It is all but settled: Downtown Lafayette will have another “mega club” at 314 Jefferson St., site of the former Karma Nightclub & Lounge that was the source of so much roil and ranker a few years ago. It won’t be the 1,400-capacity behemoth that Karma was, but 900-plus revelers are still a heavy load to bear at 2 a.m. for the tight confines of an entertainment district that feeds almost entirely off the winding, two-lane street named for our third president. In fact, Delta Grand II, the dance club that took over the property, has been operating with little fanfare on Saturday nights since New Year’s Eve, pulling in about 100 patrons per night.
But that number promises to swell now that the owners of the building and the company operating Delta Grand II have, at least temporarily, cleared a licensing hurdle with the state office of Alcohol & Tobacco Control. On Jan. 24 in a hearing room at Louisiana State Police headquarters in Baton Rouge, ATC Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard extended for 35 days a temporary state liquor license for the building. Marine-Lombard’s decision did two things: It opened the door for another so-called mega club — depending on whom you ask, mega means capacity of more than 250 patrons — to open in Downtown Lafayette. And it effectively ended a long-running game of zoning-and-codes cat and mouse played between the city and the owners of the building.
LOST IN TRANSITION
Liquor licenses in Downtown Lafayette are tied to physical addresses, not to businesses or individuals — the basis of a moratorium on new bars passed by the City-Parish Council in 2003 in an effort to halt an unwelcome proliferation of bars along Jefferson Street. When the city began revitalizing Downtown with so-called Streetscape improvements in the mid to late ’90s, the vision was for a vibrant mix of business, dining, galleries, residences and, yes, bars. What we quickly got was Bourbon Street West, and a crowd-control nightmare for police.
The moratorium stipulates that if a bar isn’t operated for a year in one of the 16 addresses Downtown that have coveted bar licenses, that liquor license is voided and no other bar can operate in that location. Ever. This artificially inflates the value of that handful of buildings Downtown with bar licenses — restaurants can sell alcohol but must earn a majority of their profits from food sales — and it effectively grants the owners of those buildings cartel status with no competition. So in effect the moratorium also protects irresponsible operators.
Following the closure of Karma at the end of 2013, the city began in the summer of 2015 pressing the case that 314 Jefferson St. failed to operate a bar in the location for more than a year — between January 2014 and April 2015 — and started sending threatening letters to the owners warning them that they had failed to comply with the moratorium. The threats from the city in 2015 scared off one potential group fronted by Lafayette bar operator Shannon Wilkerson that summer. A sign for that operation, called The Plaza Downtown, was still hanging on the facade of 314 Jefferson at this writing.
But nightlife in Downtown Lafayette is lucrative, and the owners of the building — Andy Monceaux and Eric Cloutier own majority shares; Lafayette CPA Stacey Singleton owns a sliver — understandably lawyered up. And the city ultimately backed down. Why the city caved remains a bit of a head-scratcher. City officials have been mum on the topic. A public records request submitted by this newspaper on Jan. 17 to several city officials requesting emails with keywords like “moratorium” and “314 Jefferson St.” turned up about 18,000 pertinent hits and will take until mid-February to fulfill, suggesting there was a lot of behind-the-scenes discussion of how to go about keeping the old Karma shuttered for good.
[Editor’s Note: Since publication of this story, we’ve spoken with Michael Hebert, an assistant city attorney, who says the public records request submitted by this newspaper generated so many possible relevant hits because we asked for emails that contain the word “permit,” which is subject not uncommon to official city-government emails. After filtering out that term from our request, the number of possible relevant emails is expected to go down considerably.]
What seems clear is that slow-footed attention to the issue occasioned by a change in government leadership favored the building’s owners.
Karma closed at the end of 2013 after a tumultuous four-year run that frequently pitted the Downtown gentry and police against Karma’s operators and the building’s owners. A police representative said at one public meeting that cops were afraid to enter the building when it was full of people late on weekend nights.
Lafayette Consolidated Government revoked the club’s liquor permit in 2010, and while the revocation was upheld by the City-Parish Council, the club obtained an injunction from a federal judge at the same time it, along with a handful of other Downtown clubs, filed a federal lawsuit against LCG challenging local government’s levying of a fee against Downtown bars to help defray the cost of paying police overtime for security details Downtown on weekends. The council suspended the bar levy in response to the lawsuit, and Karma managed to stay in business with its liquor license in limbo until the end of 2013 when the owners led by Cloutier and Monceaux evicted Karma’s operators.
Correspondences between the city and the owners obtained by The IND via Cloutier show a mounting back and forth between the two sides marked by fine-toothed arguments about proper reading of city ordinance and quibbles over whether temporarily opening a “bar” in the location served as a resetting of the one-year “clock” per the terms of the moratorium.
