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Sidewalk Skirmish

Merchants Say Outside Display Ban Is Enforced Selectively

January 14, 1998|MARLA DICKERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What has four legs and doesn't move?

Los Angeles furniture store owner Don Mousaw says it's his inventory since the city ticketed him for putting some items outside his La Brea Avenue shop, Abode.

Currently on probation for engaging in this bit of illegal outdoor advertising, Mousaw says his sales dropped so precipitously when he pulled his furniture from view of passing motorists that he has decided to take his chances. His sidewalk display is back. Question is, will the city inspectors be?

"I know I'm risking a big fine, even jail," he told a recent visitor perusing his alfresco grouping. "But this is about survival."

Call it a modern-day chaise rebellion. Some of Los Angeles' small furniture and antique dealers are fuming over what they claim is selective enforcement of city ordinances barring merchants from displaying their wares outside their establishments, whether on the public sidewalks or on their own private property.

The squabble underscores a familiar refrain of local entrepreneurs who grouse that the city is unresponsive to the small businesses that have come to dominate its economy.

Over the last year, city inspectors have cited Abode and similar furniture businesses for putting tables, chairs and dressers out where passersby can see them--an illegal but time-tested guerrilla marketing tactic used by thousands of small retailers citywide.

City officials deny that they're targeting any particular group and insist that they're merely enforcing the laws in response to citizen complaints. But the crackdown galls the antique-and-furniture set, particularly those who have enlivened once-patchy blocks of blighted storefronts on La Brea and nearby streets with hand-crafted merchandise that's a cut above the used clothing, toys and appliances crowding sidewalks throughout Los Angeles.

"Everybody puts their stuff outside," said Terry Burke, who nine years ago converted a graffiti-scarred gas station into Burke's Country Pine on Melrose. "But we're the only ones getting nailed for it."

The furniture flap is just the latest skirmish in a long-running turf war between small retailers and the city of Los Angeles over the right to do business on the sidewalk.

Does it add or detract from the quality of city life? Will it cheapen the neighborhoods or revive a sidewalk pulse so sorely lacking in much of auto-centric L.A.?

Merchant complaints following a late 1996 sweep by city inspectors along an upscale stretch of Ventura Boulevard sparked some preliminary discussion of these issues in City Hall, which has watched neighboring municipalities ease the rules for certain types of businesses in specific areas.

But more than a year has passed, and L.A.'s one-size-fits-all approach remains on the books as it has for decades. In the interest of protecting pedestrians and the property values of surrounding homeowners, the city has drawn a legal line across storefront doorways, where merchants are forbidden to cross in pursuit of a buck.

It all sounds very strict and clearly defined. But a drive down any major commercial street in the city tells the real story. From fake-fur seat covers hanging outside a shop on Olympic, to the secondhand refrigerators near the curb on Sunset or the vintage clothing spilling from doorways on Melrose, many city merchants have erased the boundary where the sidewalk ends and commerce begins.

Al Garcia, principal inspector for the Department of Building and Safety, said his agency doesn't have the manpower to go after all the scofflaws.

"We basically just respond to complaints," he said.

Which is precisely what has Mousaw, Burke and the other ticketed furniture store owners so irate.

Their schooling in Los Angeles Municipal Code 12.14.A.1.(b)3 began in late 1996, when an anonymous complaint reached the desk of a city inspector. The document contained the names of 41 furniture and antique dealers from across Los Angeles, along with photos of their shops violating the ordinance that prohibits merchants from displaying merchandise outside an enclosed building. (Other code sections cover merchandise in public walkways and vacant lots as well as illegal vending.)

When warnings and citations followed in early 1997, the store owners suspected they had been turned in by a disgruntled competitor. Outraged at what they considered selective enforcement, a handful of dealers hired an attorney to fight their citations in an attempt get the ordinance overturned. They included Mousaw; Burke and his business partner Jack Stephens; Frederick Beauvois, owner of Dispela Antiques; and Dusty Deyoe, owner of Company antiques.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game," Deyoe said. "We could have just paid the fine like everyone else, waited a few months, and put our stuff out again when the city wasn't looking. But it just doesn't seem right that a competitor can use the system to try to put us out of business."

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