University’s position unclear as business owner looks for answers
THE SANTA CLARA
February 9, 2017
After the closure of The Hut, a legendary dive bar across the street from campus, students are now flocking to the Normandy House Lounge on Tuesdays and Thursdays, prompting the management to hand out plastic cups instead of glass on nights when students swell the bar.
However, Hut property owner Ray Lychak continues to work on the building every week day to “clean the old girl up,” while always wearing his iconic red work shirt, sunglasses and faded jeans. He said that his contractor is amazed at how many people stop by the property to do walk-throughs and share memories of the bar.
The wood panels on the bar’s walls were just removed—the panels had blackened after enduring years of spilled libations, Lychak said. He is also meeting with an architect to discuss plans to redesign the bathrooms, and plans to make them ADA compliant.
The bar closed in mid-December after former proprietor Mike O’Brien failed to renew his lease. He ended up removing most of the bar’s interior fixtures, including the iconic dollar bills. Since early January, Lychak has been working to tidy up the property.
Lychak said he still wants to reopen the property as a bar that may or may not serve food, and is close to selecting the proprietors—he is currently choosing between two potential tenants, both of whom have business experience.
Arguments Over Signage
O’Brien sold the university three signs that were posted on the exterior of The Hut—two of the signs were located on each side of the building, while the third sign listing the bar’s operating hours was posted near the front door. The outdoor signage is currently being stored on campus.
Lychak said he ordered the construction of these outdoor signs himself decades ago, and is alleging that by owning the outdoor signs, Santa Clara is “in possession of stolen property.”
He said that O’Brien’s lease outlined that O’Brien owned the indoor fixtures and furniture in the bar—this includes the wooden bar, tables and chairs that the university purchased from O’Brien. However, Lychak insists that the lease outlined that he owned the outdoor signage, not O’Brien, and claims that O’Brien had no legal right to sell the signs to the university.
“Those particular signs are clear cut, they don’t belong to anybody but me,” Lychak said.
Lychak said he has attempted to speak with administrators about the outdoor signage many times, but was stonewalled and redirected to different offices each time.
“It’s a shame that the university has to stoop so low and is so hush hush about everything,” Lychak said.
So far, Lychak claims he has yet to meet with an administrator about the signs. He said he tried to meet with John Ottoboni, Santa Clara’s general counsel, but Ottoboni refused to speak with him because Lychak has an attorney.
“We’ve got too many new people hired on campus that don’t know the history of Santa Clara and the history of The Hut,” Lychak said.
Ottoboni was unable to meet ahead of print deadlines. Chris Shay, interim vice president of finance and administration, did not respond to interview requests via phone or email.
Alumni Speak Out
Since the closure of The Hut, alumni have been speaking out about their concerns and allegations about the university’s involvement.
Alumnus Scott Asher, who graduated in 1987, said he thinks that it was “incredibly unusual” for the university to act as a “PR agency” for O’Brien and announce that The Hut was closing in an email to the university community on Nov. 2.
“To involve themselves in the business of the private company … something just seemed strange about it,” Asher said.
He said that hearing the university make such statements of certainty that the bar was closing and would be gone forever was a “red flag” to him and many other alumni.
“It makes us ask the question, how can you be so certain that there won’t be another tenant?” Asher said.
Asher said he has reason to believe that the administration knew that O’Brien would shutter business long before the university announced it would close; he said he thinks that it has been dishonest to faculty, staff, students and alumni about this.
On Oct. 26, 2016, an anonymous source came forward and told The Santa Clara that Santa Clara administrators were well aware that The Hut was closing. One week later, on Nov. 2, Jim Lyons, vice president for University Relations, sent out an email to the university community saying that the bar would be closing.
“The circumstances surrounding the bar’s ‘closure’ are obviously fishy and disputed by the owner, and unfortunately I suspect our Jesuit institution was directly involved in whatever backroom deals were made,” class of 1990 alumnus Todd Rahimi said in an email.
Now, Asher says he questions Santa Clara’s leadership, adding that there are “thousands” of fellow alumni who share the same sentiment about the way the administration has treated the closure of The Hut.
He said this has prompted him to question what else the university might be keeping under wraps.
“I’ve been on my reunion committee since 1992, and I told them I’m not going to do it this year,” Asher said. “I’m not going to call and ask people to make a gift to this place when the leadership at this university is publicly lying to their constituents.”
Rahimi said that the university has a “long history of lying to students and alumni,” citing Santa Clara’s “efforts to close the Hut in the past” and the circumstances surrounding when the university nixed its football program.
“In those moments, we wonder where the Jesuit part of the program has gone and are grimly reminded that the school’s administrators are running a business venture like any other, and they will do what they must to get what they want,” Rahimi said.
An alumnus who wishes to remain anonymous said that they knew that the university paid for the wooden bar to be ripped out from inside of the building. The bar was removed in December before O’Brien vacated the property.
Asher said he thinks that removing the bar from the property created another hurdle for Lychak to open the bar again. Asher, who once owned a business in Willow Glen, said that anytime you do a tenant improvement on older property, you typically have to get the rest of the building up to code.
The property, a 1910 farmhouse, lacks fire sprinklers, ADA compliant entrances at the front and back of the building and ADA compliant bathrooms. However, Lychak is going to bring the bathrooms up to code.
“You raise the question: has the university just put so many hurdles into the expense of getting this thing up and going again that now you’ve got a private landowner in his mid-seventies who is now faced with all of these financial hurdles—all because the university was complicit in the supposed acquisition of these assets that O’Brien was allegedly able to sell,” Asher said.
Lychak is also claiming that someone “ratted him out” to the city that the bar was removed from the inside of the building. He said that a city inspector came by on Jan. 13 and told him that you need a permit to remove a bar from the inside of a building, and that someone reported him to the city for not having a permit.
“The guy said he couldn’t tell me who reported it,” Lychak said, adding that the inspector told him that he needed to purchase a $55 permit after removing the bar.
Asher said he thinks Lychak will continue to have tremendous difficulty re-opening the bar after the school purchased some of the interior and exterior elements.
“You’ve now stuck a private citizen with property that has little value, and they can just bleed the guy until he has no choice but to sell the bar,” Asher said.
Concerns About University Development
Although the university does not own the property and did not outline plans to develop on The Hut property in the 2020 plan submitted to the city, alumni are still speculating that the university is positioning itself to eventually have control over the block that The Hut is located on. Santa Clara owns all but five properties on that block.
Santa Clara also owns Franklin Street, which borders both campus and The Hut property.
“I don’t think it takes a brain surgeon to realize how many properties they own over there, strategically positioning itself,” Asher said.
On a post shared by the Alumni Association in early November regarding The Hut’s impending closure, over 400 individuals commented on the post sharing memories and lamenting about how the bar was closing. One woman wrote on the post that her daughter received a survey about suggestions for another campus dining option, and that one of the options was the location of The Hut.
“I don’t think (the administration) will ever realize the damage done to the standing of the school in the eyes of generations of Bronco alumni,” Rahimi said.
Law student Miguel Flores said he understands why Santa Clara might not want a bar so close to campus due given the effects of alcohol on students.
The building is also located down the street from the Jesuit Residence.
However, without The Hut being open, he and his fellow law students lack a centralized meeting spot to allow them to come together and unwind after class.
The Normandy House Lounge, where many students are wetting their whistles, is located near the highway 17 on-ramp, which is significantly further away from campus than The Hut. Now, many students walk several blocks from campus at night or drive to the bar.
“Most students didn’t even need to drive (to The Hut), they all live in that vicinity,” Lychak said.
Contact Sophie Mattson at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4849.