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Babylon Burning

[whitespace] Cafe Babylon Sleeper SoFA: The number of empty storefronts and businesses on South First Street was recently increased by the closing of Cafe Babylon. Cafe Matisse owner Dennis Fong likens the promising downtown district to a smile with missing teeth.

Christopher Gardner

A South First Street warehouse swallows another coffeehouse and gallery, leaving a gaping hole in San Jose's cultural scene and three local entrepreneurs fleeing downtown. They say city restrictions made it impossible for them to stay open.

By Jim Rendon

ALEX SAMONTE tromps forcefully through the front half of his nearly empty cafe, reviewing the remnants of his broken dream: the unplugged espresso machine, the cooler of warm sodas, the taps that once poured imported draft beer. When he gets to the vast back room, he stops. The warehouse-high walls, once covered with paintings by local artists, are blank. The tables, once scattered throughout the space, are now lined up neatly along the walls. The room feels cavernous, like a gaping mouth capable of swallowing anyone who gets too close.

"The tables will be a problem," Samonte says. He and his partners bought, sanded and varnished the wood for the tops of the cafe tables. The problem is, their landlord owns the bases. "If we take the tops off, what's he going to do with the bases? What the hell are we going to do with the tops?" Samonte asks mostly to himself, as he ponders the deconstruction.

Samonte, 26, and his partners, Howard Buzick and Mike Massee, are in the final stages of dismantling their failed startup, Café Babylon. The coffee shop, eatery and nighttime hangout closed its doors at the end of March after only nine months in a space that has claimed two cafes in two years.

The cavernous 6,000 square feet of space once seemed to offer so much promise: for an art gallery, a cybercafe and a place for evening poetry slams. But the $11,500 monthly rent became a dead weight on the business, forcing the Babylon further into the red each month. And city restrictions--mainly from the Redevelopment Agency--prevented them from improving their bottom line by adding entertainment and outdoor tables.

"We just couldn't sell enough coffee and pastries to make it work," Samonte says.

In a leather trench coat, white shirt and long dark pony tail, Samonte does not fit the valley's T-shirt-and-jeans geek image. Neither do his partners. Buzick, a scruffy 29-year-old Adobe engineer who is busy translating Adobe Acrobat into Japanese, has a love of cafe culture. And his eye for it brought him to this space more than a year before he and his partner took it over. Massee, a tall, bony 24-year-old video animator, wanted to create a public space where art and technology could come together.

Unlike their high-tech brethren, caught up in the world of code, stock options and bigger, flashier homes, Samonte and his partners didn't care much for self-aggrandizement, or even for turning a profit.

"I could have saved up to buy a house in Palo Alto and a BMW, but that's not very much fun, is it?" Buzick says.

Instead, they wanted to spend some of their high-tech dividends to create a public space in downtown San Jose, one where coffee-drinkers could log on to the Internet from one of 42 Ethernet ports and where street poets could spit angry couplets into a microphone at night.

"This was one more cool place that we could hang out in," says Buzick, slumped down in one of the cafe's beige club chairs with the stuffing poking through at the arms. Buzick spent a lot of time at Kismet, the cafe and gallery that occupied the same space that Babylon eventually would. When Kismet went under after 16 months, Buzick started to fancy his own enterprise--a cafe, a restaurant, a nightclub, a gallery--all in the same spot. "I could design the menu," he says. "If I didn't like it, I could change it."

Counter Intelligence

THE THREE FIRST CAME up with the idea for the café before they went college. Over dinner at Denny's, they talked about opening a business where people could log onto the Net in public, pushing the often alienated culture of the then fledgling Internet into a social environment. "I always wanted to have a place to be a geek in public," Massee says, twisting himself into his chair like a pile of rope.

But running a business, even one that just breaks even, takes more than a good idea.

"We suck," Buzick says. "We're first-time business people; we had no idea what to do."

Nonetheless, Samonte says, they sold 600 cups of coffee a day, drawing the biggest crowds at night. To get more money in Babylon's register, the cafe brought in live entertainment, DJs and spoken-word events, a tradition left over from Kismet. In the beginning, they even booked some bands.

But then they ran into an unexpected roadblock. When Babylon began advertising events, the city prohibited bands at the café. For a few months the Redevelopment Agency allowed them to continue with DJs and spoken-word events. But in October, the agency changed its mind. Even those events would no longer be allowed.

When the owners tried applying for the permit they needed to book bands, the Redevelopment Agency, which handles all permitting for the SoFA area, bit back. The café's outdoor seating permit had expired. Sidewalk tables would have to be removed immediately.

With an upcoming event scheduled, the owners pushed harder to get the permit. But soon they discovered that the building was not zoned as a club. They would need a new building inspection to get the permit. Most likely the space would need some structural changes.

Already behind on rent, Buzick says they decided they had no choice but to close Babylon's giant steel doors.

