Owner Says ZAB Restrictions Might Kill Art-House Plan

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday September 14, 2007

The owner of the proposed Muse Art House and Mint Cafe on Telegraph Avenue said that the project might be dead after a ruling by the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) Thursday. 

ZAB voted 6-2 to approve the restaurant and an art gallery in the former location of the Blue Nile Restaurant, but did not grant the requested permits for distilled spirits and expansion of hours at the site. 

The board decided that the cafe could remain open until midnight on weekends and 10 p.m. on weekdays, turning down owner Ali Eslami’s request to stay open until 2 a.m. on weekends and midnight on weekdays in response to neighborhood concerns about noise and rowdiness. 

“This will kill the project,” Eslami, who said he has spent close to $1 million on the project so far, told the Planet Thursday. “I will appeal ZAB’s final decision to the City Council, but if I have to decrease the hours and eliminate liquor then the project will not be feasible.” 

Eslami said that the zoning board was forcing him to open a restaurant when he intended to create an art house. 

“My whole idea is modeled after the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco,” said Eslami, referring to the interdisciplinary artist space on Folsom Street which hosts collaborative exhibitions, classes and small concerts and doubles up as a working artist studio and gallery. “Being on Telegraph is a challenge. Forcing the Muse Art House to become a restaurant is a big disappointment for me.” 

He said that without a permit to sell hard alcohol and extended hours, the business wouldn’t be able to make a profit. 

“We are not going to be able to generate revenue from the art part of the project,” Eslami said. “Our main revenue will be from the food side and the alcohol will add a competitive edge. It will bring in a wider spectrum of people.” 

For a group of Telegraph neighbors who had come to the meeting to protest Eslami’s plans, the proposed project meant only one thing: drunken college kids sauntering past their front doors when the cafe closed at 2 a.m. 

“Mr. Eslami is trying to convince you that it’s going to be an art cafe, but I am calling it a night club because that’s what it is,” said Dione Cota, who lives near the proposed project. “The late-night disturbances on Telegraph make me call the police weekly. If you approve this project I will be calling them nightly.” 

Recalling drunken brawls, loud music and public urination that took place at the now-closed business called The Patio on Dwight Way, long-time neighbor Dean Hunsaker said that he wanted the new business to be responsible to the community. 

“We would not want to allow something like The Patio to happen again,” he said. “Making alcohol available in this part of town generates a red flag. The question is: what type of restaurant, and what type of drinks? ... What exactly is ‘occasional live entertainment? What kind of music, how loud, how frequently?” 

Berkeley Police Chief Doug Hambleton, in a letter to ZAB, said that he believed the proposed business would not call for additional police hours. 

“Eslami described artistic events, poetry readings and alternative live performances such as jazz, folk, foreign and ethnic music coupled with food service,” Hambleton wrote in his letter. “Alcohol service would be incidental to the other aspects of the business and his stated intention for his desire for a hard spirits license is to be able to serve high end liquors and cordials. [It’s] not a typical bar-type operation.” 

Hambleton added that the business plan should be clear in the use permit to avoid confusion. 

Eslami also recently met with Regent Street neighbors and members of the Willard Neighborhood Association to negotiate an agreement between the two sides about alcohol permits and late hours. 

Vincent Casalaina, president of the Willard Neighborhood Association, lauded Eslami on his efforts to reach out to the neighbors. 

“We sincerely hope that Mr. Eslami does indeed have an art cafe and we will be his best customers if that is the case,” he said. “The reality is that the proposed site is a few blocks from the university and that this area has significant problems due to alcohol use by the student population. We don’t want to add fuel to the fire with additional hours and a hard-liquor license in a site that is almost 6,000 square feet right next to a residential neighborhood especially when so many city, university, police and neighbor resources are spent trying to reduce the problem.” 

“We are not just catering to college students, but to a sophisticated artistic community,” Eslami said, “Right now there’s no place to have a decent late-night meal on the Southside.” 

He added that he hoped to open the project before January. 

“About 45 percent of police resources are tied up in the Southside,” said Telegraph resident Doug Buckwald. “Crime is up 25 percent in the Southside. If we open another establishment that is open late and serves hard liquor we will get more of these problems.” 

“This will not be a rowdy place.” Eslami told the board. “We will not serve them beer and let them out ... Alcohol is incidental here. We can’t create a concept and have unhappy neighbors. We understand the concerns but not letting a new business come in is not the answer.” 

Board member Terry Doran called the proposed project an “unique establishment for the South Campus.” 

“It appeals to a broad group of people, especially people from my generation,” he said. “I’d like to have a drink, I’d like to stay up till 2 a.m. and I’d like to hang out.” 

Board member Jesse Arreguin said that he was against the request for hard alcohol. 

“You haven’t demonstrated the necessity for that at this time,” he told Eslami. “Beer and wine is totally reasonable.” 

“To take the risk of hard liquor and later hours puts the risk on neighbors,” said board member Bob Allen. 

The board also decided that an acoustical study would be conducted on the noise levels and that the permit would be reviewed in six months. Cafe patrons would not be allowed to park in the residential parking zones and would instead be directed to park at a nearby UC parking lot.