Locust Tap Reopens Illegally After Building Deemed Unsafe

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The East Village bar Locust Tap was closed on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014 because the city deemed the building unsafe.  (Photo: Kelsey Kremer/The Register)

The East Village bar Locust Tap was closed on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014 because the city deemed the building unsafe. (Photo: Kelsey Kremer/The Register)

DES MOINES, Iowa — Roughly 50 bar patrons filled Des Moines’ Locust Tap early Saturday after word went out on social media that the city had lifted a shutdown order prompted by unsafe conditions, the Des Moines Register reports.

There was a small problem, though: The city hadn’t given permission for the bar to reopen. So police drove out the building’s other tenants and ousted patrons from the iconic East Village watering hole shortly after midnight, according to a police report.

The bar’s owner, prominent architect Kirk Blunck, initially closed the bar on Wednesday after city officials deemed the building unsafe and uninhabitable.

But on Friday, this post went out on social media: “City deemed Locust Tap floor structurally safe after all. We open at 8 p.m. tonight. Take that haters!”

According to the police report, the bartender on duty said Blunck gave the green light to reopen Friday. But SuAnn Donovan, city zoning administrator, said the bar reopened illegally.

Blunck denied his involvement in the reopening when Register reporters encountered him Monday outside the bar, at 434 E. Locust St.

“Whatever happened between Thursday and Monday morning, I haven’t had a chance to catch up with yet,” Blunck said.

He said he did not know why it opened Friday because he was away in Cape Cod on the East Coast without cellphone service. Then his father was hospitalized with a stroke upon his return Monday, he said.

City officials posted an “unsafe to occupy” notice on the door Monday.

The notice replaced a handful of get-well-soon notes and holiday cards posted on the bar’s door over the weekend from Locust Tap regulars.

The bar has been recognized as one of Des Moines’ oldest, its history as a pub tracing to the 1930s. The building was built in the 1890s.

Blunck declined to share details but said that safety concerns with the floor are minimal, and that he expects the bar to open later this week.

“It’s a very small area close to the cooler,” Blunck said.

The inspection report suggests otherwise, listing 10 items that Donovan said must be addressed before the bar reopens.

The most severe issues are related to the floor system: “excessive rot” and “extensive decay (with) potential for collapse” throughout the floor joists and beams, the inspection report reads.

The report also flagged plumbing issues, with leaks in multiple places. It also said a second-floor nail salon was operating without a building permit.

Councilman Joe Gatto, who represents the ward including the East Village, said he was disappointed with Blunck’s stewardship of a landmark spot in the heart of the village.

“This could have been a major catastrophe is the way it was explained to me,” putting patrons at risk, Gatto said of Friday’s opening.

He described the needed repairs as significant, requiring perhaps weeks to address.

“That will be fixed to the ‘T’ before he ever gets it opened,” Gatto said. “And it will not be by the end of this week, I can promise you that.”

A formal code-violation complaint filed with the city prompted an inspection and the subsequent order to vacate last week, Donovan said.

In late 2011, the city shut down the Locust Tap for nearly two weeks because of standing sewage in the basement.

This summer, Blunck battled the city for months after a court order was issued to vacate a historic apartment building he owns in Sherman Hill.

A few tenants ultimately stayed in the 12-unit Navarre building, 718 15th St., but most moved out while Blunck worked through a punch list of 70-plus code violations from June to August.

City officials, who at one point threatened to file charges against Blunck, granted multiple extensions to the order to vacate the Navarre building until repairs were complete.

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