DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Historic Core restaurant and business owners know to expect big crowds during the Downtown Art Walk, especially during the busy summer months

Last month, however, a few business owners who planned for extra attention by setting up some outdoor tables and decorations got a little something they weren’t expecting: a citation from the city.

“We’re dealing with a lot of baloney out here. I had to take out my tables for two weeks,” complained Eldad Solomon, the owner of City Grill at Sixth and Spring Streets.

Solomon is one of several individuals who received a citation. Although it did not come with a fine, it did function as a cease and desist directive. In that regard, it struck Solomon and others as a heavy-handed move, one in which the city cracks down on small business owners trying to make a living and improve the neighborhood.

“This is Spring Street. People want to sit outside,” Solomon stated.

Also zapped during the May 9 Art Walk was Syrup Desserts, which is next to City Grill. The owners of the cafe and sweets spot have long placed two bench tables in front of their glass doors.

When Syrup co-owner Stan Lin came to work the Friday after Art Walk, he was shocked to see the tables moved inside. 

“It’s a big deal for us and others here,” Lin said. “The whole neighborhood looks better with it. Without it everything looks like it’s closed.” 

Complaints about the crackdown have rippled throughout the Historic Core. It is particularly troubling since securing the proper permits can take almost a year and can cost thousands of dollars. Without them, small business owners are prohibited from placing tables, chairs or even decorations such as plants outside, said Blair Besten, executive director of the Historic Downtown Los Angeles Business Improvement District.  

Now, a move is underway to help the restaurant and cafe owners get outdoor seating without breaking the bank. It couldn’t come at a better time, as Art Walk arrives again on Thursday, June 13.

The office of City Councilman José Huizar, whose 14th District includes Downtown, is working to create a pilot program in the Historic Core that would cut down on the time and costs of obtaining sidewalk-dining permits. 

“It’s in an area where we are encouraging more sidewalk use, more pedestrian access, more complete streets and it goes against some of the stuff we’re trying to do,” said Paul Habib, chief of staff to Huizar. 

City Grill and Syrup Desserts happen to be in the heart of an area that Huizar has sought to make more pedestrian friendly. The businesses sit in front of a mini public seating area called a parklet that opened in February. The parklet program was initiated by the councilman. 

Habib said his office does not know what triggered the crackdown during Art Walk.

Rick Coca, a spokesmen for Huizar, said that the councilman has asked the Bureau of Street Services to hold off on giving further citations until the pilot program is implemented. That is expected to take at least one month.

Most of the business owners who were cited brought their tables and chairs back out about two weeks after Art Walk. Several business owners said they have received no further violation notices. 

Take a Seat

According to the May 28 motion, the Los Angeles Municipal Code requires a revocable permit for sidewalk dining. The base cost of a permit is about $2,000. It can take an average of nine months before business owners get the go-ahead to place any seating outside, Habib said. 

The process can be expedited, though Habib said that raises the price. It can cost thousands more to cover overtime inspectors. 

Huizar’s motion directs the Department of Public Works to come up with recommendations for a pilot program that would allow for a temporary permit to be issued so that restaurant owners can use their patios while going through the process, rather than wait up to a year and have nothing. The proposal would also look at ways to speed up the process and reduce the current fees. 

Additionally, it would try to create another way of letting business owners who simply want to decorate their outdoor space, but don’t plan on having seating, obtain permits.

“If you want to put out a planter it’s also $2,000 and the same nine-month process, and that doesn’t make sense,” Habib said. 

The pilot program would cover the area bounded by Broadway, First, Seventh and Los Angeles streets. It could be expanded to other portions of the city if it is seen as a viable way to help businesses spruce up their space.

Adding a little more style and comfort is what employees at Curt Darling Salon on Main Street were trying to do during Art Walk when they placed a pair of chairs and a table in front of their door. They too got a citation.

As a beauty salon, it would make no sense for them to spend thousands of dollars for a sidewalk dining permit just to create a space where clients can hang out, said Kiara Horne, manager of the salon. 

“For just two little chairs and a tiny table it wouldn’t be worth it,” she said. 

But for restaurant owners like Solomon, the patio is an essential part of business. He said his sales fell about 20% during the two weeks he was without street dining. 

He didn’t want to take the chance of being cited again, so he has renewed an old permit that was under the name of the previous restaurant owner. However, that permit only allows outdoor seating for eight people. Before the Art Walk crackdown, he had 20 seats outside his Mediterranean restaurant, which he opened about three years ago. 

“I wanted to get a new permit with all the big seating, but the city is backed up eight months,” he said. 

Contact Richard Guzmán at richard@downtownnews.com.

©Los Angeles Downtown News.