Long-Shuttered Downtown San Jose Venue Gets a Lifeline

Once one of the busiest and loudest street corners in San Jose, two neighboring properties at the intersection of Second and Santa Clara streets, for more than six years, have sat empty, dark and silent.

Previously home to nightlife venues Voodoo Lounge and Toons, the combined 12,000 square feet of space provided a crash course in sound throughout the aughts. Voodoo hosted punk and rock shows as well as notable touring acts in hip-hop and R&B, while the latter blended genres as a piano bar and Top 40 dance club.

Since 2011, however, when both businesses shuttered, the corner has been an entertainment abyss. That should change soon.

Renovations are underway to transform the old Toons lounge, a 5,528 square-foot property at 52 E. Santa Clara St., into a bar and arcade come spring 2018. Last month, business partners George Lahlouh, Dan Phan and Johnny Wang officially closed on a lease of the property with Lift Partners.

The proprietors of the high-end yet unstuffy cocktail lounge Paper Plane on South First Street—Phan and Wang own the neighboring gourmet hot dog and craft beer shop, Original Gravity Public House—nabbed the venue to capitalize on an industry trend they’ve seen in other major markets, such as Barcade in New York City, Ground Kontrol in Portland, Brewcade in San Francisco and Button Mash in Los Angeles.

“We are creating a cocktail-beer bar that will encompass the best of both worlds,” Lahlouh says. “The best that Paper Plane and Original Gravity have to offer.”

Gensler, the international architecture, design and planning firm, which has a San Jose office just down the street on West Santa Clara, will help oversee the design of the yet-to-be named “barcade,” which will have two bars, a separate kitchen, and arcade and pinball games in nearly every direction.

“It’ll all be coin operated, kind of like when you were a kid at Golfland,” Phan says.

Many of the machines were purchased at Captain’s Auction Warehouse, which is based in Anaheim. The barcade’s ownership group is clearly stoked about the selection of titles they’re acquiring, which include pristine condition games such Terminator 2 and NBA Jam. “We have no emulators,” Phan says. “The original cabinet is really important.”

The pinball selection, however, could be the crown jewel of the barcade’s offerings. They’ll feature titles such as Medieval Madness and Monster Bash, which can retail online for as much as $17,000.

“We like to think we have the six best pinball games ever made,” Phan says.

For now, the space previously home to Voodoo Lounge, located at 14 S. Second St., remains vacant. The music venue was a popular attraction in downtown San Jose’s nightlife scene for 11 years, before closing in February 2011. In its last month, Grammy Award-winning artist Miguel appeared at a surprise show, and a month before that rapper Talib Kweli performed.

Voodoo Lounge was pivotal in San Jose’s small live-music clique along with the Cactus Club and Blank Club, bringing live music downtown. Performers may not have been big enough to fill SAP Center, but they gave locals an opportunity to witness up-and-comers and the occasional prime-time act.

Both the Voodoo and upcoming barcade properties are under the ownership of San Francisco-based Lift Partners, which purchased the adjoining venues from Saratoga Capital in August 2016 as part of a $33.5 million package, according to the Silicon Valley Business Journal.

Many have wondered why the properties languished for so long, and it appears the new owners had a vision that didn’t entail waiting for a residential project to fill the space.

“Previously it was a challenging retail market, but there is a lot of good news in the last three years,” says Chris Freise says, manager and co-founder of Lift Partners.

Nate Echeverria, director of policy and operations for the San Jose Downtown Association,  suggests the long wait might have had something do with the interior. “The spaces that tend to stay vacant longer are a raw shell,” he says. “Whoever goes in there will have to install a new [heating and air conditioning system] and come up to all the green building standards.”

For small businesses, that’s a costly upfront challenge.

The city has been working with small businesses to give them a head start in this process, through the San Jose Storefronts Initiative, which offsets some city permit fees and taxes. This initiative was funded with $250,000 and it intends to divvy up the money to help offset the costs of city fees, permits and taxes, as well as exterior improvements of up to $5,000 for existing small businesses.

Freise says that Lift Partners, which have a go-getter reputation for retail projects after coming out of Seattle and working with Amazon, knew the space needed to add something vibrant to the well-trafficked downtown corridor.

“We are looking for authentic retail,” he says. “You know it when you see it. … 7-Eleven came knocking on our door—we did not accept. It doesn’t add to the overall story of downtown.”

Freise, now a resident of the area, has an idea of what community members are craving.“We want to see these places activated,” he says.

Echeverria notes that people have told the city they want to see a mix business in the old Voodoo space, perhaps even a collection of restaurants that offers an open space and food options throughout the day.

The barcade team intends to bring on executive chef Winson Duong to craft a diverse food menu with lunch hours available for all ages. In the late afternoon, the venue will go to 21 and over.

“There’s no reason why Silicon Valley won’t embrace it,” Lahlouh says. “The timing is right, the folks that grew up with these games are in their late 20s and 30s.”

Every member of the team hails from San Jose, and that hometown connection seems to have also resonated with local crowds. The intersection of Second and Santa Clara streets can be a haven for the homeless and corner boys in the evenings, Phan and Lahlouh acknowledge, but the same could have been said about the block of South First Street they helped reinvigorate with Original Gravity and Paper Plane. Bars such as 55 South and Nomikai also assisted in the SoFA District’s renaissance as one heads further down to the downtown arts district.

“Right now, if everything goes smooth—which rarely happens—we’re looking at February, March of next year,” Phan says.

Once that happens, a once-cracking venue will be reintroduced to the community through an equally familiar concept.

“We’re kind of reintroducing an old idea that’s been forgotten,” Lahlou says, “which is that arcades are social.”

11 Comments

    • People who cruise wouldn’t be going to a barcade anyway. It’s fair to say that getting rid of cruising though did create a vacuum that this is filling.

  1. Let’s just hope they keep the unruly ones out of the scene. I’ve been to Barcade in NYC before and there was nothing but good vibes.

  2. > “We like to think we have the six best pinball games ever made,” Phan says.

    Adams Family? Fishtales? Terminator 2? I better not be seeing any Sega or Gottlieb in that mix, they made the crappiest pins ever.

    Also, why no “free play”? 16-bit in Columbus Ohio had all the machines set to free play. As Sean says above, keep the unruly folks out, you’ll be fine.

  3. Sounds great to me, pinball is always a win. I’d like some streetfighter and mrs. Pacman of course. Good luck boys!

  4. If you don’t mind a little drive from san jose, or if you’re in the gilroy or hollister area, there is already a new vintage arcade open for business. It’s called Sweet Machine and you can find it at 304 3rd street, San Juan Bautista, 95045. games from the 80’s and 90’s, candy and specialty soda. come check us out!

  5. Downtown San Jose (along with Campbell) at one time was the place to be, but it wasn’t the unruly crowds. It was the SJPD heavy handed tactics, which still exists to this day! I worked in the nightclub industry for 11+ years, from San Jose to Los Gatos, San Jose Live, Boswells, McNeil’s & Mt Charley’s.

  6. What this place needs is a place that plays live band like toons did.. Get the local “good” talent to play old school music..

  7. I think that is a great idea. it must be confuaing to people not from here to wonder what so these people do and the answer would ve did not do for theyve literally taken almost all the fun away. Its so boring here now I generally dont bother to go out anymore because its just another Starbucks which i domt care for or some lame overexpensive othing store I cant afford to go to.

  8. Hard to believe downtown isn’t more lively -> Hello, SJSU is right down the street! Although the past few times we’ve been, it’s looking better. Idea – eminent domain the flat expensive parking lot across from GB and build a free 4 story garage.

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