Five-year-old Southeast Portland bar Vie de Boheme will close at the end of August, the bar announced today.
Much more than a wine bar, the space on Southeast 7th Avenue was known as a bastion for the arts, hosting regular live jazz and blues, salsa dancing nights, classical music and even poetry readings.
Or, in the words of its owner, "with our hands tied, we say goodbye to the beautiful dream that was VDB—a quirky, bohemian, Euro-inspired, multi-generational, TV-free dream zone for building community and sharing a wildly eclectic musical, cultural, and theatrical richness: opera, blues, jazz, rock, folk, Brazilian, African, French, Cajun, Cuban, and Greek music, pop, r&b, salsa, Big Band swing, cabaret, comedic improv theater, you name it."
Owner Leni Ortenburger says the bar received word via the attorney of its landlord, Jeff Modun, that the bar would have to vacate the space by the end of September.
"We were on a month-to-month lease," Ortenburger says. "A five year lease originally, but when it expired I kept asking the landlord, 'When are we going to renew the lease?'" Ortenburger says that even if the bar were allowed to renew, the bar would face a steep rent increase—between 71 and 95 percent. Modun did not immediately respond to WW requests for comment.
But the bar's difficulties go deeper than a rent increase.
The building in which Vie de Boheme is situated isn't zoned as a commercial space, but an industrial one. Ortenburger says she wasn't aware of that until she was visited by fire inspectors three years into the bar's run. She says she attempted to work with city inspectors to find a solution.
"Three years in, we got a visit from the fire department," says Ortenburger. "They came in and said, 'What's your occupancy?' And I said, 'Oh, I don't know—I thought you guys would tell us.'… This began a dance with the city and the fire department. But this is demographic that isn't holding a rave, no flaming fire shows or even flaming drinks. So they did not pressure us at the time."
Bureau of Development Services records show that Vie de Boheme had previously applied for a change of occupancy in 2013, and attempted to propose alternatives to a sprinkler system Ortenburger says would cost her bar $40,000. The city denied that application, requiring sprinklers to go into the space, which are required for all nightclubs with a capacity greater than 100.
BDS officials say that because this involves a change of occupancy and not an existing bar or nightclub, the investigation into the fire bureau's enforcement of sprinkler code on some pre-existing clubs is not relevant in this case; it is rather enforcement of the same requirements imposed on any new bar or nightclub.
"The city is handling this with a one size fits all approach," Ortenburger says. "They don't realize what this place is or what it provides to the community. We've has this outpouring of unpset musicians, nonprofit board members. I told the last person I talked to at the city—I said you don't know what you're doing, you'll get so much blowback."
On July 6 of this year, the building's owner, Jeffrey Modun, was issued a citation letter from the Portland Bureau of Development Services, saying the building would have to install sprinklers and put in seismic upgrades in order to continue being used as a commercial space.
As of yesterday, August 15, Modun is liable for fees charged by the city of Portland—a little over $700 a month to start. This roughly coincides with the letter Ortenburger says she received terminating her tenancy.
But Ortenburger says that even if she were able to raise the $100,000 she says is needed to both install sprinklers and put in other upgrades to the building required to change her zoning from industrial to commercial, her rent would go up too much.
"His attorney said, 'Even if you were to raise funds, your rent would be increasing by between 71 and 95 percent. I guess that's the going rate," Ortenburger says. "The rents are being so jacked up. This guy doesn't have more expenses: he was presumably making money before he knew he would raise the rent… The rate he wants to charge could never let a music venue survive."
Ortenburger also says that Modun should be responsible for the upgrades that were needed when he rented out the space: "'Are you going to pay for the upgrades you should have made?' He denies responsibility."
The downfall of her bar is part of a larger pattern in the city, Ortenburger says .
"People need to look at what's going on here. So many amazing things are being destroyed. Neighborhood businesses—small businesses, not big businesses," she says. "It's a tragedy this is what's happening in Portland."
In a letter to her landlord, Ortenburger wrote:
"Look around Portland, and see all that is disappearing. What we feel is not just anger and sadness, not just pride in having made something beautiful, and unique. What we know is that what was created here was precious, and rare, and that the blow to this community is incalculable."
Vie de Boheme has planned a stacked series of events for the bar's final two weeks—including touring tango performers Maria Volante and the Blue Tango Project on August 18. The bar will shut its doors at the end of the month.