Singing the blues over dance regs

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As city officials try to wrap their arms around a proposed
ordinance for Gilroy’s dance venues, some business owners are
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Today’s breaking news:
As city officials try to wrap their arms around a proposed ordinance for Gilroy’s dance venues, some business owners are cutting in.

They’re calling the regulations crafted by a city dancing task force unfair to new and future nightlife spots that could pay the price for more than a decade of past problems.

The updated regulations, which would require new businesses to shut down at 1 a.m. – an hour earlier than their counterparts – and force all dance floor plans to be approved by city staff – could hinder the success of local clubs and muddle downtown’s comeback efforts, some business owners argue.

Others, however, say the ordinance isn’t a punishment at all but a way to strike a balance between a free-for-all and banning dancing altogether.

“Am I missing something here? Is this city from Mars?” downtown property owner Diane Cusimano said in reaction to the proposed restrictions. “What I care about is, our downtown is dead. In order to bring it back, we need a live, hustling, bustling, entertainment, restaurant downtown.”

Cusimano plans to open a 14,000 square-foot restaurant and bar – with dancing – in the old Strand Theatre building on Monterey Road as soon as October.

“Let’s go out, let’s have a nice dinner, let’s listen to music, let’s dance a little, let’s just relax. And why shouldn’t we be able to do that in our own neighborhood and in one place? Right now, people leave the city of Gilroy and do it in other cities,” she said.

The city recommended task force – comprised of City Community Development Director Kristi Abrams, City Councilwoman Cat Tucker, local developer Gary Walton, Downtown Business Association President Eric Howard and GPD Sgt. Kurt Ashley – proposed the ordinance following years of high-profile violent incidents, including a fatal 2008 stabbing at the Rio Nilo night club, what city officials deemed “near riots” at the now-defunct Gaslighter night club in 2004 and other incidents in the 1990s.

In November 2005, the City Council adopted a Downtown Specific Plan that barred dance halls in the downtown’s historic district – Monterey Road between Third and Ninth Streets – and required businesses where dancing was allowed to secure special permits with the city.

The ordinance, which won’t be introduced until October at the earliest, according to City Community Development Director Kristi Abrams, would require all businesses that want to offer dancing but opened after November 2005 to close by 1 a.m., an hour earlier than current, established locations. The regulations also restrict sizes of dance floors to no more than 440 square feet or 25 percent of public access areas – whichever is smaller – for “medium” size venues, which can accommodate up to 74 dancers. Anything bigger would constitute a “large” venue, which is not allowed on First through Tenth streets on Monterey Road, but would be OK for the north and south fringes of what’s considered the downtown area.

There are currently 14 locations that have dance permits on file with the city, according to Sgt. Chad Gallacinao of the Gilroy Police Department. Three of them – live entertainment club 9Lives, Lizarran Tapas Restaurant and Cusimano’s new place – won’t be grandfathered in.

The earlier closing time is meant to stagger nightclub exits to give police and security officers less of a crowd to handle on late nights, but Cusimano said the city could miss out by saying an early goodnight to newer establishments.

“Why, why, why does that make sense?” said Cusimano, who’s worked in the food and beverage service and nightlife realms for the last 25 years. “Why would the city say, ‘You’ve got to close at 1 o’clock? Do they not want that extra revenue from that last hour?”

At D. Tequila Lounge and Restaurant, a Redwood City joint Cusimano also owns, 50 to 75 percent of customers tend to order food around 1 a.m., she said.

“It works. It’s more revenue,” she said. “We want to have a profitable business. And the way you do that is having the most amount of hours of the day bringing in revenue.”

The regulations also would allow for “occasional, spontaneous dancing,” but make no determination as to when a few casual moves cross over into permit-worthy boogying. At least one recurring downtown event has already highlighted this gray area.

Organizers for the weekly summer music series Fifth Street Live – which has the OK as a concert event, not a dance event – would need additional city approval before promoting the two-hour shindigs as place to dance, according to Abrams.

“With that said, if a few people got up and spontaneously danced to a song or two the police would not stop the event nor would the city consider the event to be in violation of their special event permit,” she wrote in an email.

