At last night’s meeting of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, the GWNC board spent the majority of its three-and-a-half hour session discussing a single, complex, and locally divisive topic: whether or not, as recommended by the GWNC’s Land Use Committee last month, the portion of Larchmont Blvd. between First Street and Beverly Blvd. (a.k.a. “lower” Larchmont) should be declared a “sensitive use area” under the city’s new Restaurant Beverage Program (RBP). The program, which went into effect at the end of March, allows qualifying restaurants to acquire permits to sell either beer and wine or a full line of alcoholic beverages with a simple administrative approval. It’s faster, easier and less expensive than the traditional Conditional Use Permit process.
As it was created by the city, the RBP contains two tracks – one for most restaurants (which have to meet more than 50 specific conditions to qualify), and another for restaurants in “Alcohol Sensitive Use Areas,” where applicants have to meet both the basic conditions and several more. So the question on the table last night was to whether or not to seek a “Sensitive Use” designation for Larchmont, to trigger those additional operating conditions for liquor permits there. In the end, however, after a lengthy debate, the motion to request “Sensitive Use” status failed by a fairly narrow margin.
The discussion before last night’s vote was divided into several phases. First, GWNC board members were allowed to ask questions of three representatives from the Department of City Planning, to help clarify the terms and conditions of the RBP. Then Land Use Committee Chair Brian Curran introduced the motion to request the sensitive use designation for Larchmont, saying Land Use committee members expressed strong opinions both for and against the request, but were finally convinced the measure would be necessary to better protect the community, especially from potential “bad actors” who may apply for local liquor licenses through the RBP in the future.
The motion itself requested that “Lower Larchmont (from First to Beverly) be designated by the City as a Sensitive Use Zone under the City’s Restaurant Beverage Program” based on “(1) its Neighborhood Commercial planning designation, (2) the designation of all adjacent land uses as Low Residential and HPOZ, and (3) its hundred-year history of no hard liquor uses.” The motion also noted that “The one-year monitoring and compliance review required for Sensitive Use Zones will enable the restaurants, neighborhood and the City to learn whether the Restaurant Beverage Program works well on Lower Larchmont and should therefore continue in perpetuity.”
After the motion’s introduction, board members were given a chance to comment on the motion itself, and then comments were heard from the general public.
During the initial question and answer phase, Planning representatives Lillian Rubio, Roberto Luna and Jamie Hwang provided the following information in response to board members’ questions:
- In general, the Restaurant Beverage Program contains more than 50 specific standards that restaurants have to meet to qualify for permitting under the program.
- Restaurants in designated Sensitive Use Areas have to meet the same 50+ qualifications, but are also subject to a one-year probationary period during which community members can submit complaints through a special portal. Also, alcohol sales are limited to no more than 45% of the restaurant’s total sales, and restaurants applying for permits must submit an outreach plan and attend at least one meeting of an established community organization (such as a neighborhood council).
- There are monitoring and verification procedures for restaurants participating in both the standard and sensitive use versions of the RBP, including being subject to two unannounced inspections in the first three years, to make sure the establishments are complying with the various required conditions.
- Permit conditions for restaurants participating in the Restaurant Beverage Program are stricter than those required under the traditional Conditional Use Permit process.
- Participating restaurants also pay into a fund for program monitoring and implementation, which helps ensure that the city has the necessary resources to ensure compliance.
- The program for restaurants in Alcohol Sensitive Use Areas was created in response to concerns from several city councilmembers about the RBP’s potential effects on communities that have already been negatively affected by alcohol sales, to provide an extra layer of protection for those areas.
- The standards restaurants have to meet under the RBP were based on those included in the existing Conditional Use Permit application process, with some additional items suggested by the community…but they are also stricter those required by the CUP process, even though the RBP process is faster and easier to navigate.
- The RBP program and its standards, including those for Sensitive Use Areas, were developed through a lengthy public process, taking place mostly between 2018 and 2020.
- In addition to the two inspections required for all restaurants permitted under the RBP, restaurants re-apply for RBP permits if/when the restaurant owner or operator changes, there are changes to the restaurant’s state-level license from the CA Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, and/or if there are changes to the restaurant’s floor plan.
