Last night, a community conversation on the future of Larchmont Blvd., hosted by Larchmont 2021, a consortium including representatives of the Larchmont Buzz, the Larchmont Business Association (LBA), Larchmont Business Improvement District (BID), and the Windsor Square Association, focused on issues facing retail businesses (including restaurants) on the street, and presented insights from a local architect, a real estate consultant who specializes in retail planning, and the director of the Westwood Village Business Improvement District.
Buzz co-publisher Patty Lombard, one of the organizers of Larchmont 2021, opened the discussion with a brief reminder Larchmont’s history as a neighborhood-serving retail district, stretching back to its founding 100 years ago, in 1921, by developer Julius La Bonte, and continuing in more recent decades with efforts to preserve the original purpose and character of the street. (More history can be found in Lombard’s book, “Larchmont,” available for purchase at Chevalier’s Books.)
Next, local architect John Kaliski provided further background, saying there have been conversations for at least the last 35 years on how to ensure the street’s neighborhood-serving focus, and how to retain a sustainable mix of businesses, with no single category – such as financial institutions or restaurants – dominating.
Kaliski explained that the desire to help the community shape and control the business mix on the street has resulted in several kinds of city-implemented rules for the Boulevard, including a set of Qualified (aka “Q”) Conditions, adopted in 1992, which establish a 35-foot height limit for Larchmont Blvd. buildings between First Street and Melrose Ave., with some additional restrictions for the mix of businesses between 1st St. and Beverly. These include:
- A maximum number of financial institutions, including banks and real estate office (9)
- A maximum number of restaurants (from 5 to 10, based on the total linear feet of building frontage)
Kaliski noted, however, that the original definition of “restaurant” was not clear in the 1992 “Q” Conditions, so an additional clarification was added in 2015, defining “restaurants” by the percentage of square footage used for seated dining inside the business. (If a majority of the business’ space is not taken up by space for on-site dining, it is not considered an actual “restaurant.”) This created an opportunity to add more “takeout”-based food establishments, and to increase the number of food-based businesses on the street, without violating the original rules.
Finally, said Kaliski, the city passed an additional ordinance, in 2018, creating new Development (or “D”) Standards for the street, which addressed maximum storefront size, orientation to the street, parking, landscaping, and more.
Business Mix and Trends
From here, Rob York, a real estate consultant who specializes in retail planning and market analysis, with extensive experience in Los Angeles, including Westwood Village, picked up the conversation.
York said Larchmont is a great business district, which has “a lot to work with.” But he also noted that the retail dynamic has changed everywhere in recent years, especially during the pandemic over the last year and a half.
York said he believes larger retailers will shrink over time, while food, beverage, and niche specialty retailers will thrive. And he said he expects that while some retailers will take a while to heal from the “financial hangover” of COVID-related setbacks, dining should experience a much faster renaissance.
Regarding Larchmont specifically, York said the street has “amazing” demographics, and the individual storefronts are also “well-scaled” – neither too large nor too small for most retailers and restaurants.
Among Larchmont’s challenges for the future, York said, are that some buildings are not in great shape and/or have been remodeled in an “unfriendly” manner. Finding a way to prevent bad changes while allowing those that will be good for the street will also be a challenge, York said. And to do that, it may be necessary to revisit the existing Q Conditions, to provide a bit more room for the street to adapt to the current market…especially when it comes to allowing restaurants to obtain permits to sell a full line of alcoholic beverages. (Currently, there is no prohibition against full-line liquor permits on the street, but tradition has dictated that only beer and wine permits are supported by the community. See this recent discussion of a new Larchmont liquor permit application at this month’s Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council Land Use Committee meeting.)
York said the goal should be to allow for “meaningful depth” in the variety of businesses on the street, and allowing one or two fine dining restaurants to have full liquor permits would be an important part of that mix.
York also said that landlords could help encourage a greater mix of businesses by offering shorter leases (more practical for startup retailers and restaurants with more limited resources), and that there should be a way of discouraging the kinds of businesses that may be thriving elsewhere at the moment, but which would not benefit this street (e.g. drive-throughs and ghost kitchens), while encouraging those that do (restaurants, retail, health and wellness, fitness, and others that draw very local customers). Pop-ups and temporary stores can also help add to the evolving mix and flavor of the street, York said, though they are also a bit more difficult for landlords, because they turn over so quickly.
