LONG BEACH — Employees at Dodd's Book Store in Belmont Shore have been reporting an odd phenomenon: For several months, they say, books have been jiggling off the shelves on the shop's east wall.
"That's our metaphysical section," quipped Jack Brailsford, a clerk at the shop for the past four years. "It's always been haunted."
Project Next Door
But it isn't ghosts that are spiriting the volumes onto the floor. In fact, according to Brailsford, it is the vibrations of a major expansion project next door at Hof's Hut, where a once-familiar landmark has been transformed into an unrecognizable skeleton of concrete and wood. "Many people come in asking where it went," Brailsford said of the restaurant, which has been on Second Street for 37 years.
Where it went, owner Craig Hofman said, is into a sort of physical limbo marked by sawdust and girders. Where it will end up may depend to some extent on the outcome of a controversy in which Hofman has unwittingly become the center.
On one side are residents who see the planned expansion as symbolic of a trend that is turning a once-quiet residential neighborhood into a noisy entertainment area with scant parking and little peace. On the other are area merchants who view the change as good for business and par for a "happening" place.
"The shore has all the business it can accommodate right now," said Bruce Peterson, president of a 400-member resident and homeowners group called the Belmont Shore Improvement Assn. "We don't want to become another Westwood."
John Morris, president of the Belmont Shore Business Assn., counters that the new Hof's "will be a definite asset to the community." He says residents should appreciate's Hofman's commitment to the area.
In fact, the controversy is but the latest skirmish in a war going back years involving the same two factions. And in this political season, it has already had a major impact on the way the city handles business expansions and has even been reflected in the mayor's race in which neighborhood preservation has become a campaign issue.
The scenario began unfolding last year when Hofman, 37, decided to remodel what was then a 3,000-square-foot restaurant with a dining room capacity of about 50. By eliminating a record shop next door and adding a second story, Hofman figured he could more than triple the facility's area to 9,133 square feet and its capacity to about 150. So last August he closed up shop and, after obtaining the necessary permits, began knocking out walls and building stairways.
The first hint of trouble came when city building inspectors discovered that a portion of the old record shop's foundation was too weak to support a second story and needed to be replaced. So instead of a simple remodeling job, the project was reclassified as new construction and therefore subject to city ordinances requiring the owner to provide additional parking.
The city determined that because the planned upstairs dining area was to be outside, it was exempt from the ordinance as then written. And because only a portion of the record shop's foundation had to be replaced, a formula used in situations such as this decreed that just 1,000 square feet of the new dining area planned there required additional parking.
The bottom line, said Dennis Eschen, city zoning administrator, was that Hofman needed to provide five additional parking spaces. It was a requirement he easily fulfilled by leasing existing spaces in the Bank of America parking lot two blocks away.
Members of the Belmont Shore Improvement Assn. were incensed, arguing that the lease of only five already-existing spaces to cover an increased capacity of 100 customers was hardly adequate. "Those people obviously have to park someplace and where they park is in front of my house," said Brian Jacobs, a school teacher and longtime shore resident who lives directly behind Hof's. "When they (leave), they get into their cars and sometimes they can't afford mufflers."
The residents had a chance to express their dissatisfaction when Hofman applied for a license to sell liquor at the soon-to-be reconstituted Belmont Shore Hof's Hut. Although the establishment had held a liquor license for three years before closing, the fact that it was now considered a new construction meant that Hofman had to reapply. So 25 individual residents or agencies, including the homeowners association, filed formal complaints with the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. They claimed there would be inadequate parking and too much noise, adding that there is already an over-abundance of liquor licenses in the area.
"That's more than double the number (of protests) that an average application gets," said Shelly Gartner, supervising special investigator for the department's Long Beach district.
Said Peterson: "The liquor license mechanism was the only vehicle provided to protest what Hof's was doing."