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Teen Coffeehouse Has to Call It Quits

January 11, 2002|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Koo's Cafe wanted to go legit after years of operating in a legal gray area, but now the folksy, teen-oriented rock 'n' roll venue in downtown Santa Ana is out of business because it can't afford the improvements city officials require for a permit.

Dennis Lluy, who founded the nonprofit, volunteer-staffed coffeehouse 7 1/2 years ago, says Koo's will try to reestablish itself soon in a larger Santa Ana location more suited to the grass-roots touring bands and emerging local musicians who play at the coffeehouse.

Koo's has been occupying an aging wood-facade house in the 1500 block of North Main Street. A 1997 victory in Municipal Court had enabled it to operate without a city permit because of its nonprofit status. The $5 or $6 optional admission charges were donations, a jury decided, and thus the establishment was not subject to the usual city requirements for a concert venue.

Lluy came to agree that getting the city's official blessing, via a conditional use permit, would be "the responsible thing." When he applied for the permit in the fall, city officials estimated the cost at $650, Lluy said.

Once the permit process began, however, requirements began to pile up, among them demands for a 35-car parking lot and improved drainage. The cost could have run to $10,000, Lluy said--well beyond the means of Koo's. Recently, he said, the Police Department notified him that Koo's would be cited if it continued to put on shows without a permit. After a final concert Jan. 2, the coffeehouse suspended operations.

Koo's, which took its name from the Chinese restaurant that preceded it at that location, has had its backers in city government, including arts advocate and Planning Commissioner Don Cribb. They say it meets a need for young people to enjoy music, poetry and occasional theater and dance events in an alcohol-free environment. But Koo's also displeased some neighbors who complained of noise and an overflow of music lovers waiting to get into the club, whose capacity was 49.

Lluy said Koo's organizers are searching for another venue, for audiences of up to 150, that will meet city standards for a conditional use permit without costly improvements.

"We could play games with the city" and argue again that Koo's nonprofit status means it shouldn't have to get a permit, Lluy said. "I think we've matured beyond that point, and we want to take it to the next step. We're looking to stay in Santa Ana, and the word I got is, the city is interested in helping us."

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