At its April meeting, the Land Use Committee of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council voted to recommend that the GWNC board request that the city designate the portion of Larchmont Blvd. between 1st Street and Beverly Blvd. (a.k.a. “Lower Larchmont”) a “Sensitive Use Area” under the city’s new Restaurant Beverage Program (RBP). (The program has been under discussion since 2017 and was signed into law this spring.)
The request, which will be up for a vote by the full GWNC board at its meeting on Wednesday evening (6:30 p.m. via Zoom), has intensified what has been a long-standing community debate about the sales of distilled liquor and mixed drinks on this section of Larchmont (since those permits would now likely be easier to obtain under the RBP). And as the discussion has intensified, especially over the last couple of days, we’ve seen a number of emails being circulated that contain both questions about the Restaurant Beverage Program and contentions that it won’t offer neighbors a voice in local liquor permits unless Larchmont Blvd. is designated a Sensitive Use Area.
We’ve been reporting on this issue since April 2020, so to help clarify the situation in advance of Wednesday night’s discussion, we’ve created the following list of Frequently Asked Questions, explaining what Restaurant Beverage program is, what it does and does not do, and how the Sensitive Use Area rules differ from those of the general program.
What is a “Sensitive Use Area”?
When the city passed the new Restaurant Beverage Program earlier this year, to help streamline the alcohol permitting process for restaurants, it created two versions of the program, one for most restaurants, and one for restaurants in “Sensitive Use Areas.” The Sensitive Use designation was added to address City Councilmembers’ concerns about potential oversaturation of alcohol permits in certain areas…but when the ordinance was finalized, the city did not include a specific definition of “sensitive use,” and the Planning Department confirmed to the Buzz last summer that “any area in the City may be designated for this program so long as it is approved by Council resolution and adequate findings are presented.”
Does being designated a “Sensitive Use Area” protect a neighborhood from new liquor permits, or new permits to sell hard liquor, being granted there?
No. It only creates some additional requirements for permits issued under the Restaurant Beverage Program.
So what is the Restaurant Beverage Program?
The Restaurant Beverage Program was created by the City Council to allow faster approval of liquor permits for restaurants (and only restaurants, not bars, nightclubs, stores or any other venues selling alcohol). A restaurant that meets all the requirements can be granted a simple administrative approval of its permit.
Is this just for hard liquor permits?
The permits can be for either beer and wine sales, or for a full line of alcoholic beverages and mixed drinks. Restaurants that currently have beer and wine permits under the traditional Conditional Use Permit process could also potentially upgrade to permits to sell a full line of alcoholic beverages under the new Restaurant Beverage Program. (Those restaurants would, however, also have to upgrade their state-level liquor license to allow them to sell a full line of alcoholic beverages, before they could apply for an upgraded city permit under the RBP.)
Can all restaurants apply for liquor permits under this program?
No. Only those that meet about 50 very specific conditions of operation can apply for permits under the RBP. Restaurants that do not meet those conditions still have to go through a traditional Conditional Use Permit process, which takes longer, is more expensive, and involves more community review.
Also, as mentioned above, any restaurant applying for a permit under the RBP must also already have a license to sell alcohol from the state department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. And if a restaurant with a current city beer and wine permit wants to upgrade to a permit to sell a full line of alcoholic beverages under the new Restaurant Beverage Program, it has to upgrade its state license (at considerable time and cost) before it can apply for the upgraded city permit, another factor that may also limit the number of restaurants that could and would apply under the program.
What are some of the conditions restaurants have to meet to apply for liquor permits under the RBP?
- It must be a “bona fide eating place with an operational kitchen where food is prepared onsite and with a full menu,” with food service available during all open hours.
- Hours of operation are limited to 7 a.m. – 11 p.m.
- All food and beverages must be served to tables, by restaurant employees.
- No pool tables, billiards, dancing, or adult entertainment.
- No cover charges, admission charges, or pre-sold tickets for alcoholic drinks.
- No minimum drink orders.
- No age limitations for entry.
The full list of conditions (which is much, much more extensive) can be found in the text of the ordinance, available at https://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2017/17-0981_ord_187402_3-31-22.pdf
Are permits issued under the Restaurant Beverage Program non-revocable, and non-reviewable, even if there are complaints or if there’s a change of ownership?
No. While the RBP permits, like traditional Conditional Use Permits, do “run with the land” and not the specific restaurant operator, there are opportunities for review and, possibly, revocation. For example, if three citations for violations are issued to the restaurant by LAPD or the Department of Building and Safety within any two-year period, “the existing administrative clearance shall terminate,” and the restaurant cannot reapply for a permit under the RBP for five years. Also, if there’s a change of ownership, a change in the restaurant’s state liquor license, or a change in the restaurant’s seating plan, the permit will be reviewed before it can remain in effect.
Does the Restaurant Beverage Program apply to the whole city?
