The Mission District Squeeze

When can a repeat felon manipulate the police and fire departments to crush a law-abiding bar and restaurant? When the felon's a San Francisco pol, and the bar's on Mission Street.

Looking back on it, Clark Brigham wonders if he should ever have opened the Elysium Cafe. There were plenty of reasons not to start the business. Sixteen of them, as a matter of fact.

The day before he signed a lease for the 3,600-square-foot bar and restaurant, located on the ground floor of the Andora Inn, a Mission District bed-and-breakfast hotel, Brigham discovered the roof leaked in 16 different places. He also found out the building's plumbing was shot; toilets backed up at the least provocation.

But he and his investment partners, incorporated as Cambrian Development Inc., were eager to cash in on the revitalization (some might say gentrification) of Mission Street. Like others before them, they saw money to be made catering to the casual but cultivated tastes of young urban professionals flocking to the city with sport utility vehicles full of disposable income.

So, despite his reservations, Brigham paid the owner of the building, a Mission District dentist named Dr. Richard Ceniceros, $50,000 for the bar and restaurant Ceniceros once operated on the ground floor of the hotel. And on Jan. 9, 1997, Brigham signed a five-year lease, agreeing to pay Ceniceros $4,000 a month for the space.

Certainly, the leaks and the bad plumbing had been unsavory surprises. But Ceniceros signed an amendment to the lease agreeing to fix those problems. And with those details attended to, Brigham felt secure. It was all there on paper, he thought. The law would surely protect him.

He couldn't have been more wrong.
Last Sunday, Brigham marked his two-year anniversary of trying to make a go of things at Elysium Cafe. It was anything but a celebration.

Brigham has been through an unrelenting nightmare trying, without success, to get Ceniceros to fulfill his obligations. And Elysium -- even though it is regularly filled with patrons -- is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.

The roof is still not fixed properly, despite constant appeals to Dr. Ceniceros. Water pours down on patrons and employees whenever it rains.

Although Ceniceros finally fixed the plumbing (after a delay of a year), before then it backed up twice, sending human waste running down the walls behind the bar, causing $23,000 in damage. Despite his initial promises to reimburse, Brigham alleges, Ceniceros has refused to pay the bill. (Ceniceros did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.)

Brigham has a theory about why the good dentist waited to fix the plumbing, and has refused to fix the roof altogether: Ceniceros, Brigham believes, wants his space back, because Brigham's Elysium, with its crowds of Mission scenesters, has become a model of success.

Elysium is under a solid lease that does not run out until 2003. After that, Brigham has 15 years of options he could exercise. So, Brigham believes, Ceniceros is trying to force him out, by making Elysium uninhabitable.

This belief seems quite plausible.
For the last two years, you see, Ceniceros' innkeeper, Jose Najar, a politically connected activist and city commissioner, has enlisted a revolving cast of government agencies to repeatedly harass the Elysium Cafe with noise, overcrowding, and liquor-license complaints. During this time, Najar -- who has a lengthy criminal record that includes multiple felonies -- has engaged in a personal campaign of harassment that includes, a lawsuit alleges, the unwanted sexual groping of an Elysium employee.

The alacrity with which San Francisco city government has jumped into service on behalf of Ceniceros and Najar has been stunning and disturbing. At Najar's request, police, fire, health, parking and traffic, and building inspection officials have all deluged the Elysium Cafe, interfering with business -- even closing the cafe at times -- and cutting deep into its cash flow, even though no serious legal violations have been found.

Brigham and his partners are at their wits' end. They ask themselves: How could something so clear as a lease, containing binding promises to fix the roof and maintain basic amenities like plumbing, be callously and willfully ignored -- without consequence? And how can one man wield so much unofficial power as to be able to destroy another man's business?

The answer is simple. Dr. Richard Ceniceros and his innkeeper, Jose Najar, have political juice.

And in San Francisco these days, that's all it takes.

When Dr. Ceniceros bought his three-story property at 2434 Mission Street in 1984, it was a run-down residential hotel for the poor. Ever since, he has dreamed of turning it into a beautiful and profitable place. But the dream has proved elusive.

"He bought the building at a time when people didn't think it was such a good idea," says Rachel Medina, the former director of the Mission Economic Development Association. "One year he was selling Christmas trees out of where the bar was. He was always trying to find things to make it nice. He worked on it constantly. I'd say to him, 'You are a dentist.' And he'd say, 'This is going to be beautiful one of these days.' "

His most recent attempt to run a restaurant and bar on the building's ground floor was a failure. The Cola Cabana was a cheesy, neon- and mirror-filled horror, completely out of step with the emerging neighborhood aesthetic reflected by hip, urbane establishments such as Bruno's and, eventually, Elysium.

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