Some bars on Santa Monica's glitzy Main Street are seeking to overturn an old zoning ordinance that prohibits them from charging a cover fee for dancing.
At a meeting earlier this month, the City Council asked the staff to draft an amendment to allow bars to charge a cover.
Although the change would affect only two bars immediately, it could set the trend for other Main Street establishments.
Gordon Cohen, owner of the Pink Elephant, a gay bar, described it as a Catch-22 situation: "I can have dancing here and not charge, but as soon as I charge, I can't have dancing. I could understand if they don't want dancing on the street. But charging or not charging doesn't alter what's happening here. It only alters my ability to make money."
Indeed, the city's laws prohibit "dance halls"--places that offer dancing, serve alcoholic beverages and charge a cover fee--on Main Street.
Some of the bars had provided a dance floor and music and were charging a cover anyway, because the owners said they did not realize it was against the law. Two bars are still offering dancing--for free.
Cohen charged a $1 cover at the Pink Elephant for two years. About a month ago, after an incident at the bar, a vice officer "pinched me for charging admission," Cohen said.
Cited by Police
Josephina's, a restaurant that also offers dancing, had a $3 to $5 cover for more than a year, according to general manager Jim Turck. But a year ago the police cited the restaurant, Turck said. Josephina's agreed to stop charging and the city dropped the charges.
Former Planning Director Paul Silvern, who worked on the Main Street plan in the late 1970s, said that dance halls were permitted on the Santa Monica Pier for several years under an old law. More recently, bars in other areas of the city have been allowed to operate as dance halls as long as they received a conditional-use permit from the city. But the bars on Main Street do not qualify for a conditional-use permit.
When the Main Street code was revised in 1979, a list of the activities that would qualify for a conditional-use permit was compiled. "Dance hall doesn't happen to be one of them," Silvern said.
Turck has been trying to get the city to change the law, which he said dates back to the 1940s when dance halls were considered undesirable. The law is "a bit out of date," he said.
He said the inability to charge a cover cuts into more than revenues. "We feel we really lost control of the patronage we used to have," Turck said. "It's a rougher crowd without the door charge. We are not a dance hall, we are a restaurant. . . . We have observed guests going back and forth to their cars in the city parking lot alongside of the building. We don't know if they are drinking or using drugs."
Turck asked Councilman James P. Conn for help in changing the code. "These are the kinds of things that drive me nuts," Conn said of the ordinance. "It's just a little snag in the rules that somebody gets snagged by. I think as a council member it's my responsibility to try to solve these problems."
Conn said his primary concern is to give the bar owners control over drug dealers. "They go in and out to deal drugs," Conn said. "Somebody who is dealing a gram or a quarter gram at a time doesn't have five bucks overhead to cut every time they go in and out. We're not dealing with rich people."
Capt. Michael Landis of the Santa Monica Police Department said he is not aware of a serious drug problem at the Main Street bars, although undercover officers have been working the area. He said, however, that a cover charge might help control any potential drug problems at the clubs.
"It would keep people in, instead of moving in and out of the bar," Landis said.
Some other bar owners on Main Street said that a cover charge would not do much to reduce drug dealing.
Kimo Sterling, manager of the Oar House, which does not charge a cover, said that drugs have "nothing to do with a cover charge. If you've got strict standards at the door, if you have a dress code, a cover charge is not going to make that much of a difference. A drug dealer is going to pay a cover charge just as much as anyone."
Problems in Past
Sterling said the Oar House has had problems in the past with people selling drugs in a nearby parking lot. But the bar has cut down on the drug dealing by implementing a program in which employees are paid $50 any time they help catch somebody who is using or selling drugs on the premises.
"In the past month or two we have paid out better than two dozen times," Sterling said. "That's way below average."
Dennis Oakley, manager and part owner of the Main Street Saloon, which does not charge a cover, said that a fee would not eliminate the drug dealers because "the drug dealers are the ones that have the cash."
Ray Weisberg, general manager of Merlin McFly's, which has no cover, said he does not have problems with drug dealers.