"The Redevelopment Agency wants a gentrified South First Street that looks nice in a glossy travel guide," Howard Buzick says. "We didn't fit into that."

Who's on First?

BABYLON'S EXPERIENCE is not unique. South First Street merchants say they have been struggling for decades with an agency that is supposed to help businesses succeed. But instead, critics say, it has invested little in the neighborhood and sat on crucial properties, creating gaps between the lavishly rebuilt area north of San Carlos Street and the SoFA district.

Twenty-five years ago, Emile Mooser opened Emile's restaurant on South Second Street, just a block away from Café Babylon. Though at the time the property was a bargain and the street was not first-rate, eventually, he thought, the street would get spruced up. After all, he was bringing in the kind of wealthy clientele that any city would love to lure to town.

He met with Redevelopment Agency director Frank Taylor, dined with then Mayor Tom McEnery. He was promised palm trees and improvements. Nothing ever came through. Today the street is not swept, the sidewalk is cracked. The block, he says, is an embarrassment.

"In my wildest dreams, I would not have thought that this place [Second Street] would look the same as it did 25 years ago," he says. "Redevelopment has done nothing."

When customers call him from the Fairmont asking how to get to his restaurant, he tells them it's only five blocks, and they should take a cab. Often he drives them himself. "I just can't see people walking," he says. There are too many unfriendly spaces between the Fairmont and Reed Street.

For a business like a café that relies on foot traffic, those gaps have proven disastrous, says Dennis Fong, owner of Cafe Matisse, the d.p. Fong Gallery and an adjacent wine bar. "It's difficult for people to come here. They are unwilling to walk through dark voids. The streets need to be pedestrian friendly; they need to fill in the gaps." In the five years since he opened his café, he says, foot traffic has not grown any on First Street, even while the Redevelopment Agency poured hundreds of millions of dollars into downtown. First Street has remained isolated from any benefits that investment may have to offer.

"SoFA is hurt by having the federal building between the Fairmont and Original Joe's," say Chuck Hammers, chair of the Downtown Association's Retail Committee. "We don't want gaps," he says.

And when Hammers' committee was given the opportunity to advise the city on how to spend $100 million in Redevelopment Agency money, they chose to use it for retrofitting and building out structures near the transit mall to encourage more retail development.

Though South First Street was in the running for the giant subsidy, the neighborhood lost out to the area north of San Carlos Street where Redevelopment dollars have traditionally been spent.

Fil Maresca, who joined the cultural charge into the district that he dubbed SoFA 10 years ago with his nightclub FX, is critical of the agency's top-down approach.

"Everyone has their own idea of what downtown should be," he says. "But you can't make it into downtown Palo Alto or Haight Street. It's going to be what the market determines. Many times officials don't allow market forces to determine what businesses locate here. If someone is going to pick and choose who plays and who doesn't, it's going to fail."

But that is exactly what the agency has done, critics say. Rather than encourage investment in South First Street, the Redevelopment Agency discouraged development. As an example, Fong notes, the agency owns the Fox Theater and has been reluctant to rent the space.

Other giants like Dimensions remain empty. All told, Fong says, his block is 40 percent vacant.

Though the opera is scheduled to move into the Fox, Fong says he's not holding his breath. "While these spaces are vacant, the symphony has to play half the year at De Anza [College]," Fong says.

And Fong says those businesses that have done best in SoFA are the kinds of clubs that the city is reluctant to permit. South First Billiards faced an uphill battle to get into the neighborhood, but is now successful. The Cactus and the Usual have both managed to hang on.

"With next to zero capital investment, this area has outperformed all others in terms of its return on investment," Fong says.

Avant Guardians

THE YOUNG ARTISTS that were able to show their work to hundreds of people at Café Babylon may be hardest hit by its failure. It was one of the few places to make a serious commitment to young local visual artists and leaves many of them with few outlets.

"Café Babylon was the best place to show," says Jeff Faerber, a 25-year-old Sunnyvale painter who had two shows in the café. The large open space, combined with lots of foot traffic, made it an exciting forum for local visual artists who get little support or exposure here.

Faerber and six artist friends are planning a move to New York soon, in part, he says, because there is no way for an artist to have a serious career in Silicon Valley.

"They are leaving a whole segment of the population with nothing to do," Massee adds.

Inside the darkened café, the three owners talk over Babylon's wake party planned for the coming weekend and try to tally up how much beer they'll have.

With an entertainment permit, they might have been able to float the business for a little while longer, Buzick says. Perhaps they could have put in more computers, hired a manager and begun to turn things around.

While defeated, Buzick says he and his partners are not deterred. In a year, maybe less, they'll try it again. But they have learned their lesson. Next time they'll look for something out on 10th Street or somewhere else away from the watchful eye of Redevelopment.

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From the April 8-14, 1999 issue of Metro.

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