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A Tale of Nuts and Bolts and Loyalty

August 08, 2003|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

Belmont Shore's oldest business and only hardware store, backed by overwhelming community support and a variance granted Thursday by the Long Beach Planning Commission, will remain in the heart of the community it has served for 66 years.

The 5-0 vote by the commission was met by applause from residents, more than 50 of whom testified to the value of Billings Paint and Hardware, a third-generation business with an extraordinarily devoted clientele.

Besides the 100 people filling the chambers for the midday meeting, 2,500 signed "Save Billings" petitions in the last three weeks and several thousand more signed them previously. City Hall planners were snowed under by mail, fax and telephone, all but two pleading for the commission to make a code exception so Billings could move into new quarters.

Charles Ravago, a resident who dresses up as Santa Claus in the store at Christmas, told the commission that store owner Doug Billings wasn't just a businessman but a vital part of the community. "He also goes to schools and brings his magic act to the schools," he said. "I'm so proud to have him as a friend."

Billlings said after the meeting that he will be out of his current location at 5301 E. 2nd St. by Sept. 30.

"Praise God for looking after me," he said tearfully after the vote. There would be no big party. "We will celebrate with my customers every day."

At issue for Billings was parking, which as one speaker noted, has for 50 years been the issue in the low-key community of 8,000 residents at Long Beach's east end.

The neighborhood materialized in the 1920s after Henry Huntington purchased the land around a route of the now-defunct Red Car, then sold it to developers.

Parking was not well-planned in the business district because the neighborhood was close to the Red Car line and was pedestrian-oriented. And most buildings predate zoning rules, so city officials grandfathered in parking requirements.

The more parking a property has, the greater its value. In the relatively small shopping district, with the highest commercial leases in the city, the cost of parking can determine whether a business setting up shop will be a national retail or restaurant chain or a mom-and-pop store.

The Billings drama unfolded earlier this year against that backdrop, when the brick building that has housed Billings since the 1970s was sold. But even before escrow closed on the building, extraordinary efforts by the neighborhood were made so the hardware store could stay.

Longtime property owner Bud Lorbeer, a 50-year resident, matched the highest bid on the building, a competing bidder's property manager waived a commission to thrust his bid to the front, and Lorbeer made a second offer to buy the building for $1.6 million. It was declined.

Billings could not afford the new rent and had to find another location before his lease expired Sept. 30. When he did find a new spot -- the one in question Thursday -- the building provided a good location at the other end of 2nd Street but required the Planning Commission to grant a variance to the parking code.

Lorbeer's son Bill, who owns the building Billings will occupy, came to the rescue. In essence, Bill Lorbeer offered to lose a potential $3,000 a month in rent he could net from a restaurant tenant in order to keep the hardware store.

But because parking equals property value, he sought to retain, with city approval, the current parking space requirement of 14 spaces for a restaurant that had been grandfathered in years ago.

Doing so, however, potentially threatened to set a precedent on the volatile subject of parking and restaurants, which many residents believe are over-saturating the shopping district.

In the end, after more than three hours of debate, that is what the commission voted to do, with one condition: that the subject be revisited at the end of Billings' negotiated 15-year lease plus one year.

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