- When designating an area as a Sensitive Use Area, the City Council can choose to require that restaurants sell only beer and wine during their one-year probationary period, even if their application is for permission to sell a full line of alcoholic beverages. If the restaurant is in compliance at the one year mark, it would then be allowed to sell all types of alcohol.
- Sensitive Use Area designations are based on findings that the designation is necessary, which must be submitted with the original request.
During the board member and public discussion that followed, strong opinions were expressed both in favor of and in opposition to making a Sensitive Use Area request for Larchmont. Comments in opposition to the measure included:
- Even though the definition of “Sensitive Use” is vague in the RBP ordinance, it was created for areas where there is an over-concentration of alcohol sales and high crime, neither of which describes Larchmont…so declaring Larchmont a sensitive use area would be a misuse of the program.
- The RBP will not result in an influx of bars and loud music to the neighborhood. (Both are prohibited under the RBP.)
- We know our local restaurant operators, many of whom are also our residential neighbors, and we should not subject them to the additional burdens that would be imposed under a Sensitive Use designation.
- Most of the restaurants that would be potential applicants under the RBP already serve beer and wine, and allowing them to more easily upgrade their licenses under the RBP, to allow sales of all kinds of alcoholic drinks, would not create any functional differences in their operations.
- The regular version of the RBP contains a large number of safeguards, so the additional requirements of a Sensitive Use designation are not necessary.
- The Land Use Committee’s vote to recommend the Sensitive Use designation was, in hindsight, a “rush to judgment,” with no local restaurants represented at the meeting where it was discussed and voted on.
- The traditional Conditional Use Permit process is extremely long and makes opening new restaurants very difficult. The RBP makes this process a lot simpler for restaurants.
- The additional protections of a Sensitive Use Area are not needed here, and would only create additional red tape for our local restaurateurs, many of whom are still struggling to overcome setbacks and debt created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Larchmont Blvd. may not have ever had full-line liquor permits in its 100-year history, but many things have changed on Larchmont over the last 100 years, and that alone doesn’t justify the additional burdens a Sensitive Use designation would create for our restaurants.
- Our local restaurants should be allowed the opportunity to improve their bottom lines with additional liquor sales.
- Whether a restaurant sells beer and wine or hard liquor doesn’t change what happens in the restaurant, and those who say it would are only creating fear that something bad will happen to Larchmont, which is not the case, sends the wrong message to our restaurants, and makes it it difficult for people to run their businesses.
- A Sensitive Use request requires specific findings that the designation is necessary, and it would be disingenuous to claim any such findings for Larchmont.
Comments in favor of requesting a Sensitive Use designation for lower Larchmont included:
- Larchmont is still a “village,” where stores close early and the commercial district is surrounded residential neighbors, to whom we also want to be good neighbors.
- There is no reason not to request Sensitive Use status for Larchmont.
- The only difference with Sensitive Use status is that it helps assure the local restaurants are being good neighbors.
- Those who argue that the current zoning “Q” conditions will effectively limit the number of restaurants (and liquor permits) on Larchmont are being “disingenuous” if they also argue at other times that the “Q” conditions should be changed, which could potentially increase the number of restaurants on the street.
- Once something is in place, it’s hard to change…and if we don’t take the opportunity to create the Sensitive Use Area now, we’ll never have the chance again.
- The Windsor Square Association has received a letter from 11 households on Lucerne Blvd., adjacent to Larchmont Blvd., where residents have had problems with rats, trash, and noise from Larchmont restaurants. These residents would favor the Sensitive Use designation and the one-year probationary period it would provide for new liquor licenses.
- Area residents have been fighting for many years to maintain the character of the neighborhood, and it’s crucial we continue to do so.
- There’s a lot of benefit to taking it slow to see how new things work, which the Sensitive Use designation would allow us to do with the RBP.
- Making new liquor licenses easier to obtain will gradually lead to the street being open much later than it is now, and the Sensitive Use designation could help prevent that.
- We’re just being prudent, and our local restaurants won’t take it personally if we seek a Sensitive Use designation.
