As the city began cracking down on businesses without proper permits, one of the first venues to power down was Siberia, which announced in July the suspension of its extensive live music calendar, until it got right with the city.
Last month, the city announced a sort of compromise — as long as venues were applying and working with the city to establish proper entertainment permits, the venues can continue hosting live music on a temporary basis. The problem, however, is that despite the Band-Aid for live music (including bars depending on it for revenue, and the musicians depending on the revenue from the gig), no matter how far down the permit rabbit hole the venue reached, it still needs to comply with zoning — a famously difficult process to navigate. If a property isn't zoned for what the property owner wants, the zoning has to change. Siberia's current zoning does not allow live entertainment. Enter the City Planning Commission (CPC).
Today, more than a dozen supporters filled City Council chambers to back Siberia's request before the CPC to rezone the bar for live entertainment. "There has been a resurgence on St. Claude, and I'd like to keep that going," said owner Daphne Loney, who lives behind the bar.
"We need live music in this city more than anything," said Luke Allen of Happy Talk Band.
Other supporters included musician Ben Glover of Bipolaroid, Lost Love Lounge owner Nick Scramuzza, Bootleggers Bar & Grill Owner Matthew Hill, Sweet Home New Orleans director Sue Mobley, and Chris Rudge, who owns Bacchanal, which went through a similar process to restore music and dining at his Bywater business. "By having our jazz back, it did save our business," he said. "We're thriving."
Many supporters also have organized weekly to discuss how to change city ordinances relating to permits for live music, "noise," flyering and other cultural issues.
CPC recommended approval of the zoning change, but subject to 14 provisos, including installing wooden gates along its alleyways, limiting signage, ending music at 2 a.m., prohibiting "go" cups, providing 10 off-street parking spots (by forming agreements with neighboring businesses), and creating a trash abatement program, which Loney said the bar already has coordinated.
Siberia submitted nearly a dozen double-sided pages full of signatures of support for the zoning change.
CPC voted 6-0 in favor of Siberia's zoning request.
Also at today's meeting, Laura Campbell (aka Otter) requested a zoning change for Backyard Ballroom, the St. Claude venue that's been a regular theater performance space and Fringe Fest destination. The space, which Campbell runs adjacent to her home, opened in 2006 but went dark last year as Campbell shut the space down voluntarily to get in compliance with zoning.
CPC, however, said the requested zoning change "is beyond what would be suitable for the area." The CPC feared that the "too intense" zoning change from a neighborhood business district designation to a general commercial district designation would create too many opportunities to build out of scale with the neighborhood. The CPC suggested arts zoning overlays would be a "long-term solution," like the overlays on Frenchmen and Freret streets, but in the meantime, CPC members will seek a "more tailored designation" to fit the theater in its neighborhood. (CPC, generally, is not into "spot" zoning, which gives permission to a single parcel of land within a larger zone, rather than the entire zone.)
CPC agreed to defer the issue to next month's agenda to help find it a better zoning designation.
Like Siberia, dozens of meeting attendees spoke to support Campbell and Backyard Ballroom — Skin Horse Theater's Evan Spiegelman, who performed the title role in the acclaimed production of Hedwig & the Angry Inch at the theater, said "One thing desperately needed is affordable venues you can perform and work in."
"I don't see how anything gets done with the current zoning code," said Mary Ann Hammett, who serves on the Bywater Neighborhood Association's board of directors. Hammett questioned the CPC's "what if?" suggestion that, if the property fell out of Campbell's hands, the next property owner could then turn it into a larger, less desirable business.
"'What if' shouldn't be used as the basis for denying something like this," Hammett said.
The NOLA Project, AllWays Lounge, and several neighbors and performers submitted more than 60 letters of written support for the theater.