Another challenge Larchmont faces, York said, which some other successful retail areas do not, is that there are multiple owners of the street’s properties, making it harder for incoming business owners to secure spaces and negotiate deals. He also noted that Larchmont’s sidewalks could use repairs, lighting could be improved, corner spaces are not well used, and ride-share pickup areas could be added – all things that he sees as fairly simple “minor improvements” that could provide “a huge return on investment.”
But York said Larchmont also has a number of key opportunities for future development, including more creative use of its space (for example, he advocates making the the new “Al Fresco” dining spaces on the street permanent), and says that having some restaurants and stores stay open later at night, and maybe adding some roof deck spaces, would also add to the street’s “vibrancy.”
Overall, however, York said he thinks the street is well positioned for future success and “less vulnerable” than some other well-known business districts around the city…largely because it was well-planned 100 years ago, and has “a lot of fundamental bones that I would design into the district if doing it today.”
For some further perspective for how Larchmont stacks up with other business districts, the organizers turned to Andrew Thomas, Executive Director of the Westwood Village Improvement Association (BID).
Thomas said that Larchmont has several similarities to Westwood, but also several key differences. For example, although the Westwood BID has also dealt with things like sidewalk repairs, tree trimming, and landscaping (like the Larchmont BID), the population of that area is larger, the business district is larger, and there is a major university (with a large hospital) right next door.
Thomas said Westwood has its own version of special conditions, known as the Westwood Village Specific Plan, which the BID has been trying to overturn because it finds many of the provisions too restrictive. Thomas said their city council office has not supported eliminating the Specific Plan, but it has agreed to some amendments – especially regarding the definition of “restaurants” (which differs from the definition used on Larchmont), parking requirements, and appeal fees.
Thomas said, he, too, would favor keeping Larchmont’s new outdoor dining spaces, and would support finding ways to make business permitting (including liquor service) faster and more administrative in nature. He also suggested that while it’s impossible to zone for specific businesses, you can zone to prevent the kinds of businesses you don’t want.
Finally, in general, Thomas agreed with York that Larchmont’s challenges include some buildings that appear a bit “tired,” sidewalks in need of repair, a lack of full alcohol permits for good restaurants, and a lack of strong branding.
But the key to shaping the successful future of the street, Thomas said, is creating the ability to be “nimble,” so businesses can successfully adapt to changes in the world around them.
Questions and Answers
The following questions were raised by the event organizers/and or audience members after the main presentations.
The Larchmont “Q” Conditions were intended to provide a mix of neighborhood businesses, but if we decide to loosen them, will we get “too much of a good thing” and wind up with 12 coffee shops?
York said you do want to think about creating a good mix of businesses, but don’t want to be too heavy-handed about it. Instead, he said, you “need to create a great landing pad for great tenants.” Also, he said, the street could be defined a bit better. It doesn’t have to become as mono-focused as New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, he said (“that would be bad”), but loosing the reins and allowing a bit of change, he said, could be a good thing.
How do you create conditions that specifically foster local independent businesses?
York said there are two important factors: 1. “Support the independents you’ve got” – if word gets out that customers and landlords are appreciate them, businesses will come. And 2. make it easier for startup businesses to open.
Thomas agreed with both points, noting that even large chains like Starbucks, and smaller ones such as Salt & Straw, started somewhere with a single location. So be careful of language, he advised — “You don’t want to say [to incoming businesses], ‘You’re too successful for us.'”
How do you get everyone – including local homeowners associations, businesses, tenants, etc. – on the same page about local development?
Thomas said it may not be possible to get everyone on the same page, but the conversations and process about how to shape the street should definitely be done in “public daylight,” and all who are interested should be given a chance to participate. Toward that goal, Thomas said the Westwood BID did a huge local survey, which they presented to their City Council office, showing “overwhelming” support among many different groups for certain proposed amendments to the Westwood Specific Plan. Thomas said it’s not easy reaching everyone who should be part of the conversation, but the goal is to involve as many people as possible.
What is the Restaurant Beverage Program?
Thomas explained that the Restaurant Beverage Program he referred to earlier is a proposal for a new citywide program (which the Buzz has written about here and here) that would allow some new liquor permits to be automatically approved, without a community review process, if certain conditions are met. Thomas said Santa Monica recently instituted such a program (going “all in on alcohol”), which has been a big help to new restaurants. He cautioned, however, that the Los Angeles program has been much-revised since it was originally proposed, and would now cover only beer and wine permits; full-line alcohol permits would still have to go through the traditional longer review process. (The LA proposal was passed by the Los Angeles City Planning Commission on June 25, and will next be scheduled for discussion by the City Council PLUM Committee.)
