Party on the patio coming to an end? Rudy's Pub hoping Lake Worth Beach won't pull plug on back lot
TO MUSIC LOVERS and hipsters of all ages, the back patio at Rudy’s Pub is a patch of heaven on earth, a safe place to dance under the stars to live performances by local acts like blues guitarist J.P. Soars, the Marshall Brothers Band and Crazy Fingers.
To the city of Lake Worth Beach, it’s something entirely different.
It’s a parking lot. At least, that’s what it should be, a city official said in conversations and emails warning the popular South J Street bar that the lot’s use for outdoor seating violates city codes.
Although the city gave permission for the outdoor seating while COVID-19 restrictions were in place, the state and county emergency orders that allowed that temporary use have expired, the city said.
Rudy’s and the bar’s landlord have until July 3 to remove the 20 tables, dozens of chairs and a portable stage from the back lot. If they don’t comply, they could face thousands of dollars in fines.
Rudy’s owner Mary Beth Sisoian and developer Gary Goldring of Village Green Group South, which owns The Paradise Building where the downtown bar operates, are hoping to negotiate a resolution that would allow Rudy's to maintain the status quo out back.
So far, city officials haven't been receptive.
“The thought of losing it is heartbreaking,’’ said Sisoian, whose mood over the mess violates her bar’s whimsical motto, “No Grouchy People Allowed.’’
“In an impossible situation,’’ she said, “we used that wasted space to create something really beautiful that benefits the entire community.’’
For Sisoian, the timing of the drama couldn’t be worse. She’s trying to sell the popular downtown destination, which she opened 10 years ago in a tiny space on North J Street before moving it one block south in 2018 to its larger present location.
The Paradise Building also houses another music venue, The Bamboo Room, which takes up the second floor directly above Rudy’s. Behind the two-story building is a spacious parking lot, 75 feet by 99 feet, accessible by vehicle only through an 11-foot wide alley.
For as long as South J Street regulars can remember, the back lot has never been actively used for parking. It’s only been used now and then for a few employee cars, for music bands to unload equipment and for the storage of trash.
But the lot is supposed to be used for parking, said Erin Sita, assistant director of the city’s Community Sustainability Department. The requirement is spelled out in a site plan, approved by the city in 1999, for renovations to The Paradise Building that included a reduction in the number of parking spaces from 63 to 12, she said. The lot currently has 13 spaces.
Not long after the building was sold in 2015, it fell into disrepair. Homeless people hung out in the back lot among the weeds, dead plants and trash, prompting the erection of a chain link fence to close the property off from the alley.
In April 2019, Goldring bought the building for $1.25 million and started fixing it up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations.
“Over the next twelve months we repaired and restored the building and completely overhauled the parking lot by repairing the pavers and patio and landscaping and lighting the gardens,’’ Goldring said in an email to the city.
“We think The Paradise Building is now one of the nicest buildings in town,” he said, adding that he hoped the renovations would inspire the owners of vacant South J Street buildings to fix up their properties.
Before the pandemic, with the exception of special events and fundraisers, Rudy’s operated exclusively inside the bar’s main room, where patrons often packed shoulder to shoulder on weekend nights, many dancing to live music.
During the pandemic, when bars and restaurants were struggling to stay afloat because of government restrictions and concerns that crowded indoor spaces would spread the airborne disease, Sisoian set up tables and umbrellas in the center of the back lot.
She added planters and strung up lights. A portable stage, 8 feet by 20 feet, was brought in. Before long, as COVID-19 retreated, the back patio turned into one of the hottest hangouts in town, rivaling the Rudy’s inside bar in popularity.
Now, regulars can’t imagine a Rudy’s without the back patio.
Not only did the outdoor patio help Rudy’s and The Bamboo Room stay afloat at a time when indoor gatherings were restricted, it “has become important to the continued viability of those businesses,’’ Goldring said in an email to the city.
The pandemic wound up injecting new life into Rudy’s. It also created a new post-pandemic norm in which many patrons desire a comfortable outdoor setting that makes them feel safe.
Doing away with the outdoor seating “will substantially and negatively impact their business,’’ Goldring said.
