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Same Place, New Space 

Empyrean’s sprinkler problems are out of the way — but will its new location just pose a host of new problems?

click to enlarge Empyrean's Chrisy Riddle - [PHOTO: TAMMY MARSHALL]
  • [Photo: Tammy Marshall]
  • Empyrean's Chrisy Riddle

If someone catches on fire at the new Empyrean, their best bet will be to stop, drop and roll — there won’t be any sprinklers to put out the flames. Chrisy Riddle, the owner of the downtown coffeehouse and popular all-ages arts venue, won’t be installing sprinklers at Empyrean’s South Madison location or reducing the size of the dance floor.

She’s going to move the business altogether. At the beginning of 2010, Empyrean’s soft, cushy chairs, wooden tables, espresso machines and teacups will have a new home: seven blocks away to the corner of Second Avenue and Washington, a venue known for years as the Big Dipper.

“We will completely take it over and it will become the Empyrean,” Riddle says.

The sprinkler talk started back in July when the fire department — new, statewide building code in hand — came down on a number of nightspots that didn’t have the required sprinkler systems to keep customers safe. If they wanted to stay open, venues had a choice: install sprinklers or reduce the size of their dance floor (and, as a result, reducing their capacities, too).

Dempsey’s planned to bring the bar up to code, Emperor temporarily shut down to renovate and Ichiban simply abandoned plans for a club.

The War Room, a popular Seattle music venue, will shut its doors permanently this week — telling Seattle music writer Gene Stout that the sprinkler law was “a huge factor” in their closure. Co-owner Marcus Lalario said the law would have cost the War Room “$60,000 — that’s three school teacher salaries.”

Riddle, an English teacher at Central Valley High School, squawked loudly at the law, saying there was no way Empyrean could pay to come up to code.

“It’s a small business, I’m a teacher, I don’t have money anywhere,” she said last week. “We barely keep it open most of the time.”

Loyal fans, artists and musicians organized 10 benefit shows during the summer and fall months — donating about $3,200 toward Empyrean’s looming $11,000 sprinkler costs. But in early November, the Riddles met with Steve Spickard, who runs the Big Dipper, about moving into that space. Riddle says the rent at the Dipper is cheaper, and the space is bigger — allowing 110 patrons without installing sprinklers.

“No one has ever moved into the space, renovated it and made it their own business,” she says.

The Big Dipper hasn’t been booked consistently since the mid-1990s — when bands like Tree People, Black Happy, Everclear and Motherload frequented the stage. When asked why the venue eventually closed to regular business, Spickard is tight-lipped, using two words: “cops” and “noise.”

Spickard still allowed local promoters and bands to rent it as an event facility.

“People can come and go and rent it, whatever. I ran it like that for some time,” Spickard says. “I have a philosophic point of view that if a person rents a facility, the owner of the facility is not responsible if the person renting does something illegal.”

“The police would come to me and say, ‘Some kid underage is in here drinking.’ And I’d say, ‘Go talk to the person that’s renting it.’ And they’d say no,” he says.

The venue has also had a rocky relationship with the Downtowner Motel, which shares a wall with the back of the Big Dipper’s stage. Don Young, the current manager, stands behind a glass window plastered with notices of rates, policies and rules in the motel’s office — which doubles as his apartment.

“My kitchen window sits over here right up next to their wall,” Young says. “Thing is, after 10 o’clock we’re tired as it is. I don’t want to hear music. I don’t want to be bothered.”

As manager, Young says it’s policy for him to remain in the Downtowner office after 10 pm — so if noise gets to be too much, he won’t bother going to talk to the Big Dipper. He’ll just call the police.

“I just make a phone call,” he says.

Riddle says she’s not worried about the noise complaints that have plagued the Big Dipper in the past.

“It depends on how you run something. We try to be really respectful and end our shows early,” she says. “We’re going to run it the way we run it now.”

Empyrean’s lease expires at their current location on Dec. 31, and Riddle says they’ll be closed for a couple of weeks to move, renovate and set up at the Big Dipper location.

Riddle says she’s attached to Empyrean’s current location, but would rather move to a new place than shut down.

“It sounds so cheesy, but sometimes I’ll be there and open mic will be happening and I’ll almost become teary-eyed,” she says. “It’s so special in so many ways.”

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