Wednesday, June 13, 2007

EAGLE ROCK ON: That Fat Dog Won't Hunt in This Town

by Joanne Turner
There was a big-deal issue in town that went away, but not without a fight and a whole lot of yelling and misunderstanding. The Fat Dog Lounge proposal seemed to divide our community in two, but the factions were of unequal proportion. Most were against it, and for good reason.

Many of the newer folks in town saw the proposal as a welcome change in Eagle Rock. They saw it as a means of building on our community’s burgeoning “hipness.” They seemed to think the proposal was a totally good thing if it were to become a part of our commercial district as opposed to a totally bad thing if we didn’t let it happen. In other words, to these folks the issue was either/or, black or white.

Those of us who have lived in Eagle Rock long enough to have witnessed the business district’s worst phases in the early 1980s through the middle 1990s know that there are always gray areas to every planning issue and that they can’t be ignored. Examining and working through those gray areas takes a lot of work, and a lot of time, two things many people can’t or don’t want to do, and we know from hard-fought experience that we certainly can’t expect the city to do its job the way it should without intense prodding from the citizenry.

Doing planning right by working through all those gray areas is called recognizing and investing in long-term benefits as opposed to giving in to short-term solutions, the former of which is a viewpoint politicians rarely embrace. Quick, thoughtless solutions very often have a dire effect and make the ultimate goal of community improvement much harder to reach.

The Fat Dog proposal was sold to the community as a high-end wine bar serving small plates that would be created by a known Westside chef. I was just as excited as anyone was, but we soon found out the proposal submitted to the city was anything but. What the proprietors of Fat Dog and their hired facilitator really wanted was a full-line alcohol license, to be open 24/7 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. with live entertainment, and to serve food that in no way resembled trendy small plates. They also wanted to buy up a disproportionate amount of parking spaces under the newly created Pilot Parking Program.

Understandably, those living close to the site and who had experienced patrons of the nearby full-alcohol Chalet urinating and vomiting on or near their properties were horrified. They also knew that parking, regardless of the good intentions of the pilot program, would become a huge problem, especially for the residents on Townsend Avenue. And, they knew loud entertainment until late hours would surely disrupt the lives of those who have to get up every morning, take their kids to school, and go to work.

Oh, and there’s another thing. It’s called the law. The Colorado Boulevard Specific Plan was written by citizen volunteers over a five-year period during our business district’s worst phases and became law in August of 1992. Yes, it puts restrictions on certain types of business, but it does so because its overall intent is to raise the standard of businesses in the area. It encourages a diversity of businesses with an emphasis on good design while discouraging those businesses that without a doubt have been shown to erode a community’s ability to improve itself. Blockbuster Video, in fact, told us it never would have moved here WITHOUT the Specific Plan.

Full-line alcohol licenses are not allowed within the Plan area without obtaining an exception to the Plan from the city, not an easy task. Think about it. If a full-line alcohol license were granted in this case, imagine the Pandora’s box that would be opened. How could the city say no to the next guy in line without facing a lawsuit? Before you know it, you’ve got Melrose Avenue.

Many people moved to Eagle Rock for a quieter, family-oriented life, but with some adult fun attached that doesn’t get out of hand. It’s called balance, and you can thank the citizens who saw and wrestled with those gray areas.


Sahra Bogado said...

That Colorado Blvd. Specific Plan - how does it stack up? Has the standard of businesses plying their trade on Eagle Rock Blvd. improved since its inception?

Somehow, I doubt it.

Not allowing a business like this to open up will succeed in doing one thing: sending more money to Old Town Pasadena and Burbank.

The hours on the alcohol license could have been limited.

The parking issues ... where to begin? If the business didn't lease enough private parking, that would be a problem. If the business leased private parking, that would be a problem.

Eagle Rock was made, and subsequently broken, by an over-emphasis on the private automobile. Maybe the neighbors should get together and decide what they want a new business that will succeed to do. Cars will be a big part of that picture.

Otherwise, you just end up with another abandoned looking commercial strip in L.A.

This sort of thing is a generational difference. Older Egale Rock residents think they live in a country home, and want to keep buildings small and business nonexistent. Young people acknowledge that we live in a massive metropolis, and want their lives to be filled with places to enjoy themselves that don't require a commute to a corporate owned shopping mall.

Joanne Turner said...

ubray, put away your doubts. Things have vastly improved since the Specific Plan's inception. The Specific Plan unfortunately does not cover Eagle Rock Boulevard (see below).

If you think things in Eagle Rock are bad now, you should have seen it 15 years ago -- so many empty storefronts, even more auto-related businesses and liquor stores than there are now, parking lots and sidewalks choked with weeds, and absolutely no pedestrian presence anywhere except the bums. Demoralized business owners wouldn't even clean up in front of their storefronts. There were no decent restaurants, and we were overrun with fast-food joints and bad coffee. Graffiti was far worse than it is now. What is now the Coffee Table Bistro was an auto parts store with slime dripping off the walls. We residents were forced to shop in Pasadena and Glendale, because Eagle Rock didn't offer much of what we needed and wanted.

