Culver City adopted tougher anti-smoking provisions this week for restaurants, prompting one chain to announce that it was abandoning its plan to open an eatery in the community.
Marie Callender's, which had intended to put a restaurant in a complex near the Fox Hills Mall, has officially withdrawn its proposal, according to Louis Boemia, director of development for the family-style restaurant chain.
"The project was so very close economically," and the new regulations were "just a problem (and an) added expense," Boemia said.
A temporary ordinance approved Monday by the City Council requires new restaurants with 25 or more seats to have separate air circulation or ventilation systems for smoking and nonsmoking sections or a floor-to-ceiling wall between the two areas. Existing restaurants that undertake more than $100,000 worth of remodeling or repairs must also meet these rules.
The ordinance is in effect for four months while the council debates and drafts a final law, which is expected to mirror the interim one.
Restaurants with 25 or more seats must, under a 1987 law, set aside at least two thirds of them for nonsmokers. Those that choose to prohibit smoking entirely are exempt from the interim rules.
In smaller restaurants, smoking was banned by the council last month.
The ordinance states that secondhand smoke is "a major preventable cause of death and disability" and that merely designating smoking and nonsmoking sections has proven difficult to enforce.
The council vote was 4 to 1, with Mayor Steven Gourley opposed because he said he favored requiring ventilation as well as a wall.
Rudy Cole, executive director of a restaurateurs organization, said after the vote that the interim ordinance was a reasonable compromise, particularly since the council decided not to impose the rules on all existing restaurants. Cole said his group, Restaurants for a Sensible Voluntary Policy on Smoking, includes 1,000 restaurant owners and operators in Los Angeles County.
Representatives of Marie Callender's, which had obtained Planning Commission approval but had not yet applied for a building permit, were not present at Monday's meeting. But during the council debate last week, Boemia estimated that a second ventilation system plus a wall would cost $70,000 to design and install and would increase operating and maintenance costs by 25% a year.
Boemia warned the council at the time that the company might pull out if tougher regulations were passed. In an interview this week, he said company officials concluded after that meeting that the regulations would be passed, and they decided then to scrap their plans. "Sales are pretty much flat in the restaurant industry," Boemia said, adding that the smoking law "was a factor" in the decision.
The Jacmar Cos., developer of the row of restaurants along Slauson Avenue that was to include Marie Callender's, also opposed the stricter regulations. "The restaurant industry is in a recession," Jacmar Vice President Jack Keese told the council Monday. "We need to not be the leader on this particular issue (and) not overburden (restaurants) with additional costs."
In an interview Wednesday, Mayor Gourley said he had not heard about Marie Callender's backing out, but said he was not concerned by it and attributed it to "other economic problems . . . totally unrelated to the smoking issue."
He noted that the city of Bellflower this week decided to ban smoking in all restaurants, public areas of libraries and museums and virtually every other building with public access. Meanwhile, a bill to ban smoking statewide in restaurants and public buildings has been introduced in the state Senate.
"Obviously, restaurants are going to be planning for their nonsmoking clientele," Gourley said. "We're not as strict as (Bellflower); we're being very reasonable."
"If (restaurants) had their customers' interests at heart, they would be cooperating with us," he added.
Marie Callender's withdrawal is just the latest trouble for the restaurant row project along Slauson Avenue, on a kite-shaped, 5.5-acre parcel known as the Kite Site. Marie Callender's was one of three establishments that had agreed to open there, along with Red Robin, a gourmet hamburger restaurant, and Little J's West, a 24-hour supper club that is to feature live entertainment. Alhambra-based Jacmar, which has a 31-year lease from the city Redevelopment Agency to develop the site, is still looking for a tenant to occupy a fourth lot.
Jacmar has been recruiting tenants since 1987. City officials, who wince at Culver City's image as "the fast-food capital of the world," as a former councilman once described it, had hoped to attract "quality" restaurants to the site.
But anti-smoking activists urged the council Monday to not be swayed by restaurant industry claims. "I'm much more concerned about the health of people than about profit and loss statements of any restaurants," said ex-smoker Margo Sorzano.
Seymour Uberman, speaking for the American Cancer Society, told the council to not underestimate the dangers of secondhand smoke. "It's the cost of doing business that we have to provide a decent environment for our customers," he said.
In passing the law, city officials looked to Beverly Hills, which requires new restaurants with more than 50 seats to have air segregation, filtration or ventilation systems or walls separating smoking and nonsmoking sections. All large restaurants must also set aside 60% of their seating for nonsmokers.
Cities including Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach and Laguna Beach require seating set aside for nonsmokers. San Luis Obispo prohibits smoking in restaurants, bars and most other public places.
Culver City will now start considering a permanent law, including enforcement measures and guarantees that restaurants that declare themselves smoke-free remain so even with changes in ownership.