San Jose Council Reconsiders Controversial Nightclub Proposal

A contentious proposal to bring a new nightclub to downtown San Jose comes back for consideration at Tuesday's City Council meeting.

In October, Jenny Wolfes asked the Planning Commission for permission to open SJ Vanity, a restaurant by day, lounge by night. The “ultra-lounge” would take over 58 S. First St., the historic two-story building emptied when Bella Mia Restaurant went out of business in 2014.

Commissioners denied her application in a 4-1 vote, citing concerns about the impact of a “mega-bar” open through 2am in downtown. Wolfes appealed that decision, arguing that there was no credible basis for the denial. Now it's up to the council to decide the fate of SJ Vanity.

Despite initial support from the Planning Commission last May, the project drew fierce opposition from the downtown business community. Next-door neighbors Hopkins & Carley, a law firm that employs former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, worried the club would cause a racket.

The San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce and the San Jose Downtown Association raised similar concerns, noting that the neighborhood is already awash in drinking establishments.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 8.20.18 AMWolfes addressed those issues, changing her project to include daytime uses while reducing overall capacity. She teamed up with restaurateur Thai Nguyen, who plans to open a third Craw Daddy location in the building. She also agreed to divide the venue, creating a banquet hall upstairs and late-night lounge on the ground floor.

That was enough for the Downtown Association, which reversed its original opposition to take a neutral stance on the project. But the law firm and other detractors remain unmoved. Mayor Sam Liccardo and council members Magdalena Carrasco and Raul Peralez wrote a memo urging their colleagues to uphold the Planning Commission’s rejection.

“The applicant has publicly and privately asserted her intention to book the entire upstairs and downstairs of the facility should she be afforded the opportunity,” they wrote. “Whether she does so for large companies such as Google or a private rave or club promoter, the result will still be the same: the site would be filled to capacity up to 549 people for late night use with a [conditional use permit] that could be utilized for five years before another city review.”

Council members Don Rocha and Johnny Khamis, however, cautioned against treating the applicant unfairly. When the project came up for discussion last year, they noted, some city officials had reservations about approving a bar with a capacity upward of 250 patrons. Yet in March, the council unanimously approved a permit for The Ritz, a bar and club with a max occupancy of 532. The Ritz lies in the SoFA District, near Agenda (occupancy of 703), Motif (805) and Miami Beach Club (461).

“Both proposals were supported by staff, both met city policy,” Rocha and Khamis wrote. “Both are near other large clubs. On what basis do we say yes to one and no to the other?”

It can’t be the quality of the operator, they continued, as the San Jose Police Department has publicly lauded Wolfes numerous times. San Jose police Sgt. Todd Trayer also said Wolfes is such an experienced club owner that he sends people to learn the ropes from her all the time. Wolfes also owns the Gold Club bikini bar and Studio 8.

“Being business friendly doesn’t just mean paying attention to the needs of large corporations,” Rocha and Khamis added. “It also means applying regulations equitably and predictably to every business in our city, small or large, high revenue or low revenue, politically connected or not.”

More from the San Jose City Council agenda for January 26, 2016:

WHAT: City Council meets
WHEN: 1:30pm Tuesday
WHERE: City Hall, 200 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
INFO: City Clerk, 408.535.1260

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

12 Comments

  1. Having heard the Planning Commission decision from start to finish, I understand why they voted 4-1 in favor of the permit. A police officer, in his capacity as such, came and vouched for the excellent track record of the bar owner. The Planning Commission took note especially of his input.

    This is not about bars, etc. per se. This, and every other land use decision, is a fact-based investigation. For the casual reader, *please* actually look into the case before forming a glib opinion about it.

  2. The last thing said Jose need Is another common bar dance establishment that’s going to attract the gangsters and want to be gangsters on the weekend. If anything like Studio 8 it’s something San Jose does not need.
    Whoever owns that building currently should be cited as a negligent landlord or something because the back patio is overrun with meth heads and crackheads. Place reeks of urine when you walk by.

  3. Too much noise, too many more drunk people, too much addtional congestion-all cumulative; resulting in too much additional Police required to direct traffic out of the Downtown after 2 AM. Screw this project.

    David S. Wall

  4. Jenn wrote: “Commissioners denied her application in a 4-1 vote… Mayor Sam Liccardo and council members Magdalena Carrasco and Raul Peralez wrote a memo urging their colleagues to uphold the Planning Commission’s rejection.” Mark Cao wrote: Having heard the Planning Commission decision from start to finish, I understand why they voted 4-1 in favor of the permit.” Huh? Which is correct—denial or approval?
    Every mayor and D3 councilperson since the McEnery era has been pushing for a vibrant DT SJ. However Jenn tells us that Chuck Reed of Hopkins & Carley, the Chamber of Commerce, SJDA, Sam Liccardo, and “The downtown business community” want that vibrant DT to be as quiet as a morgue. Huh?
    The history of DTSJ, and probably every other club district, is that some operators attract thugs and their b*tches while other operators attract respectful revelers and keep the thugs and their b*tches out. Sounds like at least one SJPD officer believes Ms. Wolfes’ clubs attract the respectful ones. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but hopefully the council will find out before making a decision. I know I stopped going DTSJ at night years ago due to far too many thugs and their b*tches in the area as the night wears on.
    As an aside, the headline was “San Jose Council Reconsiders Controversial Nightclub Proposal.” I saw nothing in the article that said the council had previously considered the proposal. The council cannot REconsider something it has not previously considered.

