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Critics Say Oakland's Entertainment Permit Process Too Arduous, Contributes to Unsafe Spaces Like Ghost Ship

After Ghost Ship, a renewed call to reform Oakland events permitting. San Francisco’s Entertainment Commission wants to help.

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In 2005, Gray Area was a small SOMA gallery and experimental music venue when former San Francisco Entertainment Commission President Terrance Alan paid a casual visit, and noticed some fire-safety deficiencies — namely, no exit signs.

But instead of fining the venue or shutting it down, Alan helped make it safe.

"He gave me a box of exit signs, and told me where to install them," recalled Gray Area founder and director Josette Melchor. Ever since, she said that she's applied that fire-safety knowledge any time she throws an event in a new space.

Today, Gray Area Foundation for the Arts is a prominent San Francisco nonprofit, with a renovated, 800 person capacity theatre in the Mission District. Following the Ghost Ship fire on December 2 — which claimed thirty-six lives during an underground electronic music event — Gray Area oversaw the largest fire-relief fund, with donations nearing $900,000.

Melchor says that after the Ghost Ship fire, she quickly heard from Entertainment Commissioner Jocelyn Kane and other San Francisco agencies who were concerned and wanted to know about ways to help the East Bay's arts community. They also wanted to explore whether Oakland's complicated permitting process might be driving artists underground and leading event organizers to unsafe spaces such as Ghost Ship.

To legally throw a party in Oakland, an organizer may have to visit multiple locations all over town. First, they might go the Special Events Unit, at the OPD's Eastmont Precinct, for paperwork, and then to the Special Activities Unit of the City Administrator's office for a separate amplified sound permit. And regardless of whether there will be alcohol at an event, there are criminal background checks and broad conditions for denial during the process.

The procedure for obtaining a cabaret permit, required of most regular entertainment venues in Oakland, is even more complicated — and, critics argue, outdated. The last time electeds revisited the system, back in 2010, Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan redefined "cabaret" to distinguish between dance clubs and, say, free acoustic performances in a café. At this time, the municipal code was so anachronistic it still contained Prohibition-era references. Which isn't to mention the abstruse building requirements for public assembly.

That was part of the trouble for 21 Grand, a nonprofit arts space that fought for years to be a legitimate venue for underground music. The organizers thought that, by keeping modest hours and not serving alcohol, the space did not meet Oakland's definition of "cabaret activity." The police disagreed. And when 21 Grand's former auto-garage attracted attention from the planning and zoning departments, organizer Sarah Lockhart recalled, the nonprofit's designation suddenly shifted from "community assembly" to "commercial group assembly." Combined with new requests from fire department, the volunteer-run organization faced as much as $250,000 in upgrades. 21 Grand closed in 2011.

Throughout the ordeal, Lockhart said she told city agencies that 21 Grand wished to come up to code, and serve as a model for compliance. "I argued that if they didn't work with us ... they would regret it, because 21 Grand closing would signal to other venues that they, too, were at risk, and that the city wasn't going to be sympathetic," she said. "I told the city that these shows are going to happen, even if you shut us down. They are just going to happen in places that will be harder to find, and will be less safe."

Kane said that the dysfunctional event permitting process in Oakland is so entrenched, "it would take political will of substance to change the dynamic, a sea change in the perception of entertainment to move it from nuisance to tool." She added that her office has reached out to Oakland to visit and explain how it does things differently.

Ghost Ship originally sparked conversations about affordability and substandard housing. But now, nightlife is also on the agenda. For instance, a feature of Schaaf's January 11 executive order called for a "Special Event Permits System Redesign group to implement process improvements to encourage greater compliance with permitting requirements[.]"

That idea pleased Pascal Pincosy, of We the Artists of the Bay Area, an advocacy group formed in the wake of the fire by people associated with industrial arts and the tech industry. Pincosy cited as a model the Late Night Coalition, which brought together San Francisco party promoters, and presaged the 2002 formation of the Entertainment Commission.

The commission has critics of its own. The organization, staffed mostly by former and current industry workers, has been accused of conflicts of interest. For example, commissioner Audrey Joseph, who recently stepped down after thirteen years, earned a salary from The Armory at the same time that the Mission District venue was hosting unpermitted EDM events. The Armory successfully sought a Place of Entertainment permit despite neighborhood pushback last year.

Pincosy said that, despite these problems, music-community stakeholders must be involved in the process. "Otherwise it drives these things underground. That's how Ghost Ship happened," he said.

Calls to reform Oakland events permitting are nothing new. The Oakland Police Department has been directly in charge of entertainment permits in the city for years. "I'd really like to see control of events permits taken out of the hands of the Oakland Police Department," Pincosy argued.

In the past decade, for instance, the Express has reported on various problems with OPD running the program. In one case, OPD charged Geoffrey's Inner Circle thousands of dollars a month in police-overtime fees and, when owner Geoffrey Pete refused to pay, seemed to fabricate a story about a shooting associated with the storied nightclub.

Pete's comment to this paper in 2011 sounds familiar. "I would like to see an entertainment commissioner paid for by the city, independent of OPD, that oversees a board that consists of cabaret owners, Oakland Police Department, and members of the community."

To this day, promoters say that police pressure venues and operators to use off-duty cops as security. And promoters in recent years have complained that the department regularly intervenes in hip-hop lineups on the grounds of public safety.

"We do things very differently here," said Kane, noting that San Francisco's Entertainment Commission formed following promoters' similar frustrations with the San Francisco Police Department.

Kane also said that compassionate regulation doesn't mean bringing the underground to light completely. "We don't have zero underground [venues], and I wouldn't want that," she said. "Healthy nightlife includes underground and above-ground" spaces.

As for former commissioner Alan proactively outfitting Gray Area with fire-safety gear years ago, Kane wasn't surprised: "He did that because he came from the underground dance scene."

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