To Dance or Not To Dance 

That is the question for the new Strange Matter and other local venues.

click to enlarge art28_music_strange_matter_300.jpg

There's a sign posted prominently inside of Strange Matter, the new restaurant and bar at 929 W. Grace St., which reads, “No Dancing Allowed on the Premises.”

The sentiment is a far cry from the days of Twisters, one the building's former tenants, when various DJs and ska bands left crowds in pools of their own sweat from picking up change or doing the “Humpty Dance.” The sign is there because, currently, Strange Matter must settle for a standard restaurant with live entertainment permit. Under this license a restaurant is allowed to have live entertainment, but it's prohibited from creating a dance floor area or allowing dancing.

This begs the question: What constitutes dancing in the eyes of the law?
“No one's made that clear to us,” the restaurant's general manager Bobby Pembleton says. “We've talked to [the city] a number of times to find out exactly what it means.”

What they do know is that if Strange Matter wants to allow dancing it must secure a nightclub permit from the city. However, this new designation automatically changes its building requirements under Virginia's building code. According to Section 903.2.1.2, an automatic sprinkler system must be provided in a nightclub in which more than 100 people can congregate.

So the one thing that stands between Strange Matter and the nightclub permit is about $60,000. That's the most recent estimate the restaurant has received for installing the required sprinkler system.

“Sprinkler systems are incredibly expensive [because] you need a whole new water main put in and the city charges to do that,” Pembleton says. Because the water main is outside, the city probably will have to dig up the sidewalk in front of Strange Matter to run it inside the building.

This code isn't based on fundamentalist “Footloose”-style legislation, but rather on a perceived public safety issue. The sprinkler-system requirements were expanded after the Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., in 2003. Great White, whose notoriety until then was based on the hair metal song, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” shot off pyrotechnics that engulfed the entire club in a flash fire, leaving 100 people dead and 200 more injured. That tragedy prompted a rash of amendments to the International Building Code and International Fire Code, which are mirrored in statewide regulations.

Yet none of the codes mentions dancing, only that there's a difference between nightclubs and restaurants. The Richmond Bureau of Permits and Inspections signifies the difference with the terms dancing and dance floor. A proposal under consideration by City Council defines a nightclub as any place open to the public that allows dancing. Restaurants that devote less than 10 percent of the floor area to dancing wouldn't need a nightclub permit. What's still unclear, but equally important to Strange Matter, is whether grooving to your favorite band is dancing and therefore unsafe.

Older buildings zoned before the codes changed were grandfathered, which isn't unusual according to Mark Buff, marketing and communications manager for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs. With Twisters, Club 929 and Nanci Raygun already zoned for nightclub purposes, Strange Matter should have had no problem.

Unfortunately, Missy Wernstrom, owner of previous tenant Bagel Czar, dropped the nightclub designation and secured a restaurant-only permit for the building. “She didn't realize the possibilities,” General Manager Jennifer Ward said. “She was just trying to open up a small bagel shop.” What Wernstrom discovered was that people expected there to be shows at 929 W. Grace St. and weren't happy with it being anything else. So Ward and Pembleton, along with Landis Wine, eventually started booking shows at the Bagel Czar. It was too little too late. Once the Bagel Czar closed, its owners found an investor, John Downing, who saw the building's potential not only as a restaurant, but also as the live-music Mecca it once was.

Now the cost of a new sprinkler system for Strange Matter is prohibitive, they say. “The law seems to be a reasonable reaction to the fact that there are a lot of old venues which are pretty decrepit and pretty dangerous,” Pembleton says. “We don't feel it applies to this building very much, because we're all concrete and brick.”

In any case, the enterprising owners of the Grace Street venue have decided to take advantage of the opportunities they do have. Instead of feeling pressure to follow in the footsteps of past venues right away, they're taking their time building Strange Matter's own legacy.

They do have live entertainment scheduled, but that takes a back seat to running a good restaurant and being a good neighbor. In addition to a solid menu with vegetarian- and vegan-friendly options, they brew local coffee and display work from local artists. Pembleton says they hope to provide a community space oriented to the interesting culture that's developed in Richmond, including being locally active and self-sustaining. April's DIY Festival and last week's Virginia is for Covers benefit for the Latin American Community Art Project are noteworthy examples of this goal, both receiving positive reviews from participants.

“I grew up going to shows at Twisters,” Pembleton says. “We want to stay true to the history of this building, while offering something new and unique that caters to today's Richmond populace.”

The “No Dancing” sign will remain. S

For information visit strangematterrva.com.

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