  5. San Jose is terrible place for any small business. City signs should read, “WELCOME TO SAN JOSE, not a dot com? UN-WELCOME”. Even tech companies are better suited for Palo Alto, San Francisco, or even Oakland. San Jose is a “Big City” with the soul of a small town. Former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown said it best, “San Jose is a sleeping giant”.

  6. In retrospect, maybe putting nightclubs and other heavy drinking establishments in the core of DTSJ has been a bust. San Jose’s biggest problem is trying to make a homogeneous downtown district. This has never worked in the entire history of human civilization.

    DTSJ is an area rife with affluence now. San Pedro Square, Capital club, and other various high class and 5 star establishments are starting to bring a little more class to the area, maybe it’s time we reconsidered the placement of these clubs since the presence of certain elements associated with them may have a negative impact on the sales revenue generated from places like Mortons, McCormicks, etc.

    Typically in other “Big cities” there is enough of barrier between high-mid and low class entertainment, as well as types of entertainment that you have to hop on a bus or subway to get to them. NYC and SF for example, have little Italys, Chinatowns, industrial areas (with industrial clubs) and straight playtime/dancy dance areas. Both have LGBT friendly districts. There is a sane amount of segregation to make each area appealing to it’s demographic.. Like many little Goth/Punk/Rap/Dance disneylands.

    We have made some headway in this. San Pedro Square seems to be doing fine (I still disagree with the $6m gift to McEnery) but even there, McEnery basically had to build his own city block to make this happen.

    San Jose’s Japantown has it’s own, wonderful little bar crawl scene because it’s segregated from everything else.

    • That’s a different district in downtown. This is the Historical district where buildings can’t be torn down or even modified. It is unlike you to pontificate on an area you don’t know. I’ve been down here over a year and never see you on S. First or S. Second streets. You should take a stroll from St. James Park to San Fernando on both First and Second. It’s abandoned or it’s bars and restaurants, and Ross/Walgreens. Even PF Changs came and went after the sweetheart tax deal (Welfare Deal) they got from the City of San Jose.

      It’s also unlike you to stick up for Barry Swenson and Hopkins & Carley… or are you just that far out of touch. I’m a big fan of yours.

  7. It’s not Hopkins & Carley, it’s Barry Swenson, Hopkins & Carley’s landlord. Barry Swenson owns it all and wants to keep this restaurant/club operator down. Hopkins and Liccardo are shilling for Barry, but why is Raul involved?

    The $7,000 reported in the article is a drop in the bucket. All of these people (think “The Wire”) have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Sam’s campaigns. See the most recent filings in the mayor race in 2014.

    http://nf4.netfile.com/pub2/(X(1)S(3gnzhfsqvsdjdnvnb1uormb4))/AllFilingsByCandidate.aspx?id=6807584&candidate=Sam+Liccardo

    The get around the campaign finance limits of $500 for city council and $1,000 for mayor by creating committees like “Neighbors for Sam Liccardo for Mayor 2014″ with no limits and the dump gobs of money in there. See how much Barry Swenson contributed? Hopkins and their employees?

    In the original application for this project, Barry Swenson (or his guy Bill) submitted a letter and had someone talk on his behalf at the original planning and city council meetings and at the most recent planning commission meeting. So far, there is no letter on the city website. We’ll see how it goes at the showdown after sunset tonight.

    • The get around the campaign finance limits of $500 for city council and $1,000 for mayor by creating committees like “Neighbors for Sam Liccardo for Mayor 2014″ with no limits and the dump gobs of money in there. See how much Barry Swenson contributed? Hopkins and their employees?

      Hehe I’m not defending Barry, but I’ve known about this “Backdoor” in our political funding. I have my own PAC in my back pocket for when the need arises.

      I just see the writing on the wall though. I think Sam, Barry, the rest of the council, etc would like to see the DTSJ core become a family friendly Disneyland, and move any elements they don’t like south of 280 where all the pot clubs have moved to.

      Makes sense on a lot of levels. Barry and friends have the money to really turn all of the DT core into a larger scale San Pedro Square (Ever notice how McEnery gets plenty of police protection, and the rest of you clubs get almost none?)

