Commission Backs Beerworks with ‘Another Chance’

Tense marathon meeting concludes with approval of brewery owners’ plans to expand the business in an attempt to address ongoing complaints from neighbors.

In the , has spurred a popular response locally and beyond that seems incongruous with the small homegrown business’ brief existence.

But as was apparent from a nearly five-hour Planning Commission meeting about Justin and Tyler Catalana’s fledgling brewery Monday night, it also has managed to incite plenty of acrimony from its neighbors at the western edge of downtown in that span as well.

Nearly 150 people crammed into the City Council chambers at City Hall Monday night for a hearing on the Catalanas’ plans to expand their business in an effort to quell an ongoing dispute with neighbors that has gotten ugly at times, with multiple attorneys in the mix, a car muffler being dumped in a driveway, “Tequila” being played on saxophone and even a pithy jab at the magazine founded by a neighbor.

“I’m really sorry this got so far out of hand,” Planning Commission Chair Heidi Richardson said. “It was really distressing to hear all the acrimony and venom.”

The commission tweaked and approved the Catalanas’ proposals to move Beerworks away from being the bar it has become and toward being more of the brewery and café that the brothers originally envisioned.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is help this business regain trust of parts of the community,” Richardson said.

While Monday’s hearing revealed broader opposition from neighbors than previously publicized, the debate since Beerworks opened last May has centered largely on the Catalanas and critics Chris and Lara Deam, who live across the street at 162 Throckmorton. Lara Deam is the founder of modern architecture and design magazine Dwell.

The Deams have confronted the Catalanas with complaints and written letters to Planning and Building Director Mike Moore on several occasions, including a near-daily journal in 2010.

With the clash unabated, the Catalanas and the Deams sat down with Moore for several hours recently to hammer out a compromise, and indeed reached a deal that was the basis for the city’s recommended changes to Beerworks’ conditional use permit.

But when the Deams’ attorneys asked the Catalanas to sign a contract stipulating the terms of the agreement, a contract that Beerworks attorney Riley Hurd said would have forced the brothers to waive some of their rights and be held the brothers responsible for the Deams’ legal fees, the brothers balked at signing it and the Deams’ attorneys submitted a last-minute, 13-page legal document to the city stating their opposition to the changes.

But as the clock neared midnight at Monday’s meeting, the commission approved a plan that largely hewed to that original compromise.

The plan is two-fold. First, Beerworks shifts its business model back in the direction of the café that was originally intended by adding morning coffee service at 7 a.m., daytime tables outside and significantly expanding its food menu and sit-down food service.

The move calls for Beerworks to expand into the adjacent Salon 171, using the additional space to expand the kitchen and add an area for people waiting for a table. The two doors of the adjacent spaces will be reduced to a single door.

A new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system (HVAC) would also be installed so that the space’s windows and doors can be closed at all times after 8 p.m., thus reducing noise, as well as sound absorption panels.

While those improvements are being made, the Catalanas will close earlier, hire a doorman to reduce the noise from patrons exiting Beerworks and implement a good neighbor policy. The city will use a third party to periodically check the decibel levels outside Beerworks during a six-month “probation period.”

“We’re not trying to operate a business that annoys people,” Tyler Catalana said, noting that the expanded menu would be such that Beerworks wouldn’t just be “another brewpub.”

Commissioner David Rand said the commission needed to strike a balance between the city’s interest in seeing a young business thrive and protecting those in the adjacent residential area.

“What I see is a young business that started out as one thing and has evolved and made some mistakes along the way,” Rand said.

“You’re sort of given another chance here and you don’t want to blow it,” Commissioner Steve Geizsler told the Catalanas. “Hopefully you will make the neighbors part of your success.”

The Deams asked the city to cut Beerworks’ hours of operation at night, but the commission heeded the Catalanas' claim that a cut in hours would reduce their ability to succeed.

“Let’s call a spade a spade – it’s basically a demand that Beerworks be shutdown,” Hurd said.

What preceded the commission’s approval was a heaping portion of vitriol, with Beerworks’ neighbors and critics accusing the Catalanas of ignoring their complaints and getting the initial permit for Beerworks in 2009 under a false pretense. The brothers’ supporters said the city should be doing more to support local entrepreneurs and that neighbors should expect some level of noise when they live in a downtown area.

In all, more than 35 people spoke at the hearing, and were equally split between supporters and critics. Supporters hailed the success of a homegrown business and said those living adjacent to downtown should come to expect some level of noise.

“You should be supporting and nurturing a business that started from a family of brothers in our community,” said Cascade Dr. resident Joan Greenwald. “They have a great idea and it resonates with anyone I’ve ever spoken to.”

Barbara Jacobs, who has lived in Mill Valley for 46 years, jokingly offered herself up as the “unruly type of patron that frequents Beerworks.”

“You may consider this the ‘little old lady defends local brewery’ segment,” Jacobs said. “I consider it a marvelous addition to town. I look forward to seeing what they’ll do with more space.”

“If you live adjacent to a commercial area, complaining about the fact that it’s a commercial area just doesn’t make sense,” said Tamalpais Ave. resident Eric Gold. “And it’s not fair to the rest of us in Mill Valley who want to have a thriving downtown.”

