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Village turmoil: A Larchmont divided cannot stand

Graphic by Schessa '12.

Whether you’re grabbing sandwiches with your Advisory during the School day or enjoying some gelato with friends after classes get out, Larchmont Boulevard is a Marlborough hotspot. What began as a small carriage street in the 1920s has evolved into one of the trendiest strips of restaurants and shops in Los Angeles, drawing people from all over the city looking for a “neighborhood” experience.

To keep this village feeling intact, Larchmont has been trying to avoid large corporations and chains for years. In October of 2009, a west-side devel­oper, Albert Mizrahi, came into town and began buying up properties. Miz­rahi now owns over 20,000 square feet of space on Larchmont, including the popular restaurant, the Larchmont Bun­galow, as well as Twirl Frozen Yogurt and clothing boutiques Library and Larchmont Hardwear.

According to Landis General Store owner Edie Frère, Mizrahi originally pre­sented the Bungalow to the other Larch­mont business owners as a take-out place that sold roasted coffee, fine kitchen ap­pliances and furniture—not as a restau­rant with tables and chairs.

In Oct. of 2009, the Bun­galow opened with a license as a take-out café but began to oper­ate as a sit-down restaurant. Later that month, the Department of Building and Safety revoked the Bungalow’s Certificate of Occupancy, meaning that technically the res­taurant has been operating illegally in two ways: first, they don’t have the permit necessary to have a business in the building, and second, they do not have the license necessary to function as a sit-down restaurant.

Now, over two years later, even after City Councilman Tom LaBonge cited the Bungalow for operating without a Cer­tificate of Occupancy, the restaurant is not only still open for business; it’s thriv­ing. This blatant disregard for the law has caused other neighborhood business­men and women to wonder why stronger legal action hasn’t been taken. To defend themselves against the criminal allega­tions, which include operating without a certificate of occupancy, failing to comply with orders and providing false informa­tion, the owners of the Bungalow are set to appear in court for a hearing on Apr. 27.

As the community begins to de­termine what Larchmont will look like in the 21st century, neighbors and business owners faced with the illegal but profitable example set by Mizrahi have begun to wonder: should we make way for lucrative but dramatic change on Larchmont or adhere to the existing restric­tions? Which is more important to the village: money or nostalgia?

 

ILLEGAL ACTIVITY

In November of 1992, Larchmont im­plemented a set of Qualified (Q) Condi­tions written by the Council of the City of Los Angeles to prevent the street from be­ing overcrowded by large conglomerate businesses and to maintain the balance of retail shops and eateries. These Q Condi­tions put a put a cap on the number of res­taurants that can occupy Larchmont.

“We weren’t trying to make an­other Grove or Third Street Mall,” said the current alternate to the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council Patty Lombard, mother of Emily Simon ’11. “We wanted these Q conditions.” How­ever, a loophole in the Q conditions al­lows for an unlimited number of take-out businesses and coffee shops.

When the Larchmont Bungalow came into the space previously oc­cupied by Cottage Antiques, owner Mizrahi and his leasing agent Jonathan Ahron originally planned to tear down the building but instead decided to renovate the existing property.

“The best way to help this neigh­borhood is to preserve,” Ahron said, explaining that he and Mizrahi took a more ex­pen­sive route to do what was right for the village. “It costs more money to reha­bilitate, to restore, to preserve some­thing, than to knock it down and build new. You open up a can of worms [if you renovate a building in Han­cock Park].”

At first, locals welcomed the Bungalow with open arms, excited about the pros­pect of having a new business on Larch­mont. However, after seeing tables and chairs, and an overall restaurant quality to the Bungalow, people became worried.

“The Bungalow tried to pretend that it’s just take-out,” Lombard said, express­ing a frustration echoed by many busi­ness owners on the street. However, Mizrahi and Ahron deny that they deliber­ately concealed their intentions to make the Bungalow a sit-down restaurant.

“We expressed that it was going to be [a restaurant] and then all of a sud­den a certain part of the community got aware and involved and it became a political issue,” Mizrahi said.

From the beginning, the Bungalow openly operated as a restaurant, attract­ing attention from both locals and the City of Los Angeles. After investigating this new business, the City revoked the Bun­galow’s Certificate of Occupancy.

“It’s so surprising that they can operate illegally,” Frère said. I always thought that you had to get your act together before you open your doors, and if you screwed it up, someone would come and say, ‘So sorry, let’s get you organized.’”

