Zoning Board Postpones Gaia Permit Review to Allow Negotiations with Marsh Theater

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday April 10, 2009 - 04:59:00 PM

The Berkeley Zoning Adjustments 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 amount of cultural activities take place at 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 Kennedy, who rents out Gaia Arts for various events, including weddings, bar mitzvahs and parties, which some argue abuses 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 are 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 infeasible to lease.” 

A company must have an annual budget of $300,000 to rent Gaia on a permanent basis, the report says, 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.” 

The Marsh Theater has held performances at the Gaia Building in the past. Theater officials did not return calls for comment Monday. 

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.