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Venice is arguing with success

Pinkberry is popular, but it's also a chain. So some question whether it fits with a funky beach vibe.

July 08, 2007|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

In Venice, where development is a dirty word and the eclecticism of Abbot Kinney Boulevard's shops and restaurants is beloved, there is a new scourge. And its name is Pinkberry.

It's not that the newly arrived outpost of the wildly popular frozen dessert hasn't generated a flock of beach-side patrons. It has. But it has also drawn the ire of a group of local citizens fervently opposed to any chain store setting up shop on Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Despite Pinkberry's humble beginnings as just one modest West Hollywood shop, it is now a chain of 20 stores in Southern California and four in New York City.

"You can't have the character of Venice and chain stores," said Dawn Hollier, a film editor and 17-year resident of Venice who describes that character as "fun, funky, unique and arty."

She and Melissa Bechtel started an organization called Venice Unchained two years ago, hoping to ban any chain -- which they define as a business with multiple stores with identical signage, decor and products -- from the increasingly desirable commercial street.

The group collected 3,500 signatures on a petition -- and continues to collect them -- and got the blessing of the Venice Chamber of Commerce. It also won the support of the district's Los Angeles city councilman, Bill Rosendahl, who has asked the city's Planning Department and the city attorney's office to craft an ordinance regulating "formula businesses" on that street and on Ocean Front Walk north of Washington Boulevard.

"The idea of a chain store concept takes away from the eclectic ambience of Venice," said Rosendahl.

Many residents are fiercely proud of the shabby chic image of the quaint street bearing the name of Venice's founder and stretching like a diagonal seam across the community. Even as the street has gone from crime-ridden to trendy, with real estate prices going from fire-sale cheap to L.A. expensive, there remains a mix of stores and watering holes with the art-filled Hal's Bar and Grill still the gathering spot for the Venicerati.

Hollier and her compatriots have watched nervously as chains approached: a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf store on nearby Windward Avenue, a Quiznos on Pacific Avenue. Residents anxiously trade vague rumors about Starbucks wanting in.

When Pinkberry opened on Abbot Kinney in May, it earned the controversial distinction of being the first chain store on the street in recent memory and, to some, the start of a slippery slope: Today Pinkberry, tomorrow Banana Republic -- or McDonald's.

"Main Streets are all starting to look like each other, and that's a big loss. I can't change that, but hopefully I can do something about my own neighborhood," said Hollier, who lives half a block from Abbot Kinney.

She adds that she has nothing, per se, against Pinkberry.

"I shop at chains all the time. I go to Staples; I have been known to get a Starbucks coffee," Hollier said. But they just don't belong on Abbot Kinney, she said: "If chains take it over, the whole reason people come here will be gone."

Many in Venice agree in principle. But the fact that it's upscale, yummy Pinkberry (even Hollier praised it as "pretty good"), not some fast-food shack with a drive-through window, leaves some residents and merchants conflicted and has led to the cognitive dissonance of Pinkberry patrons holding topping-laden cups of frozen yogurt with one hand while signing the petition to keep chains off Abbot Kinney with the other. (Whether Pinkberry's product is officially frozen yogurt is still in dispute.)

"I have mixed feelings," clothier Enda King said as he arranged shirts in the stylish casual menswear store that bears his name. "On one hand, this Pinkberry store has brought a lot more people into the street and into the store, so it's hard for me to say I honestly don't want them here. However, I don't like the idea of McDonald's."

Just across the street from Pinkberry is a bustling coffee shop and eatery called Abbot's Habit. Co-owner Noah Farrell let the Venice Unchained activists place their petition in his shop. "What makes Venice Venice is that it's not another Third Street Promenade," said Farrell, who owns another Abbot's Habit in Los Angeles. ("We're not quite a chain," he quipped.)

Carol Tantau, owner of Just Tantau, a jewelry and gift shop, is a board member of the Venice Chamber of Commerce, which officially supports the anti-chain movement.

"It's not an easy one for business owners and for a business association to limit business," Tantau said as her cats, Lucy and Ricky, wandered through the store. "But there's something to be said for having a street that doesn't have a rubber stamp look."

At least one merchant thinks the uproar is silly. "I've seen Abbot Kinney at its worst. Ten years ago, people were getting robbed and carjacked," said Raphael Verela, 38, the owner of Circuit Works, a fitness studio, next-door to Pinkberry. "It's a good, positive change.... It's organic frozen yogurt. Relax, everyone."

The Pinkberry organization offered a similar spin.

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