Permit problems

License to drive you crazy

Chicken John is an excitable guy. "I once tried to flip a cab over I was so angry," he relates via phone from the Odeon Bar.

Chicken John's eccentric ways are what initially made the Odeon such a grand place. After the former John Rinaldi bought the Lower Bernal Heights spot last June, he booked karaoke porn nights, puppet comedy routines, and strange bingo games. He offered Devo lounge bands, tutu-clad accordion players, bike rodeo riders, and circus freaks. While not every act was good, you couldn't argue with the concept of anything goes.

Unfortunately, the Odeon had problems with its neighbors from the start -- or rather one neighbor in particular, Harlan Hoffman. The 49-year-old architect, who owns the building next-door to the bar, began issuing a regular litany of complaints to John and his landlord. (The missives are reproduced verbatim on the venue's Web site, www.odeonbar.com.) John attempted to comply with the problems that came up, installing soundproofing, removing his pool table and jukebox, getting rid of the popular "Self-Service DJ" night, and ceasing to book loud bands. "We're down to accordions and comedians and some guy who answers questions about science," Chicken John says with exasperation. "Pretty soon we may have to have no applauding."

When asked if he would be glad if the Odeon just went away, Hoffman tells me, "I would prefer they realize their limitations ... that they respect people's feelings and lives."

The Odeon's main problem now is that the police say its Place of Entertainment license isn't in order. John believes he would be rejected if he reapplied -- a stipulation is that your neighbors have to agree to the permit -- so he's placed a petition on the Web site in which people can wax rhapsodic about the benefits of the Odeon. "My bar isn't successful; I don't make any money," he says. "It's a fucking public service."

Meanwhile, down Mission Street a bit, several other spaces are having problems. Following noise complaints, the cops discovered POE permit inadequacies with Bruno's nightclub and two watering holes, Baobab and the Beauty Bar. On April 26, the police cited all three venues: Baobab and the Beauty Bar stopped booking DJs immediately, while Bruno's continued hosting live bands until the cops returned on May 16. "In 3 1/2 years, we've never had any problems," says Beauty Bar manager Aaron Buhrz. "This is killing business."

Bruno's has been around even longer, hosting world-renowned jazz artists for close to a decade. But chef/partner Chris Pastena, who took over the restaurant and club seven months ago, is discovering how difficult the permit process can be. During a May 29 hearing with the city, Pastena was told he would have to reapply for the POE license -- even though the venue's been holding live shows for eight years. He's hoping to be back up and running in two weeks, although that may be optimistic.

The situation at Spanganga, the 19th Street performance space that hosts quirky shows similar to the Odeon's, is even more depressing. At a May 29 hearing, the Planning Commission blocked the business' application for a POE permit, citing the Mission District interim zoning controls instituted in 2001. Ironically, those controls were originally put in place to stop rapacious dot-com office development; now, one of the venues trying to undo the cultural damage of the Internet boom finds itself shut down (the Planning Commission won't get to Spanganga for at least four months).

Concerned by this rash of citations, I contacted Mission District Permit Officer Sandy Ganster to see if there had been a change in policy toward Mission nightclubs. "There's no change," she stated firmly. "Neighbors complain, so you have to go check permits." These nightspots aren't trying to fly below the city's radar; they all had -- or were told they had -- the proper permits.

Perhaps part of the problem stems from the fact that the people enforcing the permits are also handing them out. There may, however, be a solution in the offing. On May 13, Supes Mark Leno and Jake McGoldrick proposed a charter amendment that would create an entertainment commission to make policy and issue permits. (The amendment is currently being looked over by the Rules and Audits Committee.) Be forewarned, however: Morebureaucracy might be a dubious solution.

 
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