Santa Clara mulls zoning overhaul that may draw live music
Santa Clara Planning Commissioner Suds Jain stands in front of Barebottle Brewery, which has gotten pushback on its request to play live music. Photo by Janice Bitters.

Santa Clara’s nightlife has been stunted because of red tape, costly regulations and outdated policies, some leaders say, but now they’re trying to change that.

Mike Seitz would love to have live music at the planned Barebottle Brewery in Santa Clara, just like at the company’s San Francisco taproom, but he and his business partners have gotten mixed messages about how to make that happen in Santa Clara, so he’s had to scrap plans for live entertainment for now.

“We don’t know if there’s this unbelievably high unmet demand for consumers to have live music in our venue,” said Seitz, the brewery’s co-owner. “But I can say that … on some slow nights when we could’ve had a musician and we could have supported that musician by paying them to come in, it’s an opportunity cost for those musicians and it’s also it’s an outage for us.”

Longtime Santa Clara resident and planning commissioner Suds Jain says he worries Barebottle’s situation is happening in Santa Clara more than anyone knows. He’s urged city planners to be more proactive about explaining to businesses how to get live music permits. At the same time, Jain is also pushing for an overhaul of the city’s current rules around live music, which he says are overly restrictive, costly and have helped earn the city a reputation for having a sleepy nightlife.

“People don’t really come to Santa Clara to vacation; they come here for business or they come here for a game or a concert at the stadium, but there’s basically nothing to do in Santa Clara,” he said. “I would like for residents to spend their entertainment dollars here in the city.”

Mayor Lisa Gillmor, whose family has lived in Santa Clara for three generations, has lamented the same concerns.

“I have three children. One of them is getting ready to enter the job market and two are on their way and I think the option of them staying and living and working here in Santa Clara was pretty low,” she told reporters in an interview last month, though she noted she was optimistic the city’s planned growth could turn that around.

But the timing of Jain’s push for change is apt.

City planners are, for the first time in 50 years, working on a comprehensive overhaul of the city’s zoning code, which may include changing the rules around live music, according to Andrew Crabtree, the city’s director of community development. By the end of the summer or in early fall, the Planning Commission and City Council will debate the new code during study sessions. City Council members are expected to take a final vote on the new zoning code in January.

Jain hopes many of the costs and restrictions around live music for bars and restaurants will be lifted when the final version comes up for approval.

“What I would like to see is that if you’re a restaurant and you’re not going to charge a cover, then you should by-right be allowed to have music,” he said. “This should be automatic.”

Santa Clara’s zoning code today doesn’t allow for businesses to host live music without a permit in most parts of the city. Businesses can apply for a permit, which requires special review and about $11,600, including fees and taxes. Since 1999, about 25 businesses in Santa Clara have been granted such permits, according to Gloria Sciara, the city’s development review officer.

By comparison, in neighboring San Jose, new businesses offering public entertainment pay a $1,700 fee for a four-year permit, according to documents requested by San José Spotlight. In San Francisco, Seitz remembers the process for getting a live music permit for the first Barebottle Brewery location as simple, and requiring “a few hundred dollars.” Indeed, a recent look at San Francisco’s fees for a “limited live performance permit,” which is for businesses where live music isn’t the main draw, sits around $650 for an initial application and permit.

Though it’s common for cities to require entertainment permits, Santa Clara’s current costs may be prohibitively high for retail and restaurant business owners, including Barebottle Brewery, Seitz said.

“It’s not like we throw Taylor Swift concerts,” he said. “In order to pay out a $10,000 investment, how many beers would we need to sell incrementally to like make that happen? That sounds like a crazy calculation.”

But a change in the zoning code, like what Jain is pushing for, could alleviate that issue. And what goes into the zoning code will be key to the city’s growth as it sits on the precipice of a new era for the South Bay city.

In recent years, Santa Clara has become the landing pad for several major tech companies, including several that have leased big swaths of space at Santa Clara Square, near where Barebottle will open its doors. The city this year also secured a long-term future for its mainstay amusement park, Great America, by selling the land under the theme park to Cedar Fair Amusement Parks, which owns the park on top of the land. Finally, New York-based developer The Related Cos. is set to break ground on the largest development currently proposed in Silicon Valley: a 9.2 million-square-foot multi phased, mixed-use project next to the Santa Clara Convention Center.

“We recognize live entertainment is a really great opportunity for placemaking, and in all of these plans, that’s the topic that everyone’s interested in,” Reena Brilliot, Santa Clara’s planning manager, said in an interview Monday. “How do we create dynamic places that people want to linger, spend time in… that they’re proud to be in, and enjoy, work, live and play?”

Contact Janice Bitters at janice@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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