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Showdown out of the Old West

An arbitrator decides in favor of cantina in its feud over how much rent it should pay to the Leonis Adobe Assn.

February 07, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Too bad the old Calabasas hanging tree is gone -- the one whose noose would swing, depending on which way the wind was blowing, toward the old adobe on one side or the western-style saloon on the other.

That symbol of quick frontier justice might have calmed the rift between the Leonis Adobe and the next-door Sagebrush Cantina that has riled this town at the western edge of the San Fernando Valley once called "The Last of the Old West."

The adobe dates to 1844 and was the onetime home of Miguel Leonis, a gun-toting early settler who called himself the "King of Calabasas."

Saved from demolition to make way for a supermarket in 1964, the old house is designated Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument No. 1 and is operated as a museum by a nonprofit foundation.

The cantina opened in 1974 in a rustic storefront leased from the foundation. Its sprawling front patio and sawdust-covered dining room floor have helped turn the place into a contemporary local landmark popular with families and hordes of Sunday motorcycle riders alike.

For three decades, the adobe and cantina were happy neighbors. The cantina catered special events staged by the adobe. The adobe provided extra parking when weekend entertainment was staged at the cantina.

But for more than a year, the two sides have traded potshots, leaving locals wondering if there's room for both of them along historic Calabasas Road.

As was often the case in the Old West, the dispute is over land and money.

Adobe association officials and their backers contend that the cantina has grown rich because the group's founders gave it "a sweetheart deal" on its lease.

The cantina's operator and his supporters assert that the Leonis Adobe Assn. is trying to gouge him on the rent even though the group is sitting on tax-exempt assets worth more than $7.5 million.


Growing into a city

Everyone agrees that Calabasas has turned into a boomtown since the foundation's Ray Phillips and cantina operator Bob McCord shook hands on the deal that launched his Mexican restaurant and bar in a tiny storefront sandwiched among two antique shops and a small bakery.

Calabasas residents voted in 1991 to incorporate so they could control growth and development standards. One of the new city's first priorities was a beautification project that brought landscaped medians, fancy crosswalks and antique-looking streetlamps to narrow Calabasas Road.

The street quickly shucked its lingering image of the rough-and-tumble stagecoach stop that was a dusty stretch of El Camino Real 125 years ago. Trendy boutiques, hair salons and realty offices emerged from what had been rickety clapboard buildings across from the adobe.

In 1995, the legendary hanging tree, a long-dead 12-foot oak, toppled to the side of Calabasas Road during a winter rainstorm.

Gated enclaves of multimillion-dollar homes, meanwhile, were springing up nearby. The 67-acre Calabasas Commons shopping center opened a block away, featuring faux Italianate architecture, a gold-domed Rolex clock tower, artificial waterfalls and a parking lot dotted with Mercedes-Benz SUVs and Range Rovers.

So when the cantina's lease came up for routine renewal in mid-2004, the adobe association said no.

"They were talking about tearing my building down and putting up a new 20,000-square-foot restaurant and bringing in a Ruth's Chris Steak House or something," McCord said. "They kept talking about how it was their fiduciary responsibility to collect as much rent as possible."

The Leonis Adobe Assn. engaged an appraiser to find out how much the cantina property had appreciated as Calabasas blossomed and bloomed.

Former Leonis Adobe museum manager Tammy Ennis recalled that association President Don Adams and board member Camille Stoddard were unhappy with the appraiser's suggestion that the cantina's monthly rent be moderately raised -- from the $23,000 McCord paid in 2004 to something between $30,000 and $35,000.

"Don and Camille declined that appraisal and kept getting more appraisals until they got one they liked," Ennis said.

Finally, a Calabasas real estate broker came up with such a figure: $55,000 a month. This time it was McCord who said no.

"There was no negotiation, none," McCord said. "Then they said they'd take $50,000. Then Don and Camille came over in the back door and asked what I would do if they gave me a lease. I told them of improvements I wanted to make in the place and said I was willing to pay $31,000 and they left. Later I got a letter from their attorney saying that wasn't enough."

When McCord questioned why the nonprofit association was insistent on raising his rent when it had millions of dollars in the bank, things turned ugly.

Association board members stopped dropping into the cantina after their Wednesday evening meetings.

Staff members and docents -- who ate there for half-price -- were instructed to stay away, McCord said.

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