Comedy, karaoke and Albany's cabaret law

Elda's on Lark.jpg

No Laughs this week.

This Wednesday night there will be no Laughs on Lark. The stand-up comedy showcase that's become a staple of Lark Street night life over the last year has been canceled until further notice.

The event usually takes place at Elda's, but last Friday night Albany police and members of a zoning enforcement task force told owner Elda Abate, and the owners of several other clubs around Lark Street, that they had to shut down their events.

Here's why.

Laughs on Lark sign.jpgThe city of Albany says these clubs are in violation of the city's zoning ordinance. They're licensed to operate as restaurants or bars, but not for amplified live entertainment -- so, no open mic nights, or comedy with a microphone. They'd need a zoning variance to do that.

Club owners we spoke to say they didn't know they were violating the law and didn't realize they needed a variance. Elda Abate told us she's been holding entertainment events for twelve years and never realized she was in violation.

So we checked in with Jeff Jamison, director of the Division of Buildings and Regulatory Compliance for the city of Albany. Jamison says a number of restaurants and bars in Albany have been operating as night clubs illegally. Elda's was one of four clubs the task force visited on Friday night, but Jamison says this wasn't some kind of crackdown. He says they were responding to a complaint about an allegedly illegal nightclub at Jackie's Place on Washington Ave. Code enforcement didn't find anything there, but one of the officers mentioned that there were some other clubs that may have been operating illegal night clubs, so they stopped by to provide them with warnings. Jamison says they stopped at Elda's, Pinto and Hobbs, and Rocks. Of those three, only Rocks had the proper variance. Pinto and Hobbs has since applied for one.

Jamison says that a use variance can be hard come by under the current law. Applying for a variance only costs $125, but the variance gets denied immediately and the issue comes before the city's board of zoning appeals. Until the board reaches a decision, Jamison says the club is usually allowed to continue to operate -- unless there are health or safety concerns. Since Pinto and Hobbs applied for a variance, they'll be able to hold their popular karaoke nights until the BZA comes to a decision.

The Common Council is working on a new cabaret law that would change the permitting process for nightclub entertainment. And that's not necessarily a bad thing -- the current law is a little weird. In addition to the odd apply-for-a-permit-that-will-automatically-get-rejected process, nightclub entertainment variances are attached to the land, not the business. So if a bar gets a variance to have what it says will be quiet acoustic music, and two years later it gets sold to someone who puts in a mosh pit -- or starts singing Wagnerian opera or something else the neighborhood might not appreciate -- the bar and its new owner still have the variance, so they can do that.

Jamison says the proposed cabaret law will make things simpler for club owners because permission to host entertainment will no longer be tied to the land where the venue sits. Under the proposed law, club owners would apply for a cabaret license once a year. They would have to pay an annual fee of somewhere between $300 and $900, depending on how many people the venue can hold. And the proposed law would also allow for a temporary license at a cost of $50 to $100 for up to two dates per year.

Under the proposed system, the decision to grant the license would move from the zoning board of appeals to the city clerk's office -- which has prompted concern among some neighborhood groups that they'll have less of an opportunity to voice opposition to problem licensees. [TU]

The new, more straight-forward system also includes what some businesses might consider significant drawbacks. They'd have to apply every year, which not only is a matter of more paperwork, but also a yearly opportunity to have their license shot down. And the permit fee is yet another expense for small businesses.

The Common Council's planning committee is scheduled to discuss the proposed cabaret law February 15 at 5 pm. The meeting is open to the public -- and there will be a public comment period. So if you want to get your voice heard about the matter -- for or against or different -- that's a prime opportunity to speak up.

Update: We got a question about where this meeting will be. Committee meetings are usually held in the court room adjacent to the Common Council chamber in city hall. The council caucus also usually meets in that room.

[Word of the Friday enforcement action via @AllThingsEllie]


And the permit fee is yet another expense for small businesses.

Making it less likely businesses will put in the effort and resources to do entertainment, thus providing performers with less spaces and little to no money to do it in.