Not automatically. The program, which was signed into law this spring, is available on an “opt in” basis, and allows each city council member to request that specific parts of their districts be included. Most councilmembers who have made territorial requests so far have requested that their entire districts be included. This includes CD 5’s Paul Koretz and CD 13’s Mitch O’ Farrell. (CD 5’s request was approved by the City Council’s PLUM Committee on Tuesday, May 10, along with similar requests from six other city council districts, and will now move on to the City Planning Commission and the full City Council.)
So who decides what is and isn’t a Sensitive Use Area?
As with participation in the Restaurant Beverage Program itself, requests for designation of Sensitive Use Areas are left to each City Councilmember. Once made, the request goes to the City Planning Commission and the full City Council for approval. So far, we have heard about only one such request, from City Councilmember Joe Buscaino, who requested that a small portion of his Council District 15 (mapped in the resolution here) be designated as a Sensitive Use Area. (Buscaino’s request was one of the seven approved by the City Council PLUM Committee on May 10, and is now moving on to the City Planning Commission and full City Council for final approval.)
What are the additional restrictions for restaurants in Sensitive Use areas?
Among other additional restrictions, a few key provisions include:
- The restaurant must conduct outreach about the application by attending one or more meetings of a Neighborhood Council, Business Improvement District or other established community organization.
- No more than 45% of the restaurant’s gross annual sales can be from the sales of alcohol.
- Permits are first issued for a one-year provisional period, followed by a review by the City Planning Department before the permit is made permanent. If there are more than five complaints during the probationary period, the restaurant would be removed from the program.
- If there is a change in ownership, the new owner would have to re-apply for a new one-year provisional period.
Does the provisional period mean that restaurants in Sensitive Use Areas are not allowed to serve alcohol for that first year?
No, it means they are allowed to sell alcohol (either beer and wine, or a full line of alcoholic beverages, depending on what their permit is for) for a year…but their permission to sell alcohol beyond the one-year mark isn’t guaranteed until a review is done at that point. One exception to this, however, is that when designating an area as sensitive, a city councilmember can also request that restaurants in the area be limited to the sale of beer and wine only during the one-year provisional period. If that was done in a specific area, then restaurants there would be limited to beer and wine sales during the first year, even if their application requests permission for sales of a full line of alcoholic beverages.
If Larchmont Blvd. (or any other part of our neighborhood) is declared a Sensitive Use Area, does that mean we get to decide whether or not restaurants here can apply for permits under the Restaurant Beverage Program?
No. The Restaurant Beverage Program is already city law, and our city councilmembers have requested that our neighborhoods be included in it. If Larchmont is declared a Sensitive Use Area under the Restaurant Beverage Program, restaurants here will still be able to apply for expedited permits under the program. The only thing that will change is that individual permits issued under the program (and under this program only) will be subject to additional conditions, as noted above.
Are full-line liquor permits (for distilled spirits and mixed drinks) allowed on Larchmont now?
Full-line liquor permits are not prohibited on Larchmont (Larchmont Wine and Cheese has one for retail sales of wine and spirits for off-site consumption), but traditionally the community has supported restaurant applications only for beer and wine permits.
How does this change under the Restaurant Beverage Program?
Because there is no community review required for permit applications under the general version of the Restaurant Beverage Program, it’s possible that full-line alcohol permits could more easily be issued for lower Larchmont under the RBP. We know of four current restaurants that might be considering such applications, as alcohol sales can be very beneficial to a restaurant’s bottom line.
Does that mean bars will move in too?
Only restaurants (and only restaurants that meet more than 50 very specific conditions) can apply for permits under this program. Bars are not allowed…so no bars would be making applications under the Restaurant Beverage Program. Bars wanting liquor permits on Larchmont would still (as always) have to go through the traditional Conditional Use Permit process, which is much more involved, and requires much more community review than the Restaurant Beverage Program.
Even if bars can’t apply under the RBP, will we be overrun with new restaurants and new restaurant applications to serve alcohol on Larchmont?
The number of sit-down restaurants allowed on Larchmont Blvd. is currently regulated by our special zoning “Q” conditions, and the maximum number of sit-down restaurants (the only kind that can make applications under the Restaurant Beverage Program) has already been reached. As noted above, we’ve heard of only four current restaurants so far that are interested in making applications under this new program. If the current “Q” conditions are modified at some point in the future, however, to allow more sit-down restaurants, that could mean that the number of liquor permit applications could also increase.
Where can I learn more about all of this?
The full text of the city’s Restaurant Beverage Program Ordinance is available at https://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2017/17-0981_ord_187402_3-31-22.pdf
Some of our previous stories about the Restaurant Beverage Program are available here, here, here, and here.
And finally, be sure to attend the GWNC meeting on Wednesday, at 6:30 p.m., via Zoom, where a motion to request that Larchmont be declared a Sensitive Use Area has been agendized for discussion. (The agenda link above contains the Zoom link for the meeting.)
[This story was updated after publication to add information about Councilmember Joe Buscaino’s sensitive use request for a part of CD 15, and the PLUM Committee passage of both this request and the more general program participation request from CD 5 on May 10. We also removed incorrect information about the Chan Dara restaurant’s liquor permit, and clarified a few other points.]
About Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.
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