The cabaret permit hearing for Eli’s Mile High Club, held August 28th at City Hall, was inconclusive. Various inspections need to be completed, testimony reviewed, and conditions proposed before any permit will be issued.
The twenty or so people in attendance appeared to be divided between Eli’s neighbors and those with some financial interest in the club (owners, employees, contractors, vendors, booking agents), with a few other interested parties thrown in. The half dozen immediate neighbors who attended expressed concerns about noise, parking, blocked driveways, loitering, rowdy behavior, tobacco smoke and misdeeds of prior owners. Sgt. Kyle Thomas of OPD voiced three concerns of the police department: diversion of resources to respond to problems typical of nightclubs, issues of compatible use with a club located in a residential neighborhood, and a concern the club would adversely boost crime statistics in the area (and thereby make Captain Toribio look bad). Supporters of the club pointed to its rich and long history as an entertainment venue and restaurant, the efforts the new owners are making to address residents’ concerns, and the jobs and tax revenue a successful nightclub would generate.
The new club owner, Geoffrey Melville, son of a blues musician, expressed his fervor to host live entertainment and his commitment to accommodate the neighbors to make it happen, while admitting a total lack of experience. Head of security Jason Herley, with some prior experience working at nightclubs back east, described the management’s response to recent incidents involving a blocked driveway, noise complaints and unruly behavior in a nearby park. The club will clear the patio area after 10 pm if it gets noisy, and will station doormen to monitor patrons as they exit. Plans are to have one security guard for every 45 patrons. Soundproofing professional Brian Hood stated that existing soundproofing had been poorly installed and that he would dramatically improve the noise situation, but that it was unrealistic to think that anything could completely block all noise.
Hearing Officer Barbara Killey questioned how club management would judge when the patio noise level was inappropriate or not. She rebuked property owner Mike McDonald for not taking responsibility for excesses allowed by previous club owners, and noted that the property owner was ultimately responsible for noise violations, with a $1,000 per day penalty possible. Mike’s note that he had spent some $80,000 in the past on soundproofing upgrades was brushed aside. Ms. Killey informed the owners that Oakland’s noise ordinance does not allow noise from a business to be heard over 50 feet away in any direction. She questioned the experience and capitalization of the new club owners and expressed doubt that a permit could be granted without a good track record being first established.
What was missing from the process was any sense of responsibility on the part of neighbors for their own welfare. Some houses in the area are over a hundred years old, with single-pane windows and no insulation—barely better than tents at blocking noise. The Hearing Officer stated that Eli’s must upgrade to meet current standards; the fact that it has offered entertainment for decades at that location in its current condition (or worse) is insufficient. But neighbors, apparently, have no responsibility to upgrade their own dwellings if they have problems with noise. Nor does one’s decision to live in a neighborhood in the shadow of a major freeway interchange, next to the BART tracks on a street with AC Transit buses, seem to bring with it any expectation that one should tolerate a high noise level.
It seems unlikely that a permit will be issued – or that the club will survive. A few neighbors are determined to close it down. The City’s attitude, as usual, is that businesses must meet ever higher standards regardless of cost, although City officials routinely wonder aloud why Oakland has little retail, a shrinking business tax base, and one of the nation’s highest percentages of consumer dollars spent in neighboring communities. The winners here may be a few close neighbors who bought property cheaply due to location, and likely will get a boost in value if condos are built on the land instead. The losers, as usual, will be the citizens of Oakland, who will lose an iconic cultural treasure.