Remodeling work has stopped at UnQuarked at 813 Central Ave. pending an upcoming appeal. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com
By KIRSTEN LASKEY
Los Alamos Daily Post
The future of UnQuarked remains uncertain following the July 14 denial by the Los Alamos County Board of Appeals to remove a stop work order on the premises.
The restaurant and bar initially opened at 145 Central Park Square before moving with big plans in spring 2019 to 813 Central Ave. Owner Prashant Jain shared with the Los Alamos Daily Post at the time that he planned to offer patrons a full food menu, serve coffee, tea, beer and wine and provide a dance area.
But those plans halted when Los Alamos County Chief Building Official Michael Arellano placed a “red tag” or stop work order on the front door of UnQuarked in November 2019.
During an interview with the Los Alamos Daily Post Monday morning, Arellano said the stop work order was issued “because they were doing work that requires permits and they didn’t pull the appropriate permits or submit the appropriate plans.”
Jain also owns Sirphey LLC, the parent company of UnQuarked and he and Sirphey Communication Director Cortni Nucklos contested the stop work order for several months. The Board of Appeals met June 29, July 7 and finally on July 14 to hear testimonies, statements and evidence from Sirphey and the County on the issue.
The board ultimately denied Sirphey’s appeal on the stop work order, stating that Sirphey’s representatives failed to prove that the red tag was “unlawful, arbitrary and capricious.”
Arellano brought out during the hearing that he inspected UnQuarked in November and found work underway without permits including a hole made in the wall of a pass through, metal studs, building materials and commercial kitchen equipment on the premises. He also stated that a general contractor licensed by the state was not listed in plans submitted to the County.
Members of the Board of Appeals include Department of Public Utilities Manager Philo Shelton, Council Vice Chair Randall Ryti and Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Terry Priestley, who chaired the appeals board in this matter. Priestley stated that the board’s decision could be appealed.
Jain said he preferred to be interviewed via email and directed the questions to Nucklos. Nucklos said in an email to the Daily Post Friday that they do plan to appeal but that it is not a simple task.
“Yes, we do plan to appeal the decision, but the County procedure on this is vague, and depending on how it is interpreted, we may be required to submit an appeal by Sunday (July 19), despite the fact that it’s Friday (July 17), and we still haven’t even received a copy of the decision,” she said. “To us, this is just another example of the County placing undue burdens upon us. We do, however, have roughly 15 grounds for appeal of the decision.”
Arellano provided the Daily Post with an email sent July 17 to Sirphey with instructions for submitting an appeal.
When asked what Sirphey could do to get the red tag removed, Arellano said, “We have a checklist for remodels they are going to have to comply with and submit a proper set of plans, which includes a code analysis, which then ensures the space customers go into is safe.”
Arellano added that the Community Development Department would need to review those plans and then issue a permit. Sirphey also would need to hire a contractor with a commercial license (GB98) to do the work. State and County officials would conduct final inspections before a Certificate of Occupancy would be granted, he said.
The timeline for all this varies, it depends on the project’s scope, Arellano said. But as an example, he said that Boese Brothers Brewery, which also received a stop work order, hired a design professional one week and within the following week completed the work.
Arellano said the checklist was given to Sirphey early in the process. He added that the entire process is to ensure the public’s safety inside commercial buildings. Once the proper plans, permit and property owner’s approval is submitted, and code analysis is in compliance, the red tag will be removed.
“We just want our citizens to be safe when they enter a commercial building and we really would like to see them open and I am willing to do anything I can to help facilitate that,” Arellano said.
Nucklos called the work that needs to be addressed inside the building a mystery. She also said the County informed her and Jain that a new certificate was unnecessary if the Certificate of Occupancy for the past tenant, Blue Window Bistro, was never rescinded.
“We never actually applied for a Certificate of Occupancy, and County officials have informed us that if the COO (certificate of occupancy) in place for Blue Window was never rescinded and there is no change of use – a restaurant replacing a restaurant – then a new one wouldn’t be necessary,” Nucklos said. “There are also countless examples in place in Los Alamos of commercial work permits being granted outside of the COO, including prior to requesting one. Even at Unquarked, the County has already granted such.”
Nucklos added, “…As our closing statement (for the Board of Appeals hearing) notes, the County can’t seem to decide what the actual work we are alleged to have done without a permit is. We couldn’t get a single answer on this until January, then received a different set of answers in March, and a still different set of reasons during the actual hearing. We feel this speaks to just how arbitrary the action is, and while we are happy to address the merits of every single reason provided to us, the Board actually forbade questions on specific work, though Mr. Shelton was then able to refer to specific work in his determination. It’s one of the many grounds upon which we shall be seeking appeal.”
“But in short, yes, we’re happy to address every claim of specific work we are alleged to have done,” Nucklos said, adding that the restaurant’s future remains uncertain due to a variety of factors.
“At the moment, UnQuarked is in a state of extreme uncertainty, given the extreme expense imparted on us by the County dragging its feet in both answering our questions and giving us a hearing for so many months,” she said. “Our losses for this time, as I’m sure you can imagine, are well into six figures. Coupled with Chair Scott’s announcement that Mari Mac Village shall be demolished following her efforts from shortly before the red tag, our odds of ever being allowed to open are extremely slim.
“Since Mr. Arellano testified that he became aware of Kroger’s ownership of Mari Mac Village between September and November of 2019 because of a land sale, my biggest fear is that the property sale is linked to the red tag. We have by far, the longest lease at the center, so our opening would be the greatest hindrance. Though Mr. Arellano broached the topic of his possible involvement in the land sale meetings during direct examination, we were not allowed to ask him about it during cross examination. It’s one of our grounds for appeal.”
Arellano told the Daily Post that he did not testify that he became aware of Kroger’s ownership of Mari Mac Village between September and November of 2019. Members of the Appeals Board also said Arellano did not make that statement in his testimony.
It appears the future of UnQuarked will be decided within the next couple of months. The County confirmed Wednesday afternoon that Jain did file an appeal. His appeal will be scheduled for a County Council meeting set to occur no later than 60 days from his appeal filing date.