A few weeks before now-retired Planning, Zoning & Development Director Eleanor Bouy’s letter in the summer of 2015, according to a source, several representatives of LCG, Downtown Lafayette and the Downtown Restaurant & Bar Association attended a conference in Chicago hosted by the Responsible Hospitality Institute, a nonprofit headed by Jim Peters, who is considered the premier nightlife consultant in North America and who advises cities large and small across the continent on best practices for managing entertainment districts.
When the Lafayette contingent told fellow attendees during a conference session that Lafayette relied on a moratorium to control Downtown nightlife, it was greeted with hisses of disapproval. Moratoria don’t work, the Hub citizens were told, for all the reasons outlined above: they promote cartels, protect bad operators like the former Karma, artificially inflate real estate values at the expense of neighboring addresses.
The takeaway from the conference for Lafayette: Limit bar capacity to 250 and create through ordinance what is referred to as conditional licensing — anyone applying for a bar/liquor license must submit a detailed plan for how they will address everything from trash and parking to policies on underage drinking and crowd control at closing time; and they must renew their licenses annually, meaning operators who don’t stick to the plans they submitted don’t get their licenses renewed.
Carlee Alm-LaBar, the current director of Planning, Zoning & Development for LCG, briefed the council last November on four ordinances currently in the draft stage designed to address issues like alcohol permitting and public safety Downtown. Alm-LaBar acknowledged during that briefing that the moratorium probably hasn’t been an effective way of managing nightlife. Those new ordinances, we’re told, won’t be ready for council review until sometime later this year.
By September 2015, Bouy, Alm-LaBar’s predecessor, had had enough. In a letter to Steve Ramos, attorney for the owner group, Bouy wrote that “...it is undisputed that the Property was not used as a bar from Jan. 1, 2014 until April of 2015. The alleged use of the Property as a bar on December 27, 2014 cannot be classified as a legitimate, good faith use of the Property as a bar, but instead must be classified as a transitory, makeshift, or pretended use thereof. The transitory, makeshift or pretended nonconforming use of property is irrelevant to a determination of whether that property has been vacant for more than twelve months.”
What Bouy was saying is that opening a “bar” for one day in order to stay in compliance with the one-year rule in the moratorium wasn’t considered legitimate compliance with the terms of the moratorium.
Ramos responded to Bouy on Nov. 6, arguing that the owners didn’t regain control of the building after evicting Karma until Jan. 1, 2014, and therefore had a year — until Jan. 1, 2015 — to open a bar, which they did on Dec. 27 of 2014, and for which they paid sales taxes. Ramos didn’t even address Bouy’s claim that the Dec. 27 operation was “transitory, makeshift or pretended.” But Ramos’ letter did threaten, in a lawyerly way, a lawsuit if the city didn’t relent: “I ask that you please consider this letter carefully. We believe a proper reading of the ordinances ... resolves this matter in our favor. While my clients stand willing and able to pursue this matter further, we hope to avoid unnecessary time and expense and simply ask that you reconsider your September 20th letter and reverse your prior position.”
Less than two weeks before Ramos’ letter to Bouy, on Oct. 24, former state Rep. Joel Robideaux beat Dee Stanley, the three-term chief administrative officer for LCG, in the race to replace Joey Durel as city-parish president (a position now called mayor-president). The change in leadership at the top of LCG also meant a change in department heads — Bouy was already planning to retire — a learning curve, personnel changes and nesting at City Hall occasioned by the leadership transition.
It wasn’t until May of last year, more than six months after Ramos’ cordially threatening letter to Bouy and five months after Robideaux and four new (out of nine) council members were sworn in, that an attorney for LCG notified part-owner Stacey Singleton that the city was buckling: “After consideration of the material Steven [Ramos], you and others have provided, LCG has made a decision not to pursue the particular matter outlined in Eleanor Buoy’s [sic] correspondence dated Aug. 21, 2015 at this time.
“That having been said, please understand that our decision in this regard does not foreclose us looking into the operations at 314 Jefferson Street at anytime in the future.
“...In order to make sure that all parties involved are clear as to the present situation, please be notified that we consider the bar business at 314 Jefferson Street to be closed effective January 1, 2016. This will be the date that [the Planning, Zoning & Development Department] considers when evaluating whether the premises meet the requirements of the [Unified Development Code] with regard to non-conforming use.”
Done. The “clock” was reset. The owners of 314 Jefferson St. had until the end of 2016 to get another bar operating in the address to make nice with the moratorium. On Dec. 31, Delta Grand II opened its doors.
