Cafe Society

First Avenue Hotel gets another notice to vacate -- but El Diablo, Sketch open for now

Jesse Morreale was back at the Webb building this morning for yet another hearing involving his First Avenue Hotel, home to Sketch and El Diablo, winner of our Best New Bar in 2011 and a place that continues to pack in the crowds. The status of these spots, and the circa 1905 building that houses them, has been one of Denver's longest-running restaurant sagas. The action really revved up last July 10, when the city suddenly slapped the building with a notice to vacate -- immediately. The restaurants were closed for almost three weeks, until a Board of Appeals ruling on July 30 allowed Morreale to reopen in order to make agreed-upon repairs.

Except there's never been much agreement between the players in this drama. And today, the city served Morreale with another notice to vacate...a week from today. See also: - Jesse Morreale's First Avenue Hotel slapped with notice to vacate - El Diablo slapped with notice to vacate...again - Best New Bar 2011: El Diablo

It's the third in a series: On January 4, the First Avenue Hotel was again slapped with a notice to immediately vacate what the city had labeled an unsafe building; that closed the restaurants again until Morreale's attorney secured a restraining order from Denver District Court that allowed the restaurants to reopen until a second Board of Appeals hearing at the end of January.

After that hearing, Morreale had another sixty days to make the necessary repairs -- repairs that he's never agreed are necessary.

This morning, the Board of Appeals held its final hearing on the First Avenue Hotel, and found that the building is still not in compliance with the work plan. And after the hearing, the city served Morreale notice that it will order the building vacated on May 3....right before its big Cinco de Mayo weekend.

"We're still working our way through what the Board of Appeals did today," says David Foster, Morreale's attorney. "To begin, the restaurants are open, and we're going to do whatever we can to make sure they continue to stay open. Most important, there has never been -- even by the building official himself -- a determination that the building is not safe, that it's unsafe.... The building ain't gonna blow down."

But that official has determined that the building is in violation of city code, says Andrea Burns, spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Community Planning and Development, and that's why it has been labeled "unsafe."

Foster will be working fast in advance of that May 3 deadline, pointing to concerns about actions by the Board of Appeals -- including debating the merits of the case behind closed doors -- and also concerns that the city attorney gave the Board of Appeals improper direction. "We've all been working in good faith based on the settlement in Denver District Court several months ago," he says. "We had anticipated explaining to the board the process over the last sixty days."

That process included hiring an architect to navigate through the city system, while Morreale navigates through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Once the First Avenue Hotel gets through that bankruptcy, "They'll have dollars to spend to make improvements to the property as everybody sees fit."

But that will also mean everybody agreeing on the work plan, which has been a sticking point for years, since the city issued its temporary occupancy permit so that Morreale could open El Diablo in August 2010. Still, there have been many changes to the project since then -- Morreale no longer plans to have the second floor occupied, for example -- so Foster is hopeful that the plan can be adapted. "The city is one of the largest investors in this project," he points out, "with $600,000-plus of taxpayer money. You'd think the city could do better to keep a profitable business open."

The devil's in the details.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun