Permit protest stalls Patio project
by Matthew S. Bajko
The Patio Cafe space in the Castro has been fallow for nearly six years. What once was a cherished brunch spot and prime place to see and be seen in the city's gay neighborhood has instead sat empty behind a wooden door padlocked shut.
Artist renderings of what could be a lively eatery once again at 531 Castro Street â€“ posted some years ago to the restaurant's faÃ§ade â€“ have faded under the sun's harsh light. Â Area merchants and residents grimace at the sight of the gaping hole in the business district's streetscape.
Inside, what used to be storefronts and the Patio's waiting area and kitchen are now stripped to their structural bones. Exposed wood and steel beams lie overhead while the floor is nothing but boards, concrete, and dirt. Gone from the old patio space that gave the restaurant its name are the green plastic panels overhead, having been replaced some time ago with a mechanical glass roof that splits in two and recedes to let in sunlight and fresh air. Several wooden chairs, two tables and an industrial-size metal sink are scattered about the floor.
Last month, it looked as if the Patio would be returning to life as a functioning restaurant and bar, akin to West Hollywood's popular hangout The Abbey, according to those familiar with the proposed plans for the space. The city had issued permits for work to begin and Les Natali, who owns both the business and the property, had lined up a buyer willing to pay the estimated $1.5 million in tenant improvements and up to $14,000 in monthly lease payments.
"The neighborhood wants that place to reopen. To bring back the Patio Cafe, even though I don't plan to be there or operate it myself, I certainly think the neighborhood wants it. It is in the best interest of the neighborhood to get it open as soon as possible," Natali said.
But just days after workers moved in to start construction, city planners pulled the permits after receiving a complaint from a concerned citizen. Now it is up to building permit officials to determine the fate of the Patio space. They could grant the permits and allow the project to move forward, or they could decide the space can no longer be used for a restaurant operation.
"Ultimately, it is a decision I need to make. But my determination will then be appealed to the Board of Appeals. Unless I can Solomanically please everyone and that doesn't usually happen," Lawrence Badiner, the city's zoning administrator, told the Bay Area Reporter this week.
Daniel Frattin, a student at Hastings Law School, believes the city is legally required to declare that the space can only be used for a retail purpose. He complained last summer that the space had been abandoned for longer than 18 months and thus, under the city's codes, Natali had lost the right to reopen it as a restaurant.
Somehow his complaint had been lost, Frattin said, and when he learned permits had been granted to Natali this year, he contacted the planning department in early April to once again register his complaint. To bolster his claim, Frattin points to records with the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control showing that the liquor license for the Patio has been on "surrender status" since July 2004.
In his e-mail to planning staff, Frattin wrote, "In the nearly five years since the business was closed, little, if any, renovation work has been completed and, no one could seriously characterize the proposed remodel as one that has been 'diligently prosecuted.' Rather, by serially renewing permits for 10 years, the applicant has made only 'expressions of intent' that are insufficient to protect a token use from termination. As the period of discontinuance is clearly longer than that allowed by the code, the permit cannot be issued for the uses proposed."
In a letter dated April 19 that Badiner sent to Amy Lee, director of the Department of Building Inspection, he wrote that the permits were incorrectly issued on April 10 and said, "The subject property with a full-service restaurant use is a nonconforming use in the current Castro Street Neighborhood Commercial District." Because the Patio has been closed for more than 18 months, Badiner wrote that "... as a result of the period of nonuse for this subject noncomforming restaurant, it is deemed to be discontinued and may not be reestablished."
Badiner said his letter does not mean he is siding with Frattin in the matter, only that he is reviewing the questions raised around the permits. Natali has 15 days to appeal Badiner's decision to suspend the permits with the Board of Appeals, but as of Tuesday, May 2 no appeal had been filed.
Last Friday, April 26 Natali, his attorneys, and his real estate agent Lee Julien of Herth Real Estate met with city planners and Supervisor Bevan Dufty at the site to discuss the project and permit issues. Natali is gathering paperwork to submit to Badiner, which he believes proves he has not let the property languish. Instead, he argues the documents show he has tried to gain the right to commence construction on the property but has repeatedly been told to alter his plans or file for new permits.
"It was not abandoned. All during the time it has been closed there were active building permits and work was being done. We have the records to show that," Natali said.
Natali also insisted that he has no plans to operate the space himself and that he expects to complete the deal to sell the business once it is confirmed a restaurant can be opened there. The potential buyer, Rob Giljum, who co-bought the Rainbow Cattle Company in Guerneville last year and is in escrow to purchase the Patio, will likely remain without a signed deal until the permit matter is settled. In an e-mail, Giljum declined the B.A.R. 's request for an interview about his plans for the space, stating, "I will be happy to be interviewed if and when we do get a deal."
It would not be the first time that Natali announced a deal to hand over one of his establishments in the Castro and then, months later, with permits in hand, still be the proprietor. His past dealings in regards to the Pendulum, an 18th Street bar that catered to African Americans, are raising questions about his sincerity in wanting to lease the Patio.
Faced with a lawsuit from a competing buyer for the Pendulum, Natali last summer initially announced an agreement to sell a majority ownership to John MacNeil. The deal then unraveled, and barring another change in events, Natali plans to open the bar himself in June.
Asked if there was any chance he would change his mind about the Patio, Natali said, "I ran that restaurant for about 11 years. I don't intend to operate that restaurant, or any other restaurant, as far I am concerned. I am looking for a good deal and I feel I have two good deals at the moment," alluding to a possible second buyer for the business.
Questions also surround why Frattin is really opposing the issuance of the Patio permits. Frattin, who lives in the Mission, is a founding member of the group And Castro For All, which two years ago charged Natali with racist practices at his bar, San Francisco Badlands. The city's investigation of the matter included accusations of racist practices at the Patio. Both sides mediated a resolution to the charges this January and Natali has consistently denied the claims.
In a phone interview last week, Frattin insisted he had acted alone in filing his complaint and that his concerns about the Patio permit were separate from the Badlands investigation.
"It was something that I was aware of at the time we were involved in the Badlands campaign. However, we settled those disagreements. This is independent and it is something I have done as an individual," said Frattin. "Mainly, I just feel that it is important that permits issued are lawful. It would not change my mind on who the operator is."
Frattin said he raised his objections based solely on the letter of the law.
"You cannot open new bars and restaurants in the Castro unless it is a continuation of the old use. If Les files a permit for a retail store, I would not file an objection to that. It is a lawful use," he said.
Dufty said he has involved himself in the permit process because no matter what the planning department decides, he wants to see the Patio space utilized again.
"This is one of the largest commercial sites on Castro Street and not having a thriving business drags down not only that block but the overall area. I am not capable of making the zoning administrator's decision. I just want to get the facts on the table and try and move forward," said Dufty. "I am stopped all the time by neighbors and merchants who want to see something happen on the site and I am encouraged someone wants to lease the site and provide a restaurant again."