The Carlos Club

Monday night the Council voted 3 to 2 to deny the conditional use permit requested by the Carlos Club. I voted for denial. I thought you might be interested as to the major reasons I chose to vote the way I did.

City staff came out strongly, and clearly, against granting the permit because of public health, safety and welfare concerns. That, in turn, was based on an extrapolation of what the City is already experiencing with the Carlos Club at its current scale. Doubling, or more, the size of the Club could easily result in doubling the impact it has on the community. In fact, there’s a reasonable argument the increase could be exponential, given crowd dynamics.

It’s true that Fred Duncan, the owner and applicant, does not want an increased burden to be placed on the community. In fact, it’s clear Mr. Duncan wants to decrease the “footprint” his Club has on San Carlos’ public health and safety. He aims to do that by changing the type of customer who frequents his establishment, through shifting to being more of a restaurant, albeit one only for adults. Granted, he also needs to shift his business model because, as he himself put it, the “club” model doesn’t work in San Carlos. But the fact that he would be improving his financial situation while lowering the public safety impact is perfectly fine. It’d be a win/win, for him and San Carlos.

The key question in accepting this plan is quite simple: what if it doesn’t work? Plans and good intentions are one thing. But reality can have a nasty way of messing up the best-laid plans. If the “let’s become more of a restaurant” idea doesn’t pan out we could end up with a much larger nightclub, still dominated by the kinds of customers that create a burden for the community.

It’s generally not a good idea to take counsel from your fears. But it’s also not a good idea to ignore the possibility of adverse consequences. In the case of the Carlos Club we have a situation where our experts are telling us it would be contrary to the public interest to see an expanded nightclub. Yet once we award the permit we have very little real control over what will happen. Nor should we; the City’s not in the business of business. We can react to what happens. But we can’t make a certain outcome happen.

My concern was heightened by the answers Mr. Duncan gave to various questions. The expansion area — which would be the restaurant — wouldn’t close when the restaurant closed. Food would no longer be served, and patrons might no longer be able to order drinks in it (that’s unclear). But people would be allowed to move from the club to the restaurant area, and drink in it. For me, that means the restaurant area is only a restaurant up until the time it closes. After that, it’s an expansion of the nightclub. Given what I heard from staff, and my view of community expectations and desires, that’s not an acceptable outcome.

There’s another important issue that guided my thinking. A permit would run with the land, not Mr. Duncan. Even if everything worked out exactly as he hopes, there’s nothing to prevent the property from being sold. Along with the use permit. Which might not be implemented with the style, panache and vision that Mr. Duncan has. He said he would have no interest in selling, and I believe he would not choose to sell to someone who would cause the community problems. But in a free society owners get to realize their property rights, to a great extent, as they see fit. That’s as it should be. But it means when we grant a new property right we have little or no say over who is using it.

In the end, while I sympathize with Mr. Duncan’s desire to sustain, and grow, his business, his proposed plan poses public health, safety and welfare risks the community cannot afford. There are a number of alternative routes forward which would not have the same problems. I hope he will consider pursuing one of them.

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