Kava is a nonintoxicant drink celebrated for its social nature and euphoric effects. However, things at the MeloMelo Kava Bar are anything but chill.
As for every business during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s been an arduous year of financial struggles and changing regulations steeped in uncertainty for the downtown Santa Cruz establishment.
Now, the city has slapped a red tag on their outdoor dining structure on Pacific Avenue with an original removal notification slated for March 17, extended for now to March 22. If the business does not comply, it will be fined $2,500 for every day the structure remains, along with any extra fees the city incurs during the process.
“It’s been an exhausting year of trying to navigate this and begging the government for money,” says MeloMelo Kava Bar owner Rami Kayali. “Then to come home and have your own city try to bury you.”
The disputed structure in question is an 8-by-30 foot wooden, covered awning also known as a parklet. Like most Santa Cruz restaurants and bars, MeloMelo began outdoor seating in June as soon as it was allowed while the county was in the purple tier of the state’s reopening plan. The city’s Temporary Outdoor Expansion Area Program, which allows businesses to use outdoor space within certain guidelines, currently has 80 participating establishments.
With the onset of the rainy season earlier this year, MeloMelo General Manager Amira Fangary says they wanted to ensure customers had a dry area to commune and drink their beverages.
“It’s hard to have consistent business hours when the weather dictates when we can be open,” she says.
Temporary emergency codes only allow for open air or tent covered seating, not structured coverings. However, when the MeloMelo bar looked into the tents, Fangary says the two businesses that rent them don’t have anything small enough for their space, which is significantly smaller than areas at other establishments like 515 Kitchen and Cocktails or The Asti.
According to Kayali, he reached out to the Downtown Association on Feb. 9 to ask about permitting. By Feb. 16 he had not received a response and decided to build the structure anyway, citing economic hardship and an opening in his contractor’s schedule, with the next opening at least another six weeks away.
“It was ‘now or never,’” Kayali recalls. “Every time it rained my business went to zero.”
He says the structure was built with pressure-treated wood. It took the contractor roughly six hours to build and cost around $4,000 for materials and labor.
“The guy who built this has built them throughout the Bay Area,” says Kayali, who also owns kava bar locations in Oakland and Berkeley, both of which have wooden parklets.
The day it was built, the Downtown Association directed Kayali to speak with Rebecca Unitt, business liaison for the Santa Cruz Economic Development Office. Kayali says not only did Unitt tell him the structure was unsanctioned and needed to be immediately removed, MeloMelo also didn’t have a permit for outdoor dining, despite operating outdoor seating with no issue from the city. He says the latter was an “oversight,” as the establishment had applied for outdoor dining insurance and thought the certificate was their permit.
Kayali tells GT that between Feb. 17 and March 10, he and Unitt discussed the best way to proceed with the situation, including filing the proper permits, submitting designs and making sure the parklet was properly anchored, a chief concern of the city. He says he was happy to make the necessary changes assuming it would greenlight the structure. He even offered to pay for structural inspection out of pocket and offered to sign an affidavit agreeing to remove the parklet in October, when the city’s Temporary Outdoor Expansion Area Program is currently slated to end. Emails obtained by GT confirm these claims, although nowhere in the correspondence was approval guaranteed by the city.
After spending another $800 on concrete buckets for anchoring and filing the paperwork, city inspectors assessed the structure, and on March 11 it was red tagged for removal.
“It goes back to it being an unpermitted structure,” says Unitt, adding that under current building codes it is considered a permanent structure, and permanent structures must have anchoring drilled into the ground in some manner. However, as this is on public property, drilling is not permitted.
She says the city is committed to working with businesses, especially during these hard Covid times, but the MeloMelo parklet controversy boils down to safety concerns.
“The structure wasn’t presented to us with any plans to be reviewed, how it was constructed, the materials that went into it, and whether or not it was constructed safely enough to withstand an earthquake,” Unitt says. “Since we didn’t have the plans ahead of time, we were not able to verify any of that.”
She says the city is willing to work with Kayali on a future, temporary, outdoor dining area once the wooden structure has been properly removed.
However, Kayali says that he has already spent most of his money building the parklet and making the necessary guideline changes expressed in the emails. He believes that the cost in tearing it down and having to wait for the proper permitting—on top of spending even more money on new materials—will put him and his employees out of business.
Even with the county now allowing for 25% capacity indoor dining under the red tier of the state’s reopening plan, Kayali says the nature of his business—people gathering for conversation and drinks—does not allow for a high volume turnover as some guests might stay an hour or longer. He also wants to provide open air seating for patrons who might not be comfortable drinking indoors.
Kayali’s attorney and city attorneys are currently discussing the possibility of removing the aluminum roof in exchange for a canvas one to meet current guidelines. However, Unitt tells GT any changes moving forward must be first approved by the city. Kayali says if an agreement is not reached by March 22 he will be pursuing legal action.
“There’s no way I’m taking it down without a logical, sensible reason that’s not something as pedantic as anchoring,” he says. “I’m not really a fighter in that sense, but this is not something I really want to back down [from].”