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July 25-31, 2007

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Silicon Valley News Notes

Blue Monkey Gone to Heaven

First it was the SoFa Lounge, which closed at the beginning of the year thanks to a fire code requiring the owners to retrofit the old upstairs space with an elevator (which isn't even affordable on eBay). Now, another small, independent lounge—the Blue Monkey Lounge on San Fernando street next door to Gordon Biersch—has shut its doors for good. Owner Jorge Sanchez, who also owns Chacho's in downtown San Jose, blames the city's bureaucratic hall of mirrors, which he was forced to enter when the police flagged him for noncompliance for an assembly permit (not to be confused with an occupancy permit, which was in order. How anyone can have occupants who are not assembling remains a mystery). With no grace period in which to comply, Sanchez's occupancy was reduced from 149 to 49 people. Thus hamstrung, he then embarked on a four-month epic paperwork journey full of hand drawings, fire inspectors, engineers, more hand drawings, building inspectors, planners, parking assessments, an address change, fees, more fees and time. Lots of time. Hemorrhaging money while on the cusp of renegotiating his lease, Sanchez made some last desperate calls to the city. "It wasn't a priority for a lot of people I was making comments to," says Sanchez, "so I just decided to close." All this for a venue with a relatively clean operating record during its three-year tenure. "It's unfortunate that the city doesn't have some type of system that is actually going to help small business owners," says Sanchez. "I found this out back in the day when I opened Chacho's—unless you're really well connected and an outspoken, active member of the downtown business community, you kind of operate in the shadows because it's hard to get people to hear you. You go to one window, they say, 'It's not us, go to the next window,' and every window there's a fee. Pay the fire department money, pay the police department, pay building, pay planning—it's like you have to grease everybody's palm just to get a little piece of paper." Speaking now as a former lounge owner, Sanchez suggests a possible solution to help small business owners: a grace period that actually takes into account the city's own lengthy bureaucratic timelines. "It's kinda like PD operates in cold turkey, you know?" asks Sanchez, "And then you're like, 'What do I do? You're keeping me from paying my bills.' Sometimes I have a really had time understanding how they expect us to flourish down here."

Elementary At Watson

San Jose leaders may have saved themselves from a big lawsuit headache when they recently jumped to clean up nine back yards bordering the contaminated Watson Park—a safe move that Santa Clara leaders aren't making in the midst of a current toxics controversy (see MetroNews story). Construction crews digging to build a new skate ramp in 2004 ran into a layer of ash and debris left over from Watson Park's past life as a municipal dump, demolished in the 1930s. Discovered under the green turf were unsafe levels of lead and burnt ash, both substances toxic to humans and the environment. So officials quickly closed down the park and launched a meticulous testing and cleanup process. San Jose–based environmental consultant Susie Vedantham dug as deep as 30 feet and went into neighboring back yards to chart the contamination. When she found lead and ash in nine properties outside the Watson Park boundaries, San Jose officials didn't wait for a court to tell them to take responsibility. They had the yards cleaned by removing and replacing three feet of soil over a layer of plastic. So even though City Attorney Rick Doyle fielded one hefty damages claim earlier this year, things could be worse. Fifteen members from one family who live or have lived in a house on Terrace Drive, filed claims against the city totaling $19.4 million. All of the applicants described identical and vague injuries to their physical and mental health, allegedly as a result of the soil contamination, even though only two of them currently reside at the house near Watson Park. "I really cannot talk about it," said Susan Bernal, one of the plaintiffs who still lives there. Doyle didn't seem to be sweating it when he sent Fly copies of the claims. "They're being rejected at this point," he said.

Curtain Call

Just blocks away from where immigrant workers were setting up the Grand Prix's grandstands, the County Human Relations Commission held their public forum on Immigration Reform. Immigrants from India, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam spoke—some anonymously from behind a curtain—about the hardships they faced seeking citizenship and the need for humane immigration reform that keeps families together. University students said without that Social Security numbers they can't drive, can't work in their chosen professions and worry they'll be deported. Others tearfully spoke about not being able to go back home to visit dying relatives because they'll lose their standing in the visa application process. Maria Fuentes from County Mental Health Services said "immigration reform starts at home" and urged the commissioners to start by immediately improving county policies. The HRC said they'll organize the information gleaned during the five-hour forum and over the next few months develop it into policy recommendations for the Board of Supervisors. "The Board of Supervisors doesn't give the HRC much power, so it takes a long time to accomplish things," says one commissioner. "The aim is good."


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