It took many, many years of very hard work on the part of concerned residents to get things changed around here. The local business group didn't seem to want to do anything, so residents and some business owners who "got it" rose up in force as volunteers and wrote the Colorado Boulevard Specific Plan over a five-year period. It was enacted in 1992 and, granted, has taken a while to begin working, but it is working, and it's all about balancing the needs of business and residents. It simply demands a higher standard for business development along Colorado Boulevard, but it is not without controversy.

The Specific Plan committee tried to get it to extend down Eagle Rock Boulevard, but the idea was so new at the time, the city chickened out ("you mean, people in Northeast LA actually want high quality development?? Isn't it all gangs around there? We're so used to letting money-grubbing developers dump ugly buildings in that part of town, I'm not sure I really want to work any harder or turn down that payola . . .").

As one who has been directly involved in positive change in Eagle Rock over a 15-year period, I can tell you that change comes very slowly, but it does come. I began my activism by pulling weeds on median strips and sidewalks on Colorado and picking up trash. Business people looking out their storefronts thought I was nuts, and drivers stopped at lights thanked me. I couldn't not do anything. I was just so sick of no one making an effort to beautify our business district. How did we expect to attract new businesses to the area?

I also fiercely fought off McDonald's, which wanted to demolish the Blockbuster building and add yet another fast-food drive-through joint, in direct violation of the Specific Plan, and right at our main intersection. No way was I going to let Colorado Boulevard become a fast-food freeway! Geez, I was royally pissed, and my anger gave me plenty of energy. Many months of walking neighborhoods and talking people's ears off (this was before e.mail) paid off, big time. McDonald's moved to Figueroa and La Loma, a far more suitable location, and we got a better, needed business at the original site.

Blockbuster, however, took a good two years to move in, and the company was very nervous about it. They too thought Eagle Rock was nothing but gangs (it was their first store in Northeast LA). The developers threatened to pull out of the project if the community didn't let them erect a stupid pole sign. We stuck to our guns and won. Our position was, if Blockbuster erects low-scale monument signs in other towns, why is Eagle Rock any less deserving? Why are we expected to put up with visual blight when other towns aren't? McDonalds also tried to get a pole sign. We shot that one down immediately. I for one was so outraged at seeing the place I was raising my children get treated like a second-class citizen.

Other people saw what was happening and began caring more. They began getting active and doing something. Higher-quality businesses began taking notice and slowly but surely moving in, and it's still going on. The momentum is there.

It only takes one, and it's very gratifying to see the fruits of your labor. Fifteen years ago, no one knew where Eagle Rock was. Now everyone knows.

If you want to know all the dry details of the Specific Plan, ubray, it's on the Internet under LA City Planning. Also, no one will argue that it doesn't need updating.

Still, overall Eagle Rock's commercial corridors are far better off than they used to be. I've lived here over 30 years and have seen them at their worst. I may be an older Eagle Rock resident, but your claim that people like me want to keep business nonexistent is false.

Sahra Bogado said...

I wasn't trying to insult local residents who have taken on the urban blight in our neighborhood. I too have grabbed plenty of trash bags and cleaned up public spaces in my neighborhood. I think you are missing something in what I wrote.

A great deal of the Colordo Blvd. Specific Plan has not been fully implemented. That is, the Specific Plan has not had its zoning definitions made into municipal code. So, when looking for a place to invest, or start a business, potential and current property owners and businesses are sometimes faced with conflicting, or undefined, restrictions on their facade improvements, parking requirements, etc.

These laws only force low-cash-on-hand businesses out of the area. They favor businesses with a lot of money on hand, or a business model that sucks money out of our community like a blackhole, or provides a service that only the moneyed elites in our area can afford (i.e. corporate owned, fast food related, or check cashing, OR higher end boutiques and restaurants).

This half-implemented plan makes it hard for anything but high-dollar grossing businesses to stay open on our boulevard (unless they bought a building in our business areas years ago).

If find it funny that you think that stopping McDonalds from getting built has prevented Colorado Blvd from becoming "a fast food freeway".

Colorado Blvd *is* a fast food freeway. The businesses that thrive in our area reflect our planning decisions AND our local transportation planning.

Just about every boulevard in NELA is a fast food freeway. Take your focus off of the businesses for a moment, and look at the bigger picture - our local roadway network.

If we could collectively see what an overemphasis on rapid (and unsafe) automobile travel has done to our neighborhood - I think our decisions on permit issues, like those that went into the Fat Dog permits, would seem more rational to the business community.

I do think that Fat Dog was squashed by a generational difference in attitudes about what a commercial business area should look like.

It is too bad that the business people planning to bring this bar/restaurant to our area have been stopped.

It is easy to say no to people, what type of business do older, homeowning, residents of this area want to see? What sort of business could thrive given the restrictions folks insist on?

I would recommend taking a look at San Fernando Road in Burbank - that is modern commercial corridor planning at work. Easy access for pedestrians, wide sidewalks, transit access, bike lanes and amenities, three and four story buildings with ground floor retail, bars, shops, and other types of businesses and other smart ways of orienting life towards residents and shoppers (not just motorists).