Wednesday, October 17 , 2018, 8:31 am | Fair 52º


Madison’s Sports Grill to Make Its Move to Regain Dance Permit

On Tuesday, the bar is scheduled to become the third in five months to appeal a decision to the Santa Barbara City Council.

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Madison’s Sports Grill on State Street downtown, a popular spot for lunch, will appear before the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday to appeal a May decision by the Fire and Police Commission to pull its dance permit. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

For years, Madison’s Sports Grill on State Street downtown has been a popular spot not only to grab lunch during the day but to buy a few drinks and move to the groove at night.

The dancing part of the equation is now in jeopardy.

On Tuesday, the bar at 525 State St. is scheduled to appear before the Santa Barbara City Council to appeal a May decision by the Fire and Police Commission to yank its dance permit.

It will be the third time in less than five months an establishment on the 500 block of State Street has come before the City Council to appeal a decision by the commission about patrons’ ability to dance. The other two are Bricks Café at 509 State St. and the James Joyce pub at 513 State St. Both of those owners walked away disappointed.

Before May, a bar hadn’t made an appeal in at least six years, according to Fire and Police Commissioner Daniel Signor.

But there’s a good chance there will be more appeals to come.

Early this calendar year, the City Council approved a beefed-up dance ordinance that applies to all downtown bars and clubs that already allow — or want to allow — dancing.

The new ordinance took effect Feb. 28 and is the city’s answer to a downtown scene where the alcohol-related crime rate, by many accounts, has nearly spun out of control. In the past three years, one-third of all of the city’s reported late-night criminal offenses — and half of the alcohol-related offenses — occurred in the area with the downtown dance clubs. On the 500 block alone, there are five dance establishments. (Click here to see a promotional Web site that posts photos depicting Santa Barbara’s downtown nightlife.)

The new ordinance requires establishments to seek renewal of their dance permits every year. It includes an option for smaller venues — such as Bricks — to apply for restricted permits allowing up to 18 people to dance at any given time, for three nights a week, until midnight. The full-blown nightclub permit allows as many dancers as can safely fit in the venue, for seven nights a week, until 1:30 a.m. 

The ordinance also establishes a penalty system authorizing the city to revoke a dance permit after five violations of the law. Violations include excessive noise, overcrowded bars or the presence of minors, among others.

To be sure, the three bars that have filed appeals with the City Council provide a less-than crystal-clear example of what’s to come, because none is a large club seeking its first annual renewal. That has yet to begin. Still, the three appeals are an indication that the city is starting to take the local downtown nightlife scene more seriously.

As for the Madison’s case, it could be argued that the club would have found itself in this predicament even had there been no new ordinance.

The bar, whose owners didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment, was denied by the commission on May 22 largely because owners Diane and Derek Harding didn’t reapply for a new permit after taking over the establishment from the previous owner about two years ago, Signor said. This was required even under the old dance-permit ordinance.

“My personal feeling is they were well aware they had to reapply,” he said.

However, the matter came to the attention of the Santa Barbara Police Department, and thus the commission, in late February, at a time when downtown drinking and dancing was hot on the radar.

Before the council approved the new dance ordinance early this year, the issue was analyzed for two years by a committee that included nightclub owners, police personnel, City Council members and the hotel managers who have long been demanding a crackdown. It became a regular story in the local media, and the City Council grappled with the finer points of the ordinance for several months.

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Madison’s Sports Grill lost its dance permit because owners Diane and Derek Harding didn’t reapply for a new one after taking over the bar from the previous owner about two years ago. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)
Tamara Erickson, general manager of Hotel Santa Barbara at 533 State St., is perhaps the staunchest opponent of many of the clubs. Erickson said the nightclub scene has taken a toll on her business, as customers regularly complain about the noise.

Until recently, she said, clubs were rarely, if ever, denied a dance permit.

“Anybody that wanted one got one,” she said. “There’s a huge concentration in this area.”

Regarding Madison’s, Erickson is urging the council to uphold the decision of the Fire and Police Commission to deny its request for a permit.

The establishment, she alleges, has been a nighttime nuisance to the hotel since it obtained its now-expired dance permit from the city in 2001.

“Unwillingly subjecting 50,000 (hotel) guests (annually) to pounding bass, bad karaoke and saturated sidewalks has made us a little ‘TIPSY’ (Tired of Intoxicated People Screaming & Yelling) ourselves,” she wrote in a mass e-mail urging neighbors to attend Tuesday’s meeting. “At the very least a bad experience here will color their mood when they dine in your restaurant and shop in your store.”

Erickson also lamented that the city has decided to continue allowing Madison’s patrons to dance until the appeals hearing is over.

“From May to now they have continued to be given the rights of a nightclub, even though there is a letter from the police department saying they do not have a dance permit,” she said.

Santa Barbara City Administrator Jim Armstrong, who was instrumental in making the executive decision on granting them permission to temporarily dance without a permit, said the bar had not had major problems with the police.

A report regarding Madison’s put together by police in May says the bar owns a decibel-reader to ensure noise levels stay reasonable, and employs a handful of security guards to work weekends. The guards get a training manual and undergo an orientation with the security manager, according to the report.