Critics of Beerworks said the Catalanas had lost the trust of many of its neighbors that they will do something about noise complaints.

“Beerworks has stuck its thumb in the eye of the city by ignoring permit requirements,” said Alan Abrams, an Altamonte Ave. resident. “This is not a hearing about how popular this business is. It’s popular – just look. It’s a hearing about doing what’s right.”

“I can’t believe that they’ll ever actually implement what they say they’re going to do,” said Jim Assing, owner of 170 Throckmorton Avenue.

Some residents criticized the city’s planning department for not holding Beerworks to the conditions of its permit earlier.

“If any of the processes in place for the planning staff and the commission to listen to the neighbors were used early on, all of the vitriol would not be happening and all the vilification of Lara and Chris Deam and their family would not be happening,” said Michela O’Connor Abrams, the publisher of Dwell and a resident of Altamonte Avenue.

Two of the owners of the said that they frequently get noise complaints from guests about Beerworks, and that some of the brewery’s patrons park in their lot.

“It is baffling to me that these young guys have gotten a pass on all the requirements that we all have dealt with over the years,” said Ramon Zambrano, one of the inn’s owners.

Skag Dukkers, owner of the apartment complex at 190 Throckmorton, said he had a tenant vacate the building because of the Beerworks noise.

Chris Deam characterized the Catalanas’ response to their complaints as “dismissive at best.” He said a muffler was tossed in their driveway and that someone played the song “Tequila” on a saxophone outside their house.

Deam also noted that Beerworks’ sidewalk sandwich board sarcastically featured the tagline of Dwell magazine (“At home in the modern world”), founded by Lara Deam, for about a week. The brothers later apologized for the display.

“This has become an unpredictable situation to raise our children in,” Deam said. “I’m not sure how to unwind the animosity.”

But in the end, pragmatism and cooler heads prevailed. Beerworks now has six months to expand, change, reduce the noise and keep thriving.

"We are extremely fortunate that we have filled this niche,” Justin Catalana said. “Tyler and I are from this town, we went to public school here, and we are part of this community. We are happy to have opened a business here and we’re happy to work with the city to improve Beerworks.”

Eileen Fisher April 27, 2011 at 06:03 PM
There is no right or wrong, good guy/bad guy in this situation. A start up company run by young people made some decisions that adversely affected someone else. Bad feeling arose and a lot of gossip (which by its nature is mostly untrue). Based on the gossip, the people who complained against the start up are maligned and termed “bad” by the community. The decisions made at the meeting are fair to everyone. We are all part of this community and we all have to live together. I suggest all parties offer a peace offering to move forward--in the spirit of goodwill.
fritz Hottenstein April 27, 2011 at 06:18 PM
Glad the committee came to the decision they did. Unfortunate that this whole thing got so ugly. What amazes me is that all the neighbors claim that this small brew pub, which holds 49 people and plays no music generates more noise than The Sweetwater did. I don't get that.
John Corcoran April 27, 2011 at 07:52 PM
I'm grateful the Planning Commission decided to give Beerworks another chance. I have been a customer of Beerworks on a number of occasions, and I have found it to be a wonderful addition to Mill Valley's town square, which has always benefited from a diversity of uses and businesses. In this difficult economic time, the town should be supporting businesses which are successful and which aide other businesses. Beerworks has received local, regional and even national media attention because it serves a need that is not being met by our current restaurants, bars and cafes. Beerworks encourages a sense of community by providing a public gathering place where friends and neighbors can meet and hang out and enjoy one another's company. I have told friends about Beerworks and I have personally brought friends and clients from San Francisco, the East Bay, and Sacramento to Beerworks. Without exception, they all loved it. Some of them shopped in other downtown shops as well while we were in town. In a sense, Beerworks is not simply a bar. It is no more a bar than a small Irish "pub" is a bar. Anyone who has been to Ireland, especially small towns found in the countryside, knows that "pubs" are more like communal living rooms where neighbors can greet neighbors and build a sense of community. When I have visited Beerworks, I have seen people that I know and I have observed neighbors and friends greeting one another.
Scott Landress April 27, 2011 at 09:24 PM
I like Mill Valley, music and beer. I think more Millbillies feel that way than not. I don't like the erection of noise-reduction walls to protect highway-side homes, the felling of heritage trees to bring more sunlight to a wooded lot, or the hiring of lawyers to convince the city to favor the one at the cost of the many. That's bad energy, and it won't end well. Bars make noise. If you live near one and it bothers you, you are free to move. But don't deprive the rest of town from an obviously popular place to wet the whistle and enjoy our wonderful downtown community.
bruce richard May 05, 2011 at 08:12 PM
Eileen, Nice comment in the cavalcade of responses some with clear biases at play. I appreciate your appeal to have folks who are actually involved back off their positions and perhaps engage in civil discussions. That and without the aid of the ever "helpful" lawyers might be a good start. My own question about the situation is to ask how is this so different than the Sweetwater Saga? That business made it's share of noise in that part of town...well before the Dwell Magazine featured house was renovated. Perhaps we have lost the lesson of how to be good neighbors. A shame, that.


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