John Rupp, the man behind St. Paul establishments W.A. Frost & Co., the University Club and the St. Paul Athletic Club, has to pay the city $25,000 to cover the costs of a protracted dispute over an event space he operates at the Commodore restaurant.
The yearslong conflict, detailed in a December report from an administrative law judge, comes down to this: City safety and inspections officials told Rupp he couldn't use the Commodore's Western Dining Area as a bar and dining space, and he did it anyway.
"There is an old adage that states, 'It is better to ask forgiveness than permission,' " Administrative Law Judge Ann O'Reilly wrote in her Dec. 6 memorandum. "In this case, the adage is proven wrong."
But while the city says the Western Dining Area isn't cleared by city code inspectors and Rupp has repeatedly flouted orders to bring it into compliance, Rupp says he used the dining area for more than a decade without question. The city only spoke up just before he reopened the renovated space in 2015, he said.
"I've been working on this for several years. I have had numerous city inspectors coming in to oversee my work — now you're telling me you didn't know it was going on," Rupp said in an interview Friday. "I've hired 75 people, I'm going to open in three days, and I'm supposed to close? Not open? I mean, nope."
The city alleged seven different violations, and O'Reilly's report — which Rupp called "convoluted" and "ridiculous" — affirmed five of them. The City Council voted Feb. 5 to adopt the judge's recommendation and charge Rupp a $500 fine plus more than $24,000 in administrative hearing and deposition costs, to be paid within 30 days. The city also prohibited use of the Western Dining Area until the city grants a certificate of occupancy.
In an e-mail Friday, Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) spokeswoman Suzanne Donovan said Rupp must comply by Friday. The city will be monitoring the situation, she said, and Rupp could face additional fines or a license suspension or revocation if he doesn't comply.
Rupp also needs to demonstrate that the rest of the restaurant and bar can operate safely with the Western Dining Area closed off, said DSI Director Ricardo Cervantes. If he can't do that, he could face a building condemnation or a criminal charge, Cervantes said.
"The space is beautiful, but there are steps to ensure the safety and health," he said. "And everything's cool until it's not, right? Everything's fine until there's an incident."
Rupp said he has closed the dining area and has had to cut about half his staff as a result, but he vowed that the restaurant will not close because of the city's action.
The Commodore, at 79 N. Western Av., was built in 1920 as a hotel, bar, restaurant and dining room, according to O'Reilly's memorandum. An addition built in 1976 added a squash club and "future dining room" on the building's western side.
Rupp acquired the Commodore bar and restaurant in 1984 and the addition in 2001. In 2012, he decided to renovate the building.
Rupp didn't indicate the extent of his plans in his permit application, O'Reilly wrote.
"If anything, the facts in this case show that Licensee made arguably misleading representations to the city," she wrote. "Licensee attempted to obscure the facts at the time of its Permit Application, proceeded with costly renovation, and hoped the city would forgive its expansion of use and occupancy."
Rupp said Friday that O'Reilly's assertion is "absolutely ludicrous."
"She can't read plans," he said. "There's absolutely nothing misleading about them."
Rupp completed the renovations in fall 2015, according to the memorandum. In October of that year, city inspections officials sent Rupp letters saying the building permit didn't authorize the work he had done and that he couldn't use the space until he met a list of requirements, including installing alarm and sprinkler systems; providing fire extinguishers and panic release hardware on exit doors; paying sewer access fees; meeting accessibility standards, and getting zoning approvals.
Cervantes and Deputy Director Travis Bistodeau also met with Rupp to discuss what he would have to do to occupy the space.
Rupp said Friday that the only remaining item on the city's list is installing a sprinkler system, which he said he doesn't need and the city doesn't have a legal right to demand. What's more, he said, installing it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and bankrupt the restaurant.
In September 2016, a city inspector was assigned to attend a "Whiskey A Go-Go" event at the Commodore and saw the Western Dining Area in use. In January 2017, the city sent Rupp a violation notice saying he had to pay a $700 fine and wall off the dining area until a city building official signed off on its use.
"You have been informed a number of times that the proposed western expansion area lacked a certificate of occupancy for the use as a restaurant," the letter said, "and you have been given clear direction regarding the steps you need to take before you are allowed to occupy the space."
Rupp responded with a letter requesting a hearing before an administrative law judge.
Three years later, Rupp said his fight with the city isn't over.
"I'm going to go after them," he said. "I'm not saying what I'm going to do quite yet, but this is not going to go away."
Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509