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PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE : Restaurateur or Enemy of the People? To the City, It's the Same Thing

July 10, 1994|Sean K. MacPherson | Sean K. MacPherson is co-owner of Olive, Swingers, Jones and Small's K.O

I own three restaurants and one bar in Los Angeles. I employ more than 200 people and generate hundreds of thousands of tax dollars annually. The backbone of my operations is catering to the neighborhood. The morning of the earthquake, I had no electricity but I opened my doors for business. I wanted my patrons and friends to have a place to convene and discuss their experiences.

Restaurants create a sense of community. I have watched marriages being born, business deals struck, ideas exchanged and good friends made, all under the roofs of my establishments. People do not go out to eat simply for food and drink. They go for the comfort, warmth and energy of other people.

I had always felt fortunate to have grown up in Los Angeles. I knew of no other city that so willingly embraced the new. I wanted to open a new bar for my generation, but based on the tradition of Hollywood's great watering holes.

I found the ideal location for my first restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard, at the corner of Fairfax Avenue. Built in the 1930s, Lane's was one of the city's oldest bars. Its auspicious neighbors included such vintage landmarks as Johnny's Diner and the May Co. The building had a beautiful deco facade--with large, black glass tiles and a classic (albeit broken) neon sign, announcing "Lane's Cocktails." Opening the door was like opening a Hollywood history book. It was all there--the original brown Naugahyde booths, dark wood-paneled walls and mahogany bar. It was a gem in need of polishing. My plan was to restore it to its original grandeur.

After leasing the property, I learned that, although Lane's had been in existence for more than 50 years, I could not reopen it without obtaining a Conditional Use Permit (C.U.P.) from the city. Applying for the C.U.P. turned out to be a complicated and difficult process.

I saw the restoration and reopening of Lane's as a small step toward the recoronation of the Miracle Mile. The city saw it as a detriment to the neighborhood--and disallowed my C.U.P. With a heavy heart, I watched the building sit idle for more than a year. Then I watched as the facade was torn down, the interior gutted. Lane's became a discount futon store.

Although I was discouraged, I was determined to open a place of my own. I believed I could open a place that would be an asset to the community. Building four establishments over the last five years, I have now learned how to navigate the permit process. And I have witnessed the key role restaurants and bars play in the social cohesion of a neighborhood. But, sadly, I have also discovered that, in Los Angeles, the authorities treat restaurateurs as guilty until proven innocent.

I've now owned and operated Olive Restaurant on Fairfax Avenue for the last four years. But after I encountered problems with my lease, I recently set out to move to a new location. Within walking distance, I found two possible sites--the former Golden Temple Restaurant on Third Street and the Spanish Kitchen on Beverly Boulevard.

The Golden Temple is on a desolate strip of Third Street, where virtually every other storefront is vacant. The only activity at the space over the last three years has been the periodic appearance of graffiti. The Spanish Kitchen is a legendary restaurant that suddenly, and mysteriously, closed its doors 60 years ago. The only life at the Spanish Kitchen has been the changing of music and movie posters. These are both derelict buildings with the potential of becoming beautiful, functioning restaurants.

It would seem that the City Council, with its economic distress and purported concern for building a community, would want to see Olive stay in the community--as well as allow one of these forsaken buildings to come to life.

I arranged a meeting with a city councilman's office, where I explained that rather than close Olive down, I would like to continue operating in the neighborhood. I discussed the number of jobs and tax dollars at stake. I mentioned that, in four years, I hadn't had one police, fire department or neighbor complaint. Finally, I stated that Olive had become a viable part of the community.

The city councilman's office politely, but sternly, informed me that restaurants that serve liquor are perceived as liabilities to the neighborhood--they breed crime, traffic and degeneracy. I was treated as if I had applied to build a jail in the district--the plan may seem fine on paper, but we don't trust it, and we don't want it in our neighborhood.

I stated how restaurants help build a community. I said City Restaurant, now closed, was instrumental in transforming La Brea Avenue from a nondescript thoroughfare to an important and vital walking and shopping street. To this, the City Council again politely, but fiercely, explained that an alcohol-serving restaurant was not the type of business they could "support." But is it better for the city to watch these buildings sit idle?

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