The Land Use Committee of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council recommended the approval of a 7-Eleven project on a yearlong probationary period as the centerpiece of a proposed commercial center on the intersection of York Boulevard and Tonawanda Avenue Thursday.
Four members of the committee voted in favor of the project, while two voted against it at the end of a prolonged and occasionally contentious meeting at Eagle Rock City Hall on the night of Jan. 24.
The committee’s recommendation includes a key condition whereby the 7-Eleven will sell beer and wine during its probationary period only from noon until 10 p.m. instead of the typical 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. cycle that most other 7-Eleven stores follow.
The recommendation will now be considered, further discussed and possibly voted on by the full board of the ERNC at its next monthly meeting at Eagle Rock City Hall on Feb. 5.
The ERNC has requested the Los Angeles City Zoning Administrator to postpone a hearing of the 7-Eleven proposal scheduled on Jan. 30 but the hearing is expected to go ahead. However, the ERNC has asked the zoning administrator to take the case "under advisement," that is, not to decide on the matter until the administrator receives a letter from the ERNC that reflects its Feb. 5 vote, according to ERNC Vice President David Greene.
The 7-Eleven is proposed as the anchor tenant in commercial center that would be located at 4515-4527 E. York Blvd. and 1507 N. Tonawanda Ave., in the premises of the former Casa Princesa café, which doubled as a Sign-A-Rama store.
During a lengthy public comments period punctuated by replies from a team of developers backing the 7-Eleven project, Occidental College Director of Communications Jim Tranquada asked the developers about the kind of market research that went into their decision to pick the York-Tonawanda location instead of any number of alternative locations in town.
“Was proximity to the college part of that?” he asked. “Was it traffic counts on York Boulevard?” By his count, there are four stores that have “Type 20” beer and wine licenses within three blocks of the location, Tranquada said, adding: “I’m curious as to what the corporate and franchises’ policy” is on alcohol sales to underage individuals against the background that “we’ve had some local retailers unfortunately who have been willing to bend the rules for underage consumers.”
Jason Novotny, a management and construction manager for 7-Eleven developments, replied that while the convenience store chain does consider the flow of traffic on a given street, it also looks at “convenience to the neighborhood and residential areas where it makes sense to put a 7-Eleven in.” Franchises, he added, go through a program in which they are trained to identify underage people who might be using fake IDs to purchase alcohol.
Tom Bergerson, a retail architect associated with the 7-Eleven project, told the meeting that because of the still shaky economy, there are a lot of vacant commercial buildings in the city. “There’s also a movement that coincides with that—with urban planning—to not go and develop [retail areas] that are on the edge of town and where people have to drive,” he said.
The idea, he said, is to “reposition existing, unused space” in urban areas, effectively filling them with businesses that have strong national—rather than local or independent—backing. The proposed 7-Eleven project on York and Tonawanda, he emphasized, is “part of the strategy.”
Bergerson told Patch after the meeting that the property where the 7-Eleven was to built isn't big enough for other corporate stores such as, say, a 99 Cents store.
"7-Eleven is the only serious tenant that has made a serious offer on this property,” Bergerson said at the meeting, adding: “Without 7-Eleven, my understanding is that this center will not get developed. I know there have been some conversations about businesses that are owned locally. The problem is the economics just aren’t there.”
David Degan, an asset and property management consultant, told the meeting that the proposed 7-Eleven would be the locus of a $3.3-million commercial center. Degan said he helped the proposed project’s developer purchase the property from a bank after it fell into foreclosure about two years ago.
The proposed 7-Eleven is in an “enterprise zone” earmarked by the city for redevelopment and revitalization, Degan said, adding: “Before Casa Princesa opened and eventually went into foreclosure, the site was occupied by a market that had been selling beer and wine during certain hours for 20 years since 1986.” Directly to the west of the proposed 7-Eleven, Degan pointed out, was a medical marijuana dispensary that recently shut down.
“For the past two years, we have had the toughest time in the world tenanting this place,” Degan said, explaining that a window in the former Casa Princesa café was broken twice, and the property itself has been broken into. “Homeless people actually caused a fire next door in a garage,” he said. “The building has been blighted—it’s been very difficult for us to find a tenant.”
Getting 7-Eleven to agree to be part of the proposed center is “one of the biggest blessings that have occurred,” Degan said. Because of the lease that 7-Eleven has signed, he was able to secure financing for the developer for the proposed center through the Farmers and Merchants Bank, he said.
Degan gave a PowerPoint presentation of a model of the center, which, he said, was designed by David Freeland, a noted professor of architecture (at Woodbury University in Burbank). Freeland, Degan added, lives in Eagle Rock.
