By Ian Lovett, 8/26/2010
For 40 years, Benjamin Lee’s family ran a flooring and carpeting business on 3rd Street. But when the economic crisis hit, instead of selling the building, the family decided to convert the business into a restaurant.
Lee partnered with the owners of Ratner’s Deli, the famous Jewish deli in New York that recently closed after a century of serving kosher food. Last year, he filed for a parking variance — an agreement to park cars off-site — and a conditional use permit (CUP) for on-site alcohol sale and consumption. The applications were approved in January. But he still doesn’t have the permits.
“I’ve opened a restaurant in Hollywood, but I’ve never been through a process like this,” said Lee, who also owns Kitchen 24 in Hollywood.
The permitting process for new restaurants in Los Angeles can be a long, complicated affair, especially if they want to serve alcohol, which many consider necessary for economic survival.
Lee thought he was well on his way, but it was appealed on the last day before the approval of his permits became final. In May, the planning commission voted unanimously to approve the permit with no modifications, but this decision too was appealed, again on the last day.
Now, Lee has a hearing with the Los Angeles City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee next month, after which the case will move to the full city council. Lee also said he has also been to the Mid-City West Community Council multiple times in hopes of winning a recommendation to the city council.
Lee hopes his permits will win final approval in September, and the restaurant can open sometime next summer. In the meantime, in hopes of obtaining his parking variance, Lee has been paying monthly rent to help support the public valet, which parks cars for all comers to 3rd Street at the Beverly Connection and several other sites.
“The cost of parking alone is astronomical,” Lee said. “I’m happy to do it, because it’s a credible program, but you see why so many restaurants fail. They start out a quarter-million dollars in the hole before they even open. We haven’t even broken ground yet.”
Many other businesses on 3rd Street express similar concerns, saying the process and cost of acquiring all the necessary permits makes it difficult for small, family-owned businesses to get off the ground.
Brad Kent, owner of Olio Pizzeria and Café, said he signed his lease in February, but did not get the permits to begin construction until July. Kent said it cost him $12,000 to get the building permits from the city. In addition, if anyone appeals, the business has to cover the cost of expediting the process. He said the whole process has cost him more than $250,000 so far.
“They make it impossible to do business, and it only adds to the blight,” Kent said. “Look at all the failed businesses.”
Diana Plotkin, president of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association, which has opposed many new restaurants on 3rd Street restaurants, said her group is primarily concerned with parking, and that drunk driving has become an issue in the area.
“The valets all park on the residential streets,” Plotkin said. “We can’t even have guests over, because there is nowhere to park.”
Lee said he has reached out to the neighborhood in hopes of winning support. He said he has gathered more than 2,300 signatures in support of the deli, and has agreed to donate one percent of the restaurant’s proceeds to a charity or city program of the customers’ choice.
“On the plus side, I think it’s allowed us to connect with our community,” Lee said. “We’ve gotten to know a lot more people, and people are really excited about our opening, which is great.”