What began as a typical local zoning squabble over conversion of an Atwater thrift shop into a private club has mushroomed into an issue with international ramifications.
Hundreds of neighbors and businessmen, backed by Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs, have united to block the opening of a social center at 3160 Glendale Blvd. by the Argentine Assn. of Los Angeles, which says it plans to sell wine and beer at occasional functions.
Opposition to the association is so intense that the Argentine Consulate has come to its defense, pleading for the secretary of state and the Los Angeles mayor's office to clear what the diplomat said has become "just a huge misunderstanding."
Asked to Intervene
Jorge Lidio Vinuela, acting Los Angeles consul of the Republic of Argentina, said he was asked by the local Argentine community to intervene in the neighborhood zoning battle. Although he agreed that the request, "in fact, is unusual," he said, "I am going to do whatever I can to help the people of my country."
Representatives of both Secretary of State March Fong Eu and Mayor Tom Bradley said they have promised the consulate to look into the issue, even though the zoning matter officially is outside their authority.
Anthony L. Miller, chief deputy secretary of state, said he "will try to get the two parties together and see if we could work out some sort of solution that would be beneficial and acceptable to both sides."
More than 670 residents signed protest petitions, fearing the proposed Argentine center will become a "nightclub and dance hall."
The association has filed for a conditional-use permit to allow sale of alcoholic beverages for on-site consumption and dancing for up to 350 patrons Fridays and Saturdays from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. The club also needs a zoning variance because it has no on-site parking.
Protesters charge that sufficient parking is not available and that the club will cause noise and increased crime in their neighborhood. They said the commercial strip along Glendale Boulevard already is saturated with liquor outlets. A spokesman for Wachs said the club "could have a serious negative impact on the surrounding community."
However, Ben Novera, spokesman for the association, said the neighborhood opponents are misinterpreting plans by the private club, which, he stressed, will serve beer and wine to club members and their guests only. He said the club has held fund-raising dinner-dances and other events once or twice a month at another location and that activities generally ended by 1 a.m. "This is a family-oriented thing," Novera said.
Ed Fernandez, a director of the Argentine group, accused residents of showing bias.
"My personal opinion is that this whole thing is maybe a kind of discrimination against us because we are in the minority," Fernandez said.
Ed Waite, president of the Atwater Homeowners Assn., denied the charge, pointing out that the area has a large Latino population.
Arline DeSanctis, Wachs' field deputy, said residents are particularly afraid of future uses of the building.
"Once any type of variance or conditional-use permit is granted, it stays with the building," she said. "If that group sells to somebody else, the buyer may not have such good intentions." She also said residents are concerned that the building may be rented out to other groups.
DeSanctis said she "does not know what kind of pressure" will be put on city officials by the consulate's actions but added: "I would hope they would come to us first if they want to be knowledgeable about the problem."
Vinuela said the Argentine Assn. is "one of the oldest and best representatives" of the 40,000-member Argentine community in Southern California. He said the group, established 18 years ago, provides assistance to immigrants from Argentina as well as scholarships to needy students and other charitable projects.
The association has been without a center since last spring, when it was forced to sell its social quarters on the Burbank Golden Mall to the Burbank Redevelopment Agency for that city's Towncenter shopping project.
Fernandez, who has been in charge of relocation, said the organization in June purchased the former Atwater thrift store for $300,000. He said that, before purchasing the storefront, he was assured by the city planning staff that the site is suitable for the clubhouse.
A report on the proposed center by the city planning staff in September found that parking problems "will be reduced to a level of insignificance" by using other parking in the neighborhood and that the club will have "no significant impacts."