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CALIFORNIA : Discord brewing over new Larchmont coffeehouse : Tables and chairs at the Bungalow, pitched as a takeout eatery, aren't sitting well with the district's residents.

November 13, 2009|Cara Mia DiMassa

When the Larchmont Bungalow opened a couple of weeks ago, the "Artisan Cafe, Bakery and Brew" coffeehouse seemed a perfect fit for the tony neighborhood, with its exposed wooden beams, reconditioned hardwood floors and roasting coffee wafting through the airy space.

But there was just one problem -- and it had everything to do with the chairs and tables where patrons sat, drank coffee and noshed on offerings such as red velvet pancakes and jerk chicken sliders.

Those chairs and tables, contended a group of residents, threatened the very fabric of Larchmont Village because they transformed what had been permitted as a takeout restaurant into something vastly different.

Because the business offered patrons a place to sit and eat, they said, it knowingly violated a series of long-standing ordinances for the neighborhood known as "Q conditions," which among other things limit the number of restaurants in the shopping district. Plans for the business showed retail and a bakery -- but not tables and chairs.

The controversy underscores a long-simmering battle on the boulevard that Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents the area, calls "our American Main Street."

On the one side, longtime business owners and residents say they are worried about the fabric of the neighborhood, which has lost long-standing businesses over the last few years as developers have swooped in to buy property along the street.

On the other are the owners of the Bungalow, including one of those developers. They say they are trying to create a cozy neighborhood spot but have been flummoxed by rules that are arcane and confusing.

"We are not looking to pick apart the street," said Ken Bernard, a partner in Larchmont Bungalow, along with Jonathan Ahrom and developer Albert Mizrahi. "We want to restore and preserve the neighborhood."

Mizrahi, who owns four buildings along the boulevard, said he invested in the restaurant -- and a nearby yogurt store under construction -- after being unable to attract clothing retailers in the midst of the economic downturn. A native Angeleno, he said he was charmed by Larchmont, and its customers.

"I saw this as the neighborhood's living room," he said. "I only have the best interests for the street."

But longtime business owners say that isn't so. They say he has drastically raised rents on many of his tenants, forcing them out of business -- which, as the downturn kicked in, left the street with glaring vacancies.

When Larchmont Bungalow was going through the permitting process, the city Building and Safety Department worried that the Q conditions might be difficult to enforce, said Bob Steinbach, a spokesman for the department. So the department asked Mizra- hi, on behalf of the business, to sign an affidavit saying, among other things, that Larchmont Bungalow would not provide seating. According to several people, it was the first time that a business had been required to sign such an affidavit.

Mizrahi acknowledges signing the affidavit. But he said they had been told by officials that it was common practice for businesses along the boulevard to agree to being a takeout space but also offer seating, and he believed others had signed similar documents. In addition, said Bernard, Larchmont Bungalow did not offer table service -- a crucial difference in definitions.

LaBonge said the owners of Larchmont Bungalow "went out of their way to challenge the integrity of the public process," which included permitting and public hearings.

And almost as soon as the business opened, angry residents organized picketing outside. "We thought, we have to do something to draw attention to this issue, and to encourage the city that we feel strongly about the enforcement of zoning restrictions on Larchmont," said one of the group's organizers, Patricia Lombard.

The Building and Safety Department responded to their pleas by citing the restaurant, ordering the owner to stop the unapproved use of a restaurant with seating and serving notice that it intended to revoke Larchmont Bungalow's permit to operate.

The owners responded by appealing the revocation. And they tried a slightly novel response as well, putting up signs inside and outside that offered for sale the very furniture where patrons sat -- thus turning the Bungalow back into a retail establishment.

"You See It? You Like It?" asked one sign. "You Buy It!" Another promised a "Blowout sale: Buy a chair and get a lobster free." Chairs were tagged for $299 each, tables for $499. A child's high chair had a $299 tag; an old vintage stove, $12,999.

Bernard, one of the Bungalow partners, said earlier this week that they had already sold two tables and six chairs, which were originally purchased at a Smith & Hawken liquidation sale.

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cara.dimassa@latimes.com

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