate the income necessary to break even at the end of the month.
That leaves Jenkins with only a few options. Relocation is one, but that costs money too. He could take a hiatus, but even then he would face the same permit issues at any other location in the future. The last option, and the most likely one, is closing down. The only question is how soon. Jenkins’ guess is that 21 Grand could be gone before the end of the year.
Already behind about $500 with the September rent, Jenkins is exhausting his options in finding new sources of funding. Before his rummage sale, he sorted for eight hours through the venue’s storage unit, trying to salvage anything that might get him closer to paying the $3,500 in monthly bills. That figure includes the major cost of operations of rent, insurance and utilities.
“They’re [the city] not offering a way out for us,” said Jenkins. “We’ve seen a lot of transitions in the kind of cultural landscape that Oakland is. We were kind of a lone outpost at one point; there wasn’t anything else going on. They [city officials] don’t care if we exist or not.”
Oakland resident Felicity O’Meara, who has supported the venue since the first time she attended a performance a few years ago, went to the rummage sale and said she was baffled by the situation. “The city should be nurturing cultural places like this, and I think it’s a big mistake,” she said. “I think they should cease and desist with their harassment of well-run, really important cultural venues like this.” Though she didn’t find anything interesting enough to purchase, she chatted with Jenkins and one of the handful of people who showed up during the first hour of the sale.
Jenkins sat on a white metal folding chair in one corner of the gallery, remnants from the lackluster rummage sale still stacked on tables and on the floor. “I hope it does live on past this,” he said. “It’s always been about creating an asset for the community. If it seems like that need isn’t there anymore, then we should go away, but I don’t think that need is gone yet. I don’t think anybody else is fulfilling this niche.”
A rummage sale shopper approached Jenkins with a few cords salvaged from a box containing a tangled pile of even more cords, which Jenkins admitted may not even work. Jenkins gazed at them. “Would you laugh at me if I said $2?” he asked.
The man reached into his pocket. Apparently he was a 21 Grand fan. “I wouldn’t laugh at you,” he said. “But I’ll give you $20. See you soon.”
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