The St. Claude Avenue club is working with the city to present live music.
To some, the lack of live music at Siberia is evidence of the Mayor's war on live music. Others dismiss the club owners as scofflaws after co-owner Daphne Loney was quoted in a Times-Picayune article as saying, ""We didn't have a permit, we knew that .... But we thought it was just a formality, really no big deal." The truth is more complicated.
On July 13, almost a month before the Circle Bar temporarily lost its ability to host live music, the St. Claude Avenue bar posted a message on its Facebook page: "Siberia is putting a hold on live entertainment pending permitting issues. We are still open for business. Please come support us in the meantime!" Although friends on Facebook immediately started online petitions, the problem wasn't that Siberia had its license pulled. As Loney told the Times-Picayune, it never had one, but what the story didn't say was that Siberia had been going through the permitting process for more than 15 months. If it didn't have a live music permit, it wasn't for lack of trying.
Siberia applied for a mayoralty permit allowing live music in 2010 before it opened, but it was turned down. "When we went in to find out why, because we were under the impression from looking at the zoning requirements the we should have been eligible, they told us that the zoning was in the process of changing and were told to reapply," Loney says. They did so again in 2011 and again were denied, this time with a form letter that said that Siberia was in the wrong zoning area.
"We didn't stop doing live music while we were in application process because we were under the impression that this was a formality, and that everyone we spoke to at City Hall was aware of what we were doing and no one told us to stop," she says. "They just kept telling us to reapply." Siberia stopped presenting live music after someone from the Bureau of Revenue suggested that she talk to the City Attorney's office, where Loney learned that if the club was caught in a permit sweep, it would face penalties and would be unlikely to ever get a live music permit. "We stopped immediately."
Nicole Webre understands Siberia's frustration. She is the Legislative Director for Councilperson Kristin Gisleson Palmer's office. The process isn't supposed to be complicated she says, but it has complicating factors. "We're in this weird middle area right now with a masterplan that's in place but a CZO [Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance] that dates back to the '60s and '70s that has been amended piecemeal," she says. "We don't have a comprehensive, clear zoning ordinance. We have a draft, and my understanding is that a second draft of the new CZO is coming out in the fall. Until we have that in place, it is kind of complicated trying to go through the process. There are two different documents that sometimes say two different things."
The proposed CZO is designed to address issues created by a sort of one-size-fits-all ordinance that was ill-suited to the realities of New Orleans when it was adopted. "It's very much a suburban model," Webre says. "Think of Jefferson Parish. Veterans Boulevard--that's where are the commercial is, and residential is far, far away. That's not New Orleans, so they created this legal non-conforming use where businesses that were already operating could continue, but the underlying zoning became residential. You see a lot of abandoned buildings that were meant for commercial that are not commercial because the zoning became residential."
Siberia is currently zoned HMC-2, the least restrictive zoning for the Historic Marigny commercial district. In 2011, Councilperson Palmer proposed an amendment to that zoning designation to help Cafe Istanbul in the New Orleans Healing Center. "It allowed businesses on St. Claude and in the Marigny that are already zoned HMC-2 to have live entertainment by right," Webre says. "The way that it stood, there weren't any conditional uses that allowed live entertainment. My understanding is that this is what the owners of Siberia are applying for, live entertainment under HMC-2 for an amusement license." This would allow Siberia to continue its music programming as it was.
Loney has found Palmer's office to be very helpful, but the process from the start has been complicated. "It has become very clear to me that for every person who goes through this process, it's a little different," she says. "You don't go, 'This is the office I need to go to,' then 'This is the office I need to go to.' We had to figure it out on our own, which was frustrating. If we had known some of the things we know now six months ago, it would have made our lives a lot easier."
According to Ryan Berni, Director of Communications for the Mayor's Office, Mayor Landrieu's administration is also trying to make it simpler. "What we can do, what we have done and will continue to do is make it as easy as possible for businesses to know what they need to operate," he says. "The Cultural Economy Office and Scott's [Hutcheson, the Mayor's Advisor on the Cultural Economy] team have helped a lot of cultural businesses determine what they actually need and navigate that process. We want live music in the city." The plans are in place to set up this fall a one-stop to help those who are trying to start new businesses, complete with checklists to walk applicants through the process as efficiently as possible.
None of which helps Siberia right now. Losing live music has been a financial blow to the club. The CZO considers disc jockeys as live entertainment, so Siberia can't replace the cancelled live shows with DJ nights. It has been able to get temporary permits for a few shows, but right now the club's trying to make due with comedy nights, game shows, B-movie screenings and its food, hoping that can get them through lean times until the bar gets its permit. The uncertain time frame also hurts because Siberia books touring underground rock and metal shows, and booker Matt Russell has to pass on shows he might want as bands are planning tours that will take place in early 2013 now. Still, Loney doesn't duck the club's part in its current hard times. "We knew we weren't supposed to have live music," she says. "We didn't realize we could get in a lot of trouble."
For more on zoning, permits and live music, see last week's story on The Circle Bar.