      So there’s forces at work here. Some people with a lot of money, power, have a vision of DTSJ. I don’t think it’s a bad vision… They see DTSJ core as all high density housing and retail. They see our entertainment district moving near spartan stadium, or just generally south of San Carlos (next to metro’s old spot). They see the clubs renovating what I’d call a “Depressed eyesore” of an area.

      It’s actually quite nice here to be honest. Sure there’s no sidewalks yet, but as soon as the city see’s a jump in tax revenue, I have no doubt they’ll be annexing this nice little unincorporated pocket.

      • So BUSINESS OWNER ON S. FIRST STREET just revealed themselves to me at the council meeting (I was there for Jake McClusky’s award) and had a nice conversation with me, explaining a lot of background issues, and gave me a lot of cues about Jenny Wolfes character and how she runs her businesses. She dropped a few names of mutual friends, and after speaking with them I’ve come to a solid decision on which way I will sway on this.

        I’m going back tonight to vouch support.

        I think the main issue here is as said above, there’s an undertone of “Vision” for development in the DTSJ core. The main issue with this is… Will Jenny’s new club be compatible with that vision?

        First we have to ask, “What is this Vision?”

        The vision of the people holding the cards is many more high rise, high density mixed use buildings. In turn, these buildings support the local economy of DTSJ. Hopefully a byproduct of this will be residents who generate more tax revenue.

        These people will expect more out of the downtown core. “Family Friendly” comes to mind. So we have to ask, “Will Wolfes club be compatible with this vision?”

        My own expertise on this… In 2001 I went to work for the 7 Bamboo karaoke lounge in Japantown. At the time, the bar had suffered a lot in terms of attendance. Mostly it was due to the omnipresent bad elements making these family friendly folks turn away from the venue. Lots of little gangbangers, ruffians, and bullish drunkard made visiting the venue intolerable for most people.

        Nobody with something to lose is going to frequent a venue where their safety is a concern.

        I spent so many nights turning these people away. I never had to raise a fist, because I had cameras everywhere, and simply pointing at a camera and telling them, “The police will see that video and know who you are” was enough to make them leave without too much effort (although we did call a grand total of 4 times over the 13 years for police assist) It was an uphill battle because there were many times the owners would try to veto my decisions. To them, anyone with money was a customer. So I can understand the council, Reed’s apprehension since this seems to be the norm umongst club owners. By 2005 the club had completely turned around. We went from being dive to “Geek”. Techies from all over the bay area came to sing, drink, and have fun in an environment they knew was “Safe”

        Of course, I quit due to my own safety concerns, as the venue owners saw no value in ensuring my safety.

        From what I’ve heard about Wolfes, she runs her clubs with much the same philosophy I did. People cannot enjoy themselves if they feel threatened, so there’s a stringently enforced dress code at her clubs. Bar staff is actually instructed to “Stop serving” if they see someone way too drunk. (One of Bamboo’s owners saw this as an opportunity to overcharge peoples credit cards and routinely served people way past the limit)

        Any presence in her clubs that is menacing, threatening, or otherwise bullying away the comfort of the general audiences good time is quickly ushered out to the sidewalk. It’s unfortunate that in past, San Jose has had, and still has, club owners that don’t understand this very basic concept. To borrow a word from Ash Kalra, “Systemic” is the proper approach to running a club. It’s organic in nature, and not driven solely by the pursuit of a dollar. It’s this type of presence that I feel can be compatible with the overall vision.

        Mr Swenson, should you come by this. I understand what you want out of the area. I can piss, bemoan here on SJI and other places all I want, but at the end of the day the build out of this city will progress despite any objections I have.

        The question though sir I pose to you is… After you rebuild that area, don’t you want someone like Jenny Wolfes, a person with an impeccable track record running a club in your new multitower complex?

        I know this is what you want to do with the area… So rather than fight it, why not cut a deal with Wolfes now? This is not somebody you want to chase away as a tenant. She is a good tenant for you, and for San Jose. Get her to agree to move when it’s time (to a spot you provide) and give her first dibs on a spot post construction.

        Thank you for your consideration.

  8. Just a quick note to praise Jennifer Wadsworth’s journalism. She put the pieces of this policy puzzle together in a professional way, and I appreciate it.

  9. Please for the love of God let our city grow up and actually have entertainment venues for adults!!!!!! We are not Hollister, we are supposed to be a big city. Act like it. Whether we like it or not clubs attract people downtown. How come every big city manages to have more than 5 clubs and we can’t? Downtown Campbell has better night life than San Jose!!

    Also the amount of police officers downtown at night is just ridiculous. Their presence sometimes with military weapons in full view almost helps create fights because they are aggressively stalking patrons hoping they break the law. People don’t feel welcomed here to enjoy restaurants or bars because of that.

    If people don’t like the noise either move to a small city with no downtown entertainment like Los Banos. Or get over it.