But Sita said the patio allowance was always intended to be a temporary measure.
“Unfortunately, our hands are tied as the emergency orders have expired,’’ she said in an email to Sisoian. “Therefore, the parking lot is required to be utilized as a parking lot again.’’
The city offered one option that would allow Rudy’s to maintain the status quo: A “fee-in-lieu provision” in the parking code allows Goldring to buy out the 13 parking spaces required for The Paradise Building for $15,000 each, or $195,000.
Rudy’s would also need to apply for a variance to permanently allow outdoor seating in the parking lot. But Goldring said in an email to the city that Sita warned him the Building Department would not recommend approval.
The city also rejected a proposal by Sisoian to use the back lot for parking during daylight hours then close it off at night for outdoor seating.
“I’m sure the owner of the property isn’t interested in buying parking spaces he already paid for when he purchased the property. He’s invested hundreds of thousands already,’’ she said in an email to Sita.
“So basically, the city is shutting down our ability to utilize our outdoor space for anything except parking.’’
Sisoian has hired Wes Blackman, an urban planner who has served on the city’s Planning and Zoning and historic preservation boards, to help negotiate a resolution that would allow the patio.
On May 10, Blackman sent the city a letter saying there should be no off-site parking requirement for The Paradise Building because the city’s land development rules exempt buildings in historic districts. The Paradise Building is in the Old Town Historic District.
Blackman has requested a zoning interpretation letter from the city confirming his position. Sita, though, said she doesn’t agree.
Meanwhile, Mathews Brewing Co., a popular bar a few blocks southwest of downtown, has reached out to the city with potential plans for another location across South J Street from Rudy’s in the former Haus Lounge space.
Mathews wants to use a rear lot behind that building for outdoor seating and entertainment, according to a city email. Since that lot was never approved for parking uses, unlike the lot behind The Paradise Building, Mathews wouldn’t have to set aside parts of the back lot for parking.
Goldring and Sisoian welcome Mathews, saying the microbrewery’s presence will give South J Street a much-needed economic injection.
But a nagging issue for them is the fact that the lot behind The Paradise Building, which has never actively been used for parking, really isn’t all that much different from the lot behind the former Haus Lounge
Granting a variance, they say, shouldn't be that big of a deal.
“We truly do not understand why the code prevents Rudy’s and Bamboo from using their private property for their customers while so many other businesses can add outdoor seats on public property with no parking whatsoever,” Goldring wrote in his email.
The city commission this year will discuss a 4-year-old parking study that recommends charging for parking downtown as a way to solve a parking crunch.
“Our thirteen spots out of thousands really do not make any difference at all to the parking situation in town,’’ Goldring said in an email to Sita.
He also pointed out how the city attracts thousands of people downtown to bars, eateries, parades and events like the annual Street Painting Festival.
“Somehow everyone seems to find parking,’’ he said.
Reached by phone, Goldring would not comment beyond offering this brief statement: “I am hopeful that Mary and Lake Worth Beach can work out some reasonable compromise.’’
The property has not been formally cited yet. Because Sisoian said she has music acts booked for the back patio through June, the Code Compliance division has given her 90 days before a formal citation is issued, which would be in early July.
If a compromise can’t be reached, Rudy's regulars have vowed to take their fight to the City Commission. They hope to get a sympathetic ear since some commissioners and city officials have patronized the back patio, most recently at a Kentucky Derby party on May 7.
Among the points Rudy’s regulars will make: Even though the emergency restrictions that allowed the patio have been lifted, the city shouldn’t overlook the fact that many patrons are still struggling to adjust to new post-pandemic norms and reluctant to congregate indoors.
‘‘The patio is part of Rudy's story now,’’ said Sisoian, who expanded the patio’s use this month to include jazz and children’s trivia.
“It gives us an opportunity to keep our community, family and friends safe and comfortable, which is really important in such uncertain times.’’
For now, the party on the patio will go on. But Sisoian said she has been going about her business with a heavy heart as she tries to negotiate a compromise with the city.
“Losing the patio will definitely break our spirit,’’ she said. “We made a huge effort here and made it work somehow. It will be painful to turn around and walk away from it now.’’
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.