By Ian Lovett, 9/16/2010
Business Owners Spar Over Parking, Permits, Liquor
Before Ratner’s Deli and Magnolia Bakery, the Smokin’ Joint, Toast, Little Next Door, Dough Boys, and Joan’s on Third all opened their doors on 3rd Street between Fairfax Avenue and La Cienega Boulevard. And they all faced opposition from the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association (BWHA), as did other restaurants further afield, like BLD on Beverly Boulevard.
As usual in Los Angeles, parking is the primary source of conflict. Currently, the City of Los Angeles struggles to regulate valet parking operators, many of which employ unlicensed drivers, disable parking meters, park cars illegally on residential streets, and sign exclusive lease agreements with multiple restaurants for the same parking spaces. The city keeps no database of valet parking leases to prevent so-called “double dipping”.
As a result, homeowners associations such as the BWHA have taken it upon themselves to do some of the policing the city does not do. Members of the BWHA look up code requirements, take pictures of structures they deem illegal, and almost invariably oppose anyone trying to open a new restaurant or apply for a liquor license on 3rd Street, putting the group at odds with local businesses.
“None of them have any parking,” said Diana Plotkin, president of the BWHA. “They’re double and triple dipping. Everyone has the same parking, so no one has any parking.”
Though Plotkin’s group opposed all of the restaurants listed above, all except Ratner’s have been able to open. In some cases, the appeals led the restaurants to make concessions — Magnolia Bakery gave up the seating it had applied for so it could open. More often, what the BWHA’s opposition cost the restaurants was time and money. In some cases, the homeowners merely wrote letters of opposition to the planning commission, which decides whether to grant permits to restaurants; but in other cases, members of the group appeal the decision to grant a restaurant’s permit to the planning commission and then to the city council. If a restaurant has applied for an expedited permit, which most do, the applicant must pay for the zoning administrator to work on the case, which can still take months and cost thousands of dollars.
Elizabeth Peterson is an expeditor who has worked to help open Dough Boys, Little Next Door, Smokin’ Joint, Magnolia, and most recently Ratner’s, which won its appeal at the city council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee on Tuesday. Peterson said the BWHA appealed all of those cases except Smokin’ Joint, though the group formally opposed that application as well.
“The BWHA came at me really nicely and asked me to advertise in their newsletter,” said Michael Kessler, owner of Smokin’ Joint. “I did, just to keep them at bay, but apparently all that was for naught.”
The BWHA’s ability to hold up applications and impose fees on restaurants hoping to open, has many local business owners spooked. Many refused to speak to the Beverly Press on the record for this story. Brad Kent, owner of Olio Pizzeria and Café, which is still trying to get all the necessary permits, said he hoped BWHA would leave his application alone.
“Diana Plotkin is that name I keep hearing,” Kent said. “I look forward to hopefully never encountering her. I can’t afford it.”
Prior to 1990, it was easy to open a restaurant. But that year, the city passed an ordinance that required a certain number of parking spaces for most types of new businesses.
The ordinance created the system of “paper parking”, wherein, before any business can open, the owners need to show they have exclusive parking rights to certain spaces. On streets like 3rd Street, because businesses do not have on-site parking, they have to lease these spaces from valet companies. However, the valet operators don’t park the cars in the spaces they have leased to the business, and instead park in metered spots on the street, or illegally in residential neighborhoods.
“The people who say the city’s not doing a good job of enforcing rules are absolutely right,” said Mott Smith, a consultant who works with the West Third Street Business Association. “We’ve got a zoning code that pushing 1,000 pages, and they cannot effectively enforce that. Unfortunately, the process can’t tell the difference between good businesses and bad businesses, and it can’t tell the difference between genuinely concerned neighbors and vigilantes. What we have as a result is land use trial by ordeal.”
Smith has helped put together a public valet program, which has several stands along 3rd Street and parks cars at the Beverly Connection and two other locations for anyone who comes to 3rd Street.
“The city doesn’t regulate valet companies,” Smith said. “There is no law that says a valet company can’t park patron cars in public spots. So we’re taking it upon ourselves as a community to make sure that the valet company we hired is behaving properly. We want to get more cars parking with the public valet, which would mean more parking on the street.”
The BWHA has objected to the public valet program Smith organized, as well. Joel Post, vice president of the BWHA, said valets from the public valet were also parking cars in metered spots and on residential streets. Smith denied this was the case, as did Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz, 5th District.
“We believe the universal valet works,” Koretz said.
On Monday, at a public meeting of the BWHA with Koretz, Plotkin outlined the one solution to the parking problem on 3rd Street that her group would support.
“What we need is a parking structure on Third,” Plotkin said to Koretz. “I don’t care if you have to steal the money for it. We need a parking structure.”
Koretz — indeed, everyone — agrees that 3rd Street needs a parking structure. However, the city doesn’t have money to fund it.
“Twenty years ago, it could have been done with enough political will,” Koretz said. “Now, the city is close enough to bankrupt as it is. There’s not going to be any money for a parking structure.”
Without a parking structure, there is only one other solution the BWHA will support: no more restaurants. Plotkin said, including the Grove—a project she supported—and the Beverly Center, there are 71 restaurants with full liquor licenses. In addition to the numbers of intoxicated drivers on the road, members of the group said that the concentration of restaurants is forcing out other neighborhood businesses, like jewelers and shoe stores.
“If that isn’t overconcentration, you might as well throw out the term ‘overconcentration’,” Plotkin said. “The businesses don’t live here. They work here and they want to make money on this. The businesses never contributed anything to the community.”
Some other local residents at the meeting echoed the BWHA’s concerns. Theresa Feldman complained that parking requirements were not enforced when a business location changed from a retail operation to a restaurant or bar.
“A change of use is supposed to signal a parking requirement, but it doesn’t,” Feldman said. “Then two years later, the restaurant owners say they can’t survive without alcohol, but they can’t serve alcohol without parking, and the valets use the same spots over and over. It’s crazy.”
But not all residents agree with the BWHA’s position. Reeva Sherman, who has lived in the area for 45 years, said most patrons walk to the restaurants on 3rd Street.
“They’re harassing all the businesses, especially in this tough economy,” Sherman said. “Most of the people in this group (BWHA) are an older demographic, and they don’t speak for a lot of the residents. I think they’re doing damage to the community. The city has to give businesses a little leeway right now, otherwise they’ll be left with plenty of parking, and plenty of vacancies.”
Koretz, in theory, sided with the BWHA. “Parking is in such short supply, I think we’ve reached a critical mass of restaurants on Third, and we don’t need any more businesses with high-occupancy uses.”
However, despite public pressure from Plotkin, who was part of the Committee to Recall Jack Weiss, Koretz’s office declined to oppose Ratner’s Deli’s application at this week’s hearing.
Koretz’s office is working on a database to tack lease agreements with valet companies, so they will not be able to double dip any more, but he said that project, too, is a long way from fruition.
“We’re actively working on it,” said Chris Koontz, planning deputy for the 5th Council District, “But it’s a giant task. It’s going to take a while.”