Neighborhood opponents of the Bun­galow, such as the Larchmont LA Face­book page and Twitter feed, as well as the IloveLarchmontBlvd.com website provide an ample amount of information on the Bungalow controversy to keep Hancock Park citizens informed and up to date. Both sites have shed light on an issue that hasn’t been exposed to many residents beyond the immediate area; though the Larchmont Chronicle has cov­ered the story, the LA Times has never ac­knowledged the Bungalow’s illegal status.

“If I didn’t live in the community and wasn’t on the board [of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council], I would have just been excited that there was a new restaurant,” Hancock Park resident Auxiliary Services Manager Clinton Oie said. “I wish people would let go of the anger and just concentrate on following the rules.”

 

HEALTHY COMPETITION

Larchmont Larder owner Katie Treviño, mother of Ivy ’16, had a draft of a lease on a store on Larch­mont and was about to officially open a business in the building when Mizrahi swept in and bought the property himself. Treviño, who had spoken to Ahron about her business plans, later noticed a num­ber of uncanny similarities between the Larder and the Bungalow.

“They weren’t very original and came in and took bits of other people’s busi­nesses,” Treviño said. “Some of the back­lash in the community was crazy. It almost became a Salem Witch Trial.”

Ahron and Mizrahi said they think they are being unfairly persecuted by the rest of the Larchmont business owners.

“They picked on us because we were the lone wolf,” Ahron said, referring to how the Bungalow’s violations of Q Conditions have received more attention than the vio­lations of other businesses on Larchmont that have tables and chairs outside but are not legally recognized as restaurants, including Jamba Juice and Larchmont Vil­lage Spirits, Wine & Cheese.

Ahron and Mizrahi also argue that the success of the Bungalow benefits the Vil­lage economically as a whole, as the Bun­galow employs 45 people in a time when jobs are getting cut everywhere.

“The truth of the matter is we’ve helped business on that end of the street,” Ahron said.

However, other Larchmont stores do not openly admit that their businesses have become more successful since the Bungalow has opened.

And yet other stories of Ahron and Mizrahi’s shifty dealings have been circulating in the Larchmont commu­nity, including tales of their threatening to deliberately put other stores out of business and raising the rent for the buildings they own, forcing out long­time residents and business owners.

The majority of other businesses own­ers on the street said they feel angry about being misled by Mizrahi and Ahron.

“I went to Marlborough. My mother went to Marlborough. My kids went to Marlborough,” Frère said. “I have an honor system in me.”

Since other Larchmont businesses did not expect the Bungalow to be a res­taurant, there was not a great fear of com­petition. However, with more restaurants on the street than are permitted by the Q Conditions, businesses vying for custom­ers have become more hostile.

“Competi­tion is very healthy,” Mizrahi said. “But when you’re competing, you have to step up your game a little bit.”

 

NEXT STEPS

Nearly all Larchmont business owners agree that the Bun­galow should not be able to remain open without a Certificate of Occupancy and that Ar­hon and Mizrahi should reapply for new permits, this time follow­ing all Q Conditions.

“They need to go through the plan­ning process, public and transparent, just like everyone else,” Lombard said.

But with a substantial daily lunch crowd and multiple Groupon promo­tions in the past year, the Bungalow’s success is undeniable, regardless of whether or not the restaurant receives business from unhappy locals.

“We’re trying to be as supportive as we can to the community,” Ahron said. “We’re trying to make people aware of what’s happening, and yes, we’re getting a lot of bad press. May­be we’ll be accepted over time.”

The courts and the City have al­ready determined the Bungalow to be acting illegally, but few expect anyone to take immediate action to shut down the restaurant. Although the Bungalow has another hearing set for Apr. 27, the appeals process could take years.

“It would scare the heck out of me to be in that position…I just can’t imagine it,” Frère said. “I’m told the food is good, but I obviously can’t eat there.”

One Comment

  1. Se April 2, 2012

    Thanks for being brave enough to call Larchmont Bungalow what it is — illegal.

    There’s a lot of headscratching among those unfamiliar with the issues as to why the locals are calling it illegal when it has not been shut down… It’s either the city’s inability or the court system’s lack of will to enforce the law. For Bungalow to be allowed to continue to operate while the criminal case against them was granted by the judiciary one continuance after another over two years…

    Do you know that even if Bungalow is found guilty in the jury trial in May 2012, the total fines would not be more than what their profit is in one day? That means any other business can now be braver about breaking the law because in the end it’s profitable to do so.

    The only way to us for us to mete out a modicum of justice is to not eat there. Unfortunately, there are too many non-locals who are either unaware of this issue or just don’t care.

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