A topic of recent discussion at Planning Commission meetings and beyond, the scarcity of venues in Santa Clara where live music is performed has led to some head scratching, given that live music can be easily found in many Bay Area cities. Though there are likely many contributing factors to this, some confusion arose during recent Planning Commission meetings around the City’s live music regulations. This raises the question as to whether the regulations themselves have resulted in fewer entertainment options in Santa Clara.
According to Reena Brilliot, Planning Manager, the City’s current zoning code hasn’t been updated since 1969, which includes the code regulating live musical performances. She said that no issues around the live music regulations have been reported by staff, but that the topic has been brought up by Planning Commissioners.
Although the zoning code has been amended hundreds of times over the decades, it hasn’t undergone a comprehensive update until now. Planning staff are currently undertaking such an overhaul and will be presenting a draft update to City Council by summer’s end.
“Everything in the code is up for discussion, so this [live music] will likely be discussed,” said Andrew Crabtree, Director of Community Development. “There are three study sessions with City Council scheduled for August, September and October on the code update — so this topic could potentially come up.”
Brilliot explained that the current process for venues such as bars and restaurants to have live music requires a conditional use permit from Planning as well as an entertainment permit from the Police Department. Such permitting entitles an establishment to use the space for live music in an ongoing manner, and costs $9,931. There are also additional fees: a 15 percent General Plan fee and a two percent technology fee, which goes towards helping the City keep its technology infrastructure current.
Entirely distinct from the live music use permit, the Police Department can issue a one-day permit for amplified outdoor music such as for festivals and block parties.
One option for interested businesses is to apply for a “permit bundle” consisting of alcohol, music and outdoor seating all at once. This option is more economical as the alcohol use permit individually costs $5,000, but if bundled as a one-time fee, the applicant can pay just $9,931 for both. Conversely, if a business applies for an alcohol permit and then years later wants to add the live music permit, they’ll end up paying the $5,000 and then the $9,931 fee.
“We proactively ask applicants when they apply for one permit about the bundling option,” said Gloria Sciara, Development Review Officer.
“We’re trying to make things as efficient as possible for people,” Crabtree commented.
According to a statement from City staff, “The City does not actually have a use permit application on file for live entertainment, nor does staff know of anyone interested in applying for such a permit.”
However, subsequent to that statement, an application for a live music permit was included in an application for a hotel project at 2900 Lakeside Drive. In that case, because the live music request wasn’t included in the public notice for the project, the applicant had to either delay the entire project or apply again for live music in the future.
Sciara commented that the lack of interest in applying for live music permits isn’t because the permit fees pose financial obstacles but because the types of businesses coming into the City in recent years have been smaller, chain-type or strip mall establishments that don’t tend to be places where live music would be typically played.
Santa Clara: Mid-Size City and a Sleepy Town
Santa Clara’s entertainment repertoire, or lack thereof, has been brought up by the Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce, with members expressing support to encourage more venues to play live music.
“There is research to support an increased sense of community and positive economic impact that comes with creating places for people to gather,” offered Nick Kaspar, Chamber President/CEO.
“With the incredible diversity in Santa Clara,” continued Kaspar. “I believe we should promote and encourage cultural expression and there is no better way than through music. Imagine walking through the future revitalized downtown and sitting down at a wine bar with live Jazz, getting appetizers with classic rock, dinner with mariachi, and dancing to Bollywood music. In a night, one person can support local businesses, celebrate different cultures, and actively participate in the community without needing to get in a car.”
Planning Commission Chair, Sudhanshu Jain, has experienced first-hand the contrast between the sparseness of entertainment options in Santa Clara and the relative abundance in other Bay Area cities with smaller populations, and considers such entertainment access a priority for younger and single people.
“There’s nothing to do in Santa Clara…why?” Jain posed.
“My wife and I were in Petaluma last year and it seems that almost every restaurant had live music,” he said. “Petaluma is a wonderful place to vacation — Santa Clara is not.”
As Jain has sat on the Planning Commission over the past four years he and other commissioners have come across a condition of approval stating “no live or amplified music” on every application for restaurants and alcohol permits.
“It’s crazy to see that on every application,” he said. “It’s just an advisory to remind the applicant that they can’t have live music, and it’s still not allowed if the condition is lifted. We’ve shut down live music.”
This condition of approval recently came up at a Planning Commission meeting because a brewery had applied for an alcohol permit and Jain was particularly struck by this condition for no live music. The applicant had expressed interest in having live music, saying that their San Francisco location regularly has acoustic guitar performances. The commissioners ended up removing the prohibiting condition, but it turned out that the City’s code ordinance overrode their action and required that the applicant apply for a live music use permit.
“From my perspective we need to regulate behavior not put in these laws,” commented Jain. “If there are drunk people and the police are called then we take away the license. It should be ‘by right’ that venues have live music — no $10,000 fee — it should be automatic.”
Jain went on to suggest that the fees could be reversed, with the alcohol permit costing $10,000 and the music permit set at $5,000. “When a venue sells alcohol they’re going to make a lot more money — live music loses money unless there’s a cover charge,” he said. “Alcohol is what causes fights and problems, not music.”
Jain had spoken with a Santa Clara police officer who said that seven years ago there was a string of karaoke bars where gun trafficking was taking place and the police department started cracking down.
“Probably someone is running guns in the City anyway just not at these karaoke establishments — it’s not a reason to prevent a restaurant from having a jazz trio there,” Jain said. “The police are being too cautious by preempting any possibility that this might happen, and it makes the City less interesting to live in.”
The Police Department did not respond in time for press with a comment regarding criteria for issuance of entertainment permits.
Jain acknowledged that the public’s viewpoint on this topic runs a wide spectrum from those who want to maintain the prohibition to others who seek more outlets for leisure activities. However, having raised concern at recent meetings, he said that several residents have approached him recently thanking him for bringing the issue to light.
Since raising the issue at meetings, Jain said that staff have begun being more proactive about informing applicants about the live music regulations including the “permit bundle” option. However, he stated that he’s “not confident that they will continue to do so” and prefers that the zoning code be rewritten to loosen restrictions on live music.
“I want to make sure that the Police Department has a loud voice in this process,” Jain stated. “They could put certain parameters in place that would shut down the rogue establishments.”