Finding that balance will be a difficult task. City Councilman and lifelong Gilroyan Perry Woodward was surprised to hear the ordinance would require newer spots to close an hour early.

“That seems odd. I don’t understand that. That’s not how we traditionally have done things,” he said.

Woodward, however, maintained his support for a new ordinance, saying at its heart, it was about safety.

“Large-venue dancing has historically created problems that were difficult for the GPD to handle,” Woodward said. “It’s not about keeping people from dancing, it’s about keeping folks safe and not overwhelming downtown or the police department.”

Woodward disagreed that business owners were being disciplined by the new regulations. The new rules are necessary to prevent violent flare-ups that marred downtown in years past, he said. When asked about concerns that the restrictions were “unfair” to new businesses, Woodward said, “I’m not sympathetic to that problem.”

“It’s not a matter of punishing anyone. It’s a matter of maintaining a safe environment downtown,” he said. “The city made a mistake of being a little too liberal at one time.”

Fellow Councilman Dion Bracco said developing a dancing ordinance was “kind of pointless,” adding he didn’t think downtown has had as many problems as some might think.

Regarding the 1 a.m. closures for new locations, Bracco said, “I don’t agree with that either. I don’t think we should do anything that hampers one business and not another. That’s not equal. That’s not fair.”

Any ordinance that is passed should not cause downtown business owners to feel restricted, he said.

Jorge Briones, owner of 9Lives, however, said that’s just how he’s feeling.

“It’s frustrating. You’re handcuffed to a certain extent as a newer business, yet someone else can do whatever,” said Briones, whose club opened this past New Year’s Eve in the same Monterey Road venue that once housed the Gaslighter, which drew the ire of the Gilroy Police Department and helped usher in talks of prohibiting dancing.

Past issues at the Gaslighter – as well as clubs still in operation – shouldn’t punish newer business owners who are trying to revitalize the area and cater to a more subdued clientele than seen in years past, Briones said.

“We’re dealing a perception with downtown as a whole,” he said, referring to an ongoing debate over whether the area is safe and inviting. “It’s just one more thing that makes it challenging for a business being successful.”

Walton, owner of Lizarran, said he had no clue that ideas shot around during the task force’s brainstorming sessions were sent straight to the City Council for review. And that was before businesses affected by the ordinance were consulted, Walton said.

“I didn’t know that they were doing it (reviewing an ordinance). I still have a problem with not talking directly to the operators,” said Walton, who is Briones’ landlord at 9Lives. “I thought it was a work in progress and all of a sudden it’s a done deal.”

Walton echoed his tenant’s concerns that businesses with longer histories – some of them violent – wouldn’t have to adhere to new rules.

“Look at the other establishments, and they’ve gotten a number of calls and they don’t have to change anything,” Walton said. “More regulation does not necessarily improve a situation. I’d rather have fewer regulations but be able to tighten restrictions and punish business owners who aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

“The city should have the right to say, ‘You know what, this is what we’re going to require you to do, and if you don’t do it, we’re not going to renew your business license.’ That’s the way it works.”

Walton pointed to allowing small- and medium-sized dancing venues within downtown’s core as one positive aspect of the proposed guidelines.

The Council last discussed the proposed ordinance at a June 6 meeting, during which Bracco asked, “Now we’re going to sick the dance police on people?”

Councilman Peter Arellano questioned whether more regulations were the answer, saying, “Are you sure you want a downtown or a cemetery?”

The Council voted 6-1, with Arellano the lone opposed, to receive city staff’s report and work with city attorneys Linda Callon and Andy Faber to further refine the ordinance.

Abrams said copies of the ordinance draft were sent last week to five organizations seeking comments by Sept. 15, including the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Business Association, Economic Development Corporation, Government Relations Committee and Visitors Bureau.

The Council is expected to re-address the dancing issue in October, Abrams said.

Cusimano said her restaurant will work with city officials to provide downtown visitors with as much entertainment as possible.

“Don’t tie our hands behind our backs. Don’t judge us by what happened in the past,” Cusimano said. “Let us come in and show you we can help you build a vibrant downtown. This is what our downtown needs.”

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