WALNUT CREEK -- A loud cellphone alarm distracted Matt DeLima on Tuesday night as he was making an impassioned plea to the City Council to allow his bar to remain open past midnight -- even though it's now closed.
"Is my time up?" asked a confused DeLima, cracking one of the few smiles seen at this contentious meeting.
The council voted unanimously to deny his appeal of the Planning Commission's October decision to roll back Vice Ultra Lounge's last-call time to 11 p.m. from 1 a.m., citing repeated arrests of patrons, violations of city rules and a business model that did not fit their 2009 use-permit conditions.
"Having us close down at 11 p.m., it's like having Ruth's Chris (steak house) not able to serve dinner," said DeLima, a co-owner of the establishment that was a popular night life destination for young patrons from all over the Bay Area.
City officials said the use permit was issued with the understanding that Vice Ultra Lounge would operate as a bar and restaurant, and not a full-fledged dance club with crowded events. City officials said that over time the club started opening later and the food menu shrank. They also said a contentious relationship with police made coordinating with Vice Ultra Lounge's security difficult.
DeLima said they tried operating as a restaurant at lunchtime but nobody came. Vice closed on Jan. 1 and DeLima announced the closure via a mock news conference on YouTube. DeLima blamed the
But despite the limited hours, DeLima said he and business partner Jarad Andrews plan to move forward under a different name and a new mission. He says they are already working to change the former Vice into more of a hybrid restaurant, sports bar and late-night entertainment provider. And they hope the city will allow them to stay open later when they review the case in three months.
"Vice is closed, it's done; we want to move forward we want to stay positive," said DeLima. "Even 12:45 is almost impossible, but at least it gives an opportunity to modify the business and bring in this restaurant like we're supposed to do."
DeLima says the business might reopen in February with a larger food menu, and estimated the new restaurant will fully open in April. He said they are working to obtain permits, complete construction of a full kitchen and hire chefs. He also said security has been beefed up.
"We're going to put in 15 big, huge TVs that everyone can come and watch the games on," said DeLima. "It's a lot of money, and we're willing to make the investment. We want to be here."
Several council members said they hoped the earlier last-call time would spur DeLima and Andrews to develop a viable daytime operation and establish a pattern of working with the city and police to minimize past problems.
At Tuesday's meeting, city planning manager Steve Buckley spoke on behalf of city staff in recommending denial of DeLima's appeal. He told the council that there had been "more than 50, maybe 100 arrests in the last couple of years" at the club for intoxication, assaults, weapons and narcotics. DeLima and his lawyer Guy Louie countered that many of those fights and arrests happened during a time when DeLima was not running Vice.
"There's not even 50 arrests in this report here," said DeLima, pointing to the city's report compiling arrest records. "I think there's less than 30 in a 4-year span. To throw out a number like 100 arrests is very sad."
Councilwoman Kristina Lawson on Tuesday advocated revoking DeLima's and Andrews' use permit altogether.
"This is an operator that flagrantly violates the rules, comes in only once they've been cited for violations of those rules, and asks for forgiveness, ignores from what I can tell virtually all the conditions of approval that have been imposed on them," said Lawson. "The operator has publicly mocked our staff repeatedly over the terms of the conditional use permit."
Council members expressed skepticism about the sudden appearance of new business plans.
"I appreciate that you want to do a different business now. I think it would have been better had we heard that Oct. 27 and not in January," said Mayor Cindy Silva.