What kinds of improvements could be made on Larchmont’s corners, as York suggested?
York said he hasn’t fully thought this through, but it would start with looking at what’s currently allowed under local zoning – maybe greater setbacks for corner buildings, or some corner dining spaces, etc. Corners, York said, are the entry points to the business district and, currently, “Your entry points are pretty weak.”
Could the alley on the west side of Larchmont be used better…and what about nighttime use and helping the street better serve younger people and those with varying budgets?
York said there are huge opportunities for improving and enlivening Larchmont at night. He said a few full liquor permits, and extending the hours of restaurants that have them, would be a great start…and once a restaurant is drawing customers who stay later on the street, adjacent businesses may find that it also makes sense for them to stay open an hour or two later, which further improves nighttime energy. Also, he said, the more people that are on the street later at night, the safer local folks will feel walking home at later hours. And having one night a week on which most businesses stay open later, and/or extended holiday hours, would help, too.
Thomas said he wasn’t sure about the alley, which is now used for trash service and other “infrastructure,” but he said that if some of those functions could move to other locations, it’s possible there could be some lower-priced storefronts along the alley, which would help add to the overall business mix, and maybe specifically appeal to younger customers and/or those with lower budgets.
Rents on Larchmont went up a few years ago when a couple of big owners bought up a lot of buildings. How do we bring in independent retailers who can’t afford today’s high rents?
York acknowledged that this is a “huge challenge,” and noted that “once a base [rent] has been set, a lot of flexibility goes out the window.” He suggested that perhaps the answer won’t be in attracting truly independent or brand new small retailers, but maybe those who have built a name for themselves virtually or through pop-up businesses and now want to launch a brick-and-mortar presence…or new locations for unique, niche retailers that have only one or a few other locations. Rents are going to go up, he said, but Larchmont’s specifications don’t necessarily preclude all independent retailers.
Aside from restaurants, what kinds of retailers would work on a re-branded street?
Thomas, like York, suggested “unique boutiques,” and cited Chevalier’s Books as a great example, saying it’s been a long time since he’s run into an actual brick-and-mortar bookstore. “It’s really cool,” he said. Thomas also noted that it’s easier to rent smaller spaces, like those on Larchmont, to those kinds of retailers than it is to rent the larger spaces in Westwood and some of the other small business districts in the area.
York said “it’s all about community,” and that if there are things people want to see on the street, Larchmont should be allowed to evolve. Also, he noted, this “is not an inexpensive neighborhood – it’s a wealthy enclave,” so it will likely support the kind of higher-priced retailers that can afford current rents.
What about a discussion of the section of Larchmont north of Beverly Blvd.?
Gilbert noted that the section of Larchmont north of Beverly has different zoning and other rules than the section between Beverly and 1st St., so that part of the street will be covered in a separate upcoming discussion sponsored by Larchmont2021.
How can hard liquor permits (and the later hours that would be attached to those permits) be limited to just one or two businesses, and not result in an open the door to such approvals for all restaurants on the street?
Thomas noted that even if relaxing liquor rules on the street results in more liquor permits and more restaurants with later hours, it might not really be a problem, since penalties for misbehavior by liquor-serving businesses have become much more severe, and all but a very few “bad actors” now tend to comply with the strict conditions that accompany their permits. (Also, he said, those few “bad actors” are much more likely to target areas such as those around college campuses, not small neighborhood retail streets.)
York concurred, saying it is still possible to have specific conditions placed on specific business operators during the permitting process, including the required mix of food to alcohol sales and more. But liquor, he said, is an important part of the mix for restaurants these days, and few can succeed with beer and wine sales alone.
Finally, Kaliski noted that limiting the number of certain kinds of establishments on the street was part of the original “genius” behind the current “Q” conditions, and suggested that they could be adapted to also limit businesses that have full liquor permits – allowing some, but preventing them from dominating the Boulevard. And that’s something, he said, that could be part of a wider community discussion of the “Q” conditions. “Maybe it’s OK the way it is,” he said, “But maybe it isn’t.”
A recording of last night’s Zoom session will be available later today at https://youtu.be/K45WxADOyOU
The next of Larchmont 2021’s three planned Community Conversations, this one on Main Street Placemaking, will be held on Monday, July 12, at 7 p.m. Register here for the Zoom link.
On Monday, July 26, at 7 p.m., there will also be a more wide-ranging Community Conversation to discuss the issues raised in the first two meetings. Registration for that session is available here.