Thanks for the full explanation on this issue, it's good that all the information is getting out there. The proposed law doesn't seem as ridiculous or awful as it's been painted by a lot of people, especially compared to the current system where the variance is attached to the property instead of the business.

Kevin, unfortunately, hits the nail on the head; the proposed fee structure, compared to the current system, is outrageous and creates a disincentive to have anything from open-mic poetry / acoustic nights, to comedy, to karaoke.

The current one-time fee is $125, compared to a proposed annual rate of $300 to $900... Oh and let's not forget that the temporary license (currently no charge while you're under review) costs $50 to $100. In the first year alone that's a minimum increase of 180% and a maximum of 700%. All on the backs of small businesses. Again, that's just in the first year. From EVERY business that wants to have "amplified live entertainment" (as I assume that even establishments under the current system will have to apply again under the new).

Carolyn McLaughlin told CBS it wasn't about the money at all. Balderdash. The council hasn't come across a possible revenue source it didn't like. If the problem was cracking down on violence and neighborhood disturbances wouldn't the application and annual review process be enough?

What about Trivia nights? Those are usually done by microphone.

Set a height limit and do away with zoning. It works for Paris.

What I do not understand is that Albany turned a blind eye to comedy, karaoke and open mics for over ten years and all of sudden decided to enforce the law because of this new bill. Wouldn't it make more sense to pass the legislation and then hold restaurants accountable? Furthermore, what about coffee shops and such that have comedy or open mic? Its just bad news bears.

I can only encourage everyone to come across the river and Enjoy Troy.

When I lived in Albany, I never had contact with the city zoning office. But common sense tells me (yes, I know one is on dangerous ground when invoking common sense) there's room for consensus here. Or at least compromise. Although something tells me the city won't back off its regulation against live chickens performing in those stand-up comedy showcases. I guess the city has this thing about chickens.

This is completely ridiculous. This city needs some new leadership, any Mayor worth his tanning lotion would immediately oppose this, and in fact would be out nurturing the business climate in Albany rather than selling snake oil and convention centers. It's nothing personal, but this city cannot reach a true level livability under its current leadership. He's a coward on nearly issue and rarely has that benefit the city. He should be speaking out on this issue, helping to re-organize the zoning office before it changed leadership, pushing for Albany 2030 and moving this city towards livability. Jennings could fix this and chooses not to, time for him to go.

I'm a local musician and I think the fees associated with this proposal are a terrible idea and will stifle the local music scene in Albany. I've started a petition for those who agree:

Karaoke, the scourge of Center Square. Do they fine just the bar or do they also fine the horrible performers?

Really? NOW they are enforcing this? Albany is already has a pathetic music scene. Now the city is going to make it worse? and more expensive?

As for the decided to move and live there..if you don't like the noise you should have went somewhere else.

I think folks are missing the intent here of the legislation. Night Clubs are not permitted uses without a zoning variance - and this, by nature is difficult to obtain -- and it should be. A variance runs with the property. When an applicant asks for a variance in front of the Board of Zoning Appeals there's often testimony like "Joe is my neighbor, and he's a nice guy, so approve the variance." We'll, Joe may be a great guy, and a stupendous club owner, but when he sells the club to Phil, Phil maybe a total jackass, abuse the privileges, and get everyone incensed. Too bad, because the variance runs with the property. The cost of revoking the variance costs the city (TAXPAYERS) a great deal of money.

Second, our zoning dates back to 1968. I have a hard time believing the "I didn't know I could not do that excuse." Sorry, it's been on the books a LONG time -regardless if it's fair.

In the new scenario above the business would pay the same fee as the variance, but on a permit instead. This way, should it be found that there are issues, the permit can be revoked.

The fee structure and application/reapplication process is still being worked out, but this doesn't necessarily spell gloom and doom.