- The only meaningful difference between the regular version of the RBP and the Sensitive Use version is increased protection against a potential “bad actor.” If there there is such a designation, motivation is high for restaurants not to become a problem…but if there is no designation, there’s no effective enforcement.
- The city does not effectively enforce most of its regulations, and since the Planning Department is not responsible for enforcement, the representatives here tonight can’t speak to that issue.
- There’s no downside to the Sensitive Use designation, and what you gain is the ability to review the permit after the one-year probationary period.
- Sales of hard liquor on Larchmont have never been allowed.
- The Sensitive Use rules are fair and clear, and there’s no reasonable reason to object to the designation.
- It’s OK for restaurants to serve alcohol, and OK for them to serve a full line of alcoholic beverages. But the meaningful changes with a Sensitive Use designation are the one-year check-in and the 45% revenue limit on alcohol. Without that, you’d have to wait 36 months to assess violations, and there’s no guarantee that would ever happen.
- We’re not worried about our current restaurants, but new people we don’t know will come in over time.
- We love our current restaurants and support them, and the Sensitive Use designation wouldn’t hurt them in any serious way.
Finally, among members of the public speaking at the meeting, there were owners of two popular local restaurants.
Joanne Vernetti, who runs the Vernetti restaurant with her husband Steve, agreed with those speaking in opposition to the Sensitive Use designation, noting that while the city already has many requirements and strict enforcement for restaurant liquor license, the state licensing process is also “incredibly stringent.” So if a restaurant does put in the time and money required to get a liquor license from the state, and the operating permit from the city, Vernetti said, they won’t take it lightly and will be responsible. Also, in response to the comments about how a Sensitive Use Area designation wouldn’t place any undue burdens on local restaurant owners, Vernetti said, “The red tape does make a difference. It definitely does make a difference.”
Meanwhile, Nora Houndalas, who owns Le Petit Greek, said she was proud of the civil discourse at the meeting, but also said she, too, would prefer there be no Sensitive Use designation for Larchmont. Houndalas said making it easier to upgrade to a full liquor license would be a “lifesaver” for her restaurant, which is still facing serious financial struggles from the pandemic. She also noted that some potential customers go elsewhere when they find out they can’t have a margarita with their food at her business. And she said she does understand the community’s concerns about new liquor licenses, but she also wants to make sure all voices, including those of local restaurant owners, are heard in the discussion.
In the end, the motion to request a Sensitive Use designation for the Larchmont area, under the Restaurant Beverage Program, received six votes in favor, nine in opposition, and two abstentions…so it did not pass.
Other Land Use Business
Although the liquor permit discussion took up the lion’s share of last night’s meeting, the GWNC board also voted on two other land use matters.
One of these was an application to replace a vacant parking lot with a 6-story, 120-unit multi-family residential building at 975-987 S. Manhattan Place, which the board voted to oppose because the applicants failed to respond to the GWNC’s invitation to make a presentation on the project to the Land Use Committee.
The other item addressed last night was an application for a conditional Use Permit to allow the sale of beer and wine from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., for both on-site consumption and off-site consumption with take-out orders, at the Ramen Melrose restaurant at 5786-5788 W. Melrose Ave. This application was previously opposed by the Larchmont Village Neighborhood Association, but supported by the Hancock Park Homeowners Association, the groups representing the closest adjacent neighborhoods. The GWNC’s Land Use Committee discussed the proposal at two different meetings before voting to recommend that the GWNC board support the application, as long as liquor service stops at midnight instead of 2 a.m., and if there is a review of the permit after a year. At last night’s meeting, when considering the Land Use Committee’s recommendation, Larchmont-area representative Charlie D’Atri asked if the applicant has agreed to the Land Use Committee’s proposed conditions, noting that they refused a similar suggestion from the LVNA. Land Use Committee chair Brian Curran reported that the applicants’ representative was not able to answer for the restaurant owners at the committee meeting, and that they hadn’t heard anything further since then. In the end, however, the GWNC board supported the Committee’s recommendation to support the application, with the two specified conditions, by a margin of 12 votes in favor, three opposed, and one abstention.
The next meeting of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council will be held on Wednesday, June 8, 2022.
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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