However, the report says, in the past two years the bar has been the scene of 27 criminal offenses. While seven of those were fights, 11 offenses were prompted by phone calls to police from the security guards to report illegal behavior such as using a fake ID to obtain alcohol.

City Councilman Grant House, who sat on the committee that drafted the ordinance, didn’t want to comment on the Madison’s case because he will be serving in a quasi-judicial role at Tuesday’s hearing.

Speaking generally, though, House said he doesn’t believe that the three appeals constitute a meaningful test of the new law. That, he said, will start to happen during the course of the next year, as the larger nightclubs apply to renew their permits.

The ordinance, he said, already has been effective with club owners acutely privy to the rules.

“It’s a much tighter system,” he said. “I really believe that’s what the community was asking for. We won’t really know how that plays out until more months pass by.”

The two other bars

As for the two establishments that have lost their appeals with the council, they submitted permit requests in February — the same month the new dance permit went into effect.

At Bricks, owner Wally Ronchietto said he has put the café up for sale largely as a result of his woes over dancing. He said he expects to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process, but wants to move on.

“I’m selling the place. I’m out,” said Ronchietto, a former physicist who years ago left a local job in the defense industry to enter the restaurant business, opening the still-thriving Café Buenos Aires at 1316 State St. “I’m tired of it. The financial cost is one thing, but on top of it the emotional costs.” 

Bricks is his second State Street enterprise.

For the two years it has been open, Bricks has offered an alternative to the “MTV Spring Break” atmosphere that has come to characterize many of the establishments surrounding it. The café has been a place patrons can go to catch a string quartet, a jazz trio, a comedy act or a flamenco guitarist.

From the start, Bricks had possessed a license from the state department of Alcoholic Beverage Control that prohibited amplified music. 

Ronchietto admits he broke the rule with regularity for nearly two years, allowing jazz vocalists to sing into microphones or bass players to plug into amplifiers.

Nobody seemed to care, he said, until February, when he applied for a dance permit with the city, and for an amplification permit with the ABC.

“That’s when all hell broke loose,” he said. A string of unfortunate events followed.

On April 6, shortly after Ronchietto applied, a recalcitrant manager hired a DJ and the bar hosted a dance party. The police paid a visit and cited the bar. Ronchietto, who said he had no knowledge of the event, fired the manager.

The Fire and Police Commission denied Bricks’ request for a dance permit, but the decision wasn’t easy. With one of five members absent, the vote was deadlocked 2-2. Finally, for the sake of providing closure and allowing Bricks to appeal to the council, one of the commissioners — John Lauritsen — switched his vote from a yes to a no.

On June 13, a month and a half before the Bricks appeal went to the council, an ABC official reported that he saw a band playing amplified instruments in the bar. 

On July 29, when Ronchietto appeared before the council to appeal, an odd coincidence occurred. That same day, the ABC’s ruling on amplification came in. The news was delivered to Ronchietto and the council at the public meeting by a city staff member: Bricks was denied. At the meeting, Ronchietto informed the council he intended to appeal the ABC decision, but that didn’t seem to sweeten the deal in the minds of the City Council members. The council unanimously denied his appeal. 

Several council members said their decision was made easy by his violations of the dancing and amplification rules. They also objected to how Ronchietto was seeking amplification.

“My concern is he might win that appeal (with the ABC), and I don’t support more amplified music on that block,” Mayor Marty Blum said at the meeting.

Musicians and other entertainers at Bricks have been frustrated by the denials of the City Council and ABC. From their perspective, the government agencies are punishing one of the last remaining bars on State Street that promotes live entertainment.

Louise Palanker, who hosts a weekly live comedy show at Bricks, recently passed a petition around the bar urging the city to reconsider. She said about 100 people signed.

“There is nothing to do on State Street except for this mind-numbingly scorching music,” she said. “State Street is club central. We’re an alternative. It’s interesting. It’s different. It’s cultural. It’s not mindless. And that’s something they are going to shut down?”

Jazz musician Randy Tico, who plays in a group that has been hosting a jam session at Bricks every Monday night, had a different take on the noise restriction.

“It’s really evolved into a place where, ‘OK, we have to have an acoustic bass — fine. We have to play quiet — fine.’ This is all very good for jazz,” he said. 

A couple doors down, the James Joyce applied for a nightclub dance permit so it could continue allowing patrons to dance seven nights a week.

The Fire and Police Commission gave approval, but with several conditions that owner Thomas Byrne found objectionable. Specifically, dancing had to be limited to three nights a week, and the back door had to remain closed to keep the noise level down.

“Obviously, three nights a week is confusing to patrons,” Byrne said. “It’s unfair to tell them they can’t dance on a Wednesday but they can on a Thursday.”

Meanwhile, closing the back door meant a hotter and stuffier dance floor, he said. 

On May 6, the City Council denied his appeal. The bar has adapted to the new reality by imposing periodic mandatory pauses in the music to open the door and cool off the patrons. The bar now allows dancing only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

“We’re coping, but we’re not happy about it,” Byrne said, adding that his establishment hadn’t received a noise complaint in two years.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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