This is a joke.
Lets find ways for it to be harder to create culture and fun in Albany. Art and Music are the catalyst for everything in our lives and it is already hard enough for these intertwined communities. This would make the already hard task of running a business in this city that much harder. It will also allow police to shut down DIY shows, art shows, impose more fines, possibly even arrest said parties. No Dj's or music at art galleries, no more hardcore or punk shows in basements, no more open mic for poets and songwriters, no more burlesque, no more comedy.... Unless you have a fully operating business, can spend 3-900 dollars.... and the city has to approve it.... every year??
With so few venues already in Albany, WHY on earth would anyone want there to be less!! This is a great way to effectively silence this city. That on top of the fact it takes months to get anything done here. The speed that this city works at is shocking. Even with all the advancements in technology in the past 30 years, such as ...ohhhh computers, the internet, cell phones..... you think they (being our city govt) would be able to get to these things faster. If you are not on the phone every day or waving money in there face, you get lost in "paperwork".
I personally believe this is more about trying to micro manage a small city so these people in there tiny positions of power can regulate things out of their neighborhoods and situations that they dont have control of. It is 1930's small town politics and it has no place in our society. They state this is not about the money...... Than what is it about??
We dont need fancy crosswalks. We dont need flower baskets on every streetlamp. We should embrace our history, but dont bury the future. Think about everyone that would be at these shows and events, performers and audience... expressing and feeling there passion, there lifesblood, there reason to be... where would they go? What would they do after that? ..... if you make it harder than it already is you should really worry about all the people who now have nothing to do and no where to go. Why would you want to live in Albany?
We as a city need culture.
Please dont take that away from our already struggling music and art scenes.

on the other hand this is a great incentive for us to tell each other stories and sing to each other without the use of nuclear power or coal mines. after all, it's only for amplified music. there must have been a time in history when we didn't use electricity to entertain each other. have our ears gone bad or are we just not willing to listen?

It seems like a strange amount of money....$300 -$900. Do you know how many hours most people work to earn that? So, Albany, with no place to park for free, no place to go to without cover fees, or ticket purchases with ...why do think this is appealing for the people or the city? Troy does sound good!

In all fairness,
there are so many aspects of our city that truly are amazing from its history to its potential future..... and a lot of people working within our city govt. right now to make things better for the citizens of our city.... but these things do take time, its the nature of the beast. This may also create enough dialogue so we can all start look at new and different approachable means of dealing with this issue, and other issues like it.
I know how much music can mean to someone without direction. It helped me so much throughout my life. I couldn't imagine being that kid and losing that because of this now enforced and changing law. We have a chance to make a more progressive city by welcoming all forms of art instead of making everyone pay for it.
Also does this law include Churches? Performance art pieces? Strip clubs? Would every business in Albany fall under these rules?
Is there more info on this proposal?

Well, here's a trivia questions for you all. How many bars and taverns and restaurants that have competitive team trivia nights - in which the host must use a microphone and an amplification device in which to ask the questions and provide the answers - would have to shutter their popular team trivia nights in Albany?

Let's see... That would include:

Legends on Lark
Bomber's (Lark Street)
Elbo Room
The Washington Tavern
Wolf's 1-11 on Wolf Road
Wolf's 1-11 at the Arena
Hill Street Cafe
Across the Street Pub
Recovery Room - Albany
Blue 82
Professor M Barley's
Stone Crow
Pearl Street Pub

And probably a few more that I forgot to mention.

This isn't about music, art, neighborhoods, varience or anything else it is suppose to reflect. The only thing this is good for is city revenue. Multiply every venue by the yearly fee averaged then factor in the one time events (thousnds in Albany every year) at fifty a piece. Then the gauranteed events at a hundred (unless of course held by the city) and you come to somewhere around a sh*t load of money. Not only that but now any business that isnt bowing to the council has to worry will they operate next year. MONEY AND/OR CONTROL.

I bet the local neighborhood associations would love this system if they had a say in the process. Considering many members want to convert the area into a gated community it's likely every permit would be denied.

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