HERCULES -- The City Council unanimously agreed this week to lease the long-vacant restaurant space at the Civic Arts building to experienced restaurateurs who have grand plans to bring the neighborhood back to life.

During a special session Tuesday, the council directed city staff to execute a lease agreement with brothers Moses Abu Ghosh and Sam Abu Ghosh to renovate and replace the defunct 2,100-square-foot Sala Restaurant.

The city-owned property on Railroad Avenue near Santa Fe Avenue has been vacant for a year, since the previous tenants abandoned the site owing an estimated $112,000 in unpaid rent, utility bills and loan payments, according to city estimates.

The Hercules City Council has directed city staff to execute a lease agreement to renovate and replace the defunct 2,100-square-foot Sala Restaurant.
The Hercules City Council has directed city staff to execute a lease agreement to renovate and replace the defunct 2,100-square-foot Sala Restaurant. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group Archives)

"(The building) looked sad, used and abused. It was screaming to come alive and be happy," Moses Abu Ghosh said when he addressed the council Tuesday. "This place needs us."

According to the lease agreement, the new tenants will receive four months of free rent -- in lieu of the city paying for site improvements. After the first four months, the rent begins at $1 a square foot for eight months, or $2,100 a month.

Around June 2015, rent will increase to $1.25 a square foot, then $1.50 a square foot for years two and three, respectively. Rent will increase by 3 percent each of the following years.

The tenants have a 10-year lease, with an option for 10 additional years. Before this agreement, the site had been advertised at $1.50 a square foot per month; Sala Restaurant's monthly rent had been $1.65 a square foot.

The Civic Arts building, which the former Hercules Redevelopment Agency spent more than $1.6 million to renovate so that it could become a restaurant, is at 1991 Railroad Ave. next to the Historic Homes neighborhood.

The restaurant is not expected to open before April, but it could be as late as June, while the owners complete their application for a liquor license with the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Obtaining a license is crucial for the restaurant, and, with public comment and review, it could take up to five months for approval.

While the application is being reviewed, Moses Abu Ghosh said he and his brother will be researching the neighborhood to determine the best style menu and name for the restaurant.

"We are not there for us. We have to do what the neighborhood wants," he said.

The brothers currently own Café Leila on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. Since Café Leila opened in 2010, several surrounding stores and restaurants have also opened, and the area has "come alive," Abu Ghosh said. He foresees the same for the Hercules establishment.

Previously, several Historic Homes residents urged the city to impose some conditions on a new restaurant, such as restricting music to indoors and limiting the hours of use on the outdoor patio. Several also complained about a continuous, loud drone from Sala's ventilation system and asked the city to demand that future tenants install a quieter one. City Manager Steve Duran said Thursday that the Planning Commission can address those issues during its review process when the tenants submit specific design information.

The council during a closed session Tuesday agreed to negotiate a contract with an interim city manager and will announce its selection Thursday. Duran is leaving at the end of the year to become city manager in Antioch.