The moratorium on new bars Downtown passed by the council in 2003 was meant to be temporary — a Hail Mary effort to slow the proliferation of bars until the city could better control the situation through ordinance. But the city also went through a leadership transition shortly after the moratorium was passed, with Durel and a new council coming on board, and three successive terms in office by Durel and most of that same City-Parish Council failed to produce any ordinances addressing nightlife Downtown. The moratorium lingered, and so did the 2 a.m. crowd-control issues for police. (On Jan. 24 of this year, just hours after the Lafayette contingent returned from Baton Rouge with news of the loss before the ATC commissioner, new Lafayette Police Chief Toby Aguillard told the City-Parish Council that he would soon present a plan for a new police detail Downtown that doesn’t rely on overtime.)
It’s clear that until some new legal framework for nightlife in Downtown Lafayette is created and police have a handle on how to control crowds, the moratorium will remain in place.
“We need to get ordinances in place, give police better tools to manage them, demonstrate that it’s working and that we have a more vibrant and safe Downtown, then let’s talk about lifting the moratorium,” says Pat Trahan, a banker and Downtown resident who serves as chairman of the Downtown Development Authority board and who attended the Jan. 24 hearing in Baton Rouge. “I think the sequence is important.”
SNEAKING BACK IN
Last November, about a month before Delta Grand II opened, Jim Poché, a real estate developer and architectural consultant with long ties to Downtown, caught wind that a permit-pending notification had been posted on a rear-side door at 314 Jefferson. Prospective businesses are required to post such notices to let neighboring businesses and residents know about their plans. Poché and several other prominent Downtown denizens — Trahan, attorney Barry Sallinger, who lives Downtown, advertising exec and Downtown resident Julie Calzone and others — filed grievances with ATC in an effort to block issuance of the state liquor license, hence the Jan. 24 hearing.
At the ATC hearing, Poché testified that the notice seemed to be intentionally placed in a spot where it wasn’t likely to be seen, obscured by a dumpster off a privately owned parking lot that is rarely used during daytime business hours. Their gambit at the hearing: Occupancy of the three-story building will violate fire codes because the parking lot adjacent to 314 Jefferson, which is owned by a third party, includes a stairwell and landing accessing the third floor of 314; the lease on the parking lot expired in 2013, and if the operator of a bar at 314 is unable to access the emergency exit connected to the parking lot, then the third floor couldn’t be utilized. The fire marshal would say “no” went the reasoning of the supplicants before Commissioner Marine- Lombard, who became visibly flustered early in the hearing. “All I’m hearing are Lafayette coding issues,” she declared during Poché’s testimony.
“If you had filed objections based on all these local issues, I probably would not have granted this hearing,” the commissioner later said to Winston Decuir, the Baton Rouge attorney representing those opposed to another mega bar opening up in the location.
Marine-Lombard did agree that because the owners of the building do not own the adjacent parking lot and therefore couldn’t access the stairwell and landing for the third floor, the third floor cannot be utilized as part of the bar operation. That knocked the capacity of the building down from 1,400 to about 930 — still far too many revelers for most Downtown stakeholders’ comfort.
The attorney for the operator of the fledgling new bar at the address, Delta Grand II, insisted his client is running a clean operation.
“It’s not going to be the same club as Karma,” said attorney Glenn Soileau after the hearing. “This guy doesn’t run a business like that.”
“This guy” is Robert Caillier, an Opelousas businessman who has operated dozens of bars over the last 25 years. Last November Caillier formed a limited liability company, Delta Grand II LLC, to open up shop in the old Karma building. Delta Grand II opened on New Year’s Eve and has opened each Saturday night since. Co-owner Cloutier, who flew into Louisiana from his home in California for the hearing, said afterward that Delta Grand will flip on the “open” sign on Fridays, too, by the end of January (before this story went to press).
The disconnect between the imperatives of nightlife commerce that often rely on patron volume and the public safety concerns of the city, police and DDA was underscored by Caillier’s reaction — in victory — to the hearing: “This is the thing: They’re fussing over capacity. I wish I could open the doors and 1,000 people would show up. That’s not the case. We’ve been open over a month, and we’ve barely had 100 people each night. Let’s be real about it: It’s not that easy putting people through the door.”
Opponents of any new mega bar opening at 314 would argue that while it might not be easy putting people in the door, it’s easy putting them back out at 2 a.m., and once outside they’re no longer the bar’s concern — they’re a public safety issue.
Those who opposed issuance of the license said after the hearing that they are upset with the commissioner’s ruling, but still hope to rally support with consolidated government, specifically the fire marshal’s office, to at least chip away at the maximum capacity for the bar, if not convince the city to revisit whether terms of the moratorium had in fact been violated. But at this rate it appears inevitable that a bar with a capacity of at least several hundred will once again pulsate on weekend nights in Downtown Lafayette.
“I think the fact that there is a temporary license gives us a chance to investigate the situation and make our voices be known,” said Downtown resident Calzone. “If we have 35 days to really make our voices be heard back in the local community, I think that is a good thing. I think all of the issues that we all talked about with mega clubs still exist.”