Barbara Killey, a Hearing Officer for the City of Oakland, had a typically full agenda for the hearings she conducted yesterday (August 31) in Hearing Room 2 of Oakland’s City Hall. Most of the cases were routine with one request for approval of a new dog/cat kennel and quite a few applications for massage licenses.

The most controversial issue on the calendar was the one she saved for last—a review of the cabaret license for the Serenader Night Club on Lake Park Avenue between Grand and Lakeshore Avenues.

Bernice Silveira was the long-time owner of the Serenader. She and her late husband built it into something of an institution recognized throughout the Bay Area as a mecca for the blues. Their success was, however, a two-sided coin. Like most successful cabarets, neighbors complained about noise, litter, loitering and sometimes unruly behavior.

When Mrs. Silveira finally decided to retire, it looked for a time that the club would be purchased by Jimmie and David Ward who own Sweet Jimmies in downtown Oakland. The Wards eventually decided against the purchase, having decided that the terms of the cabaret license that they would be operating under were too restrictive.

Shortly, thereafter, the club was purchased by Alex Hahn and his sons, Charlie and Alan, who already owned the adjacent Kwik Way and Bank of America buildings. They bought it with the express purpose of tearing down all three properties in order to expand a mixed use project that they had been negotiating with David Latina and his Paramount Development Corporation. An excellent article by Laura Casey in the Oakland Tribune outlined the circumstances that led the Hahn’s to opt for construction of a project that would include ground-floor retail with some fifty condos above and behind.

After over a year of planning including an unprecedented level of community input championed by Mr. Latina, negotiations foundered when the Hahns (coping with a family medical crisis) withdrew from the proposed partnership and chose instead to offer the Serenader and Kwik Way for sale. Paramount Development made an offer for the two parcels that was rejected by the Hahns. They then entered into extended negotiations with Tom Peterson, another local developer, doing business as Lakeshore Properties.

Speaking on behalf of his family at yesterday’s hearing which marked the end of a six-month probationary period that was part of the license conditions the Wards had rejected, Charles Hahn indicated that Mr. Peterson was no longer actively seeking to purchase the two properties and blamed his decision on a downturn in the housing market. Instead, he indicated that the family hoped to remodel the Serenader and intended to continue operating it as a music venue—which bring us back to square one.

Ms. Killey began the hearing by reading three emails from neighborhood residents criticizing its operation—also citing complaints about the Serenader’s failure to abide by many of the specific provisions of the operating license. Called on to reply, Mr. Hahn spoke long and passionately in defense of their operations and was backed in his assertions by half a dozen of his employees including a vocalist from a band called “Stepping Stone.” Patricia said she has been performing at the Serenader for some thirty years and then spontaneously broke into song asking “What’s going to happen to the Serenader?”

That was, of course, the question on all minds and by the time the hour-long, sometimes emotional and heated discussion had concluded, Ms. Killey was prepared to issue her rulings. Based on the emails she had received along with the testimony of the three neighbors in attendance who critiqued the Serenader’s management, she rejected for the time being Mr. Hahn’s request to extend cabaret hours on Thursdays to 1:30 a.m.

She did, however, reassure Mr. Hahn and the Serenader employees that she had heard nothing that would justify revocation of the cabaret license, but insisted that the management conform to the provisions of their cabaret license and make a concerted effort to resolve neighbors’ complaints. In order to facilitate needed improvements, Ms. Killey will in the next several weeks be convening a meeting of the principals to further delineate specific problems and iron out workable solutions.

Yesterday’s decision was a victory for those who would otherwise not be singing the blues, but the long-term future of the Serenader along with Kwik Way would seem to be very much in doubt—all too likely victims of changing demographics, rising property values and the pressing need for additional housing.