“Because of 7-Eleven, we were able to get support—interest—from Pinkberry, Peet’s Coffee, Coffee Bean, Chipotle, and most importantly, which I think is going to be a huge asset to the community, a UPS store,” Degan said.
“What I want to share with the community is that without the 7-Eleven lease, the rest of the center is not going to get built” because investment funding for the commercial center is “only predicated on the 7-Eleven lease,” Degan emphasized.
Further, the proposed 7-Eleven is on a two-tier lease—a “dry lease and a wet lease,” Degan said. A wet lease, he explained, would enable the 7-Eleven to sell beer and wine. In his PowerPoint presentation, Degan reproduced a letter he said he had received from the Farmers and Merchants Bank.
“They are saying in a nutshell that without the higher lease rate they are not going to provide funding to the center,” Degan said. “And the higher lease rate is the lease rate that is predicated on 7-Eleven’s ability to sell beer and wine.”
Added Degan: “I truly believe that this center is going to be a huge asset to this community and that it’s going to bring a lot of great elements—it’s going to be a beautiful center.”
Aiming Too Low?
Katie O’Connell, co-owner of Society of the Spectacle, an eyeglasses store “25 steps” away from the proposed 7-Eleven location, as she put it, congratulated Degan on his efforts to develop “a space that had been largely ignored up until this last summer.”
But the problem with his laudable efforts, O’Connell told Degan, is that “you aim too low—we don’t need a 7-Eleven.” She added: “You’re talking about the 7-Eleven on Colorado? There’s a 7-Eleven one minute away—15 seconds in a vehicle—on El Paso and Eagle Rock Boulevard.”
The part of town where the 7-Eleven is proposed needs “great, independent, interesting businesses,” O’Connell said. “I have to say, you aim too low with 50-cent coffee [and] people around there don’t want it—we already have Café de Leche, we already spend at Starbucks, which is extremely successful. So when you make a choice, make a choice to the higher end. Think big, think better—don’t think typical.”
Asked by one of the members of the Land Use Committee to respond to O’Connell’s criticism, Bergerson, the retail architect associated with the 7-Eleven project, said that he started the outreach process in April 2011 after meeting with representatives of the Eagle Rock office of Council member José Huizar.
“They gave us four contacts—that day I e-mailed or called all the contacts,” Bergerson said, adding that the local Los Angeles Police Department station was one of them. The Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council “responded right away and we got on the July event” of the ERNC’s board meeting in 2011, he said.
“It was very difficult to try and get a meeting with the [Eagle Rock] Chamber of Commerce,” Bergerson said. But the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council, which was one of the other forums he was asked to contact, said, “Thank you for identifying that you’re doing this but you’re not in our community—we don’t need to do anything, you don’t need to come to our community.”
The Highland Park Chamber of Commerce was very supportive of the 7-Eleven project, Bergerson said, adding: “So, we met with those four groups—or contacted them—and then, here it is, August, September, all the way into January, and last week we got a letter, suggesting we meet with four other groups.”
He added: “You know, it’s like we’re 99 percent of the way there and we’ve met with whoever we were told to meet with until the last couple of days.”
Council District 14 Area Director Zenay Loera interjected that Bergerson probably met with her and her former colleague, urban planning expert Tricia Robbins. “At that time, we asked you to go to Oxy, we asked you to do more community outreach—we know you’re near Toland Way Elementary School,” Loera said, adding: “We’re not opposed to your project, but our biggest concern is community outreach. And I don’t know that has been done.
Her other point, Loera said, is that “we did ask you to go to other neighborhood councils because York [Boulevard] is kind of the middle ground—depending on who you talk to, some people can say it’s Eagle Rock, some people can say it’s Highland Park, some people can say it’s Glassell Park.”
7-Elevens as Hang Outs
Gus Garay, a speaker who identified himself as a resident of Tonawanda Avenue since 1996, pointed out that there are two liquor stores within a couple of blocks of the proposed development, besides an AM/PM store at the Arco gas station on the intersection of Eagle Rock Boulevard and York, and another 7-Eleven a few blocks beyond.
“At every one of those places there are certain individuals who like to hang out there,” he said. “Throughout the years, there have been different crime sprees and Tonawanda has always been exempt from all that stuff happening,” he said. “And I think the reason why is that it’s a dark street and it doesn’t call attention. So if you bring a 7-Eleven there, people will like to hang out there and you’re going to draw them to our community, to our street—to a place we’ve enjoyed for so many years and where my kids have grown up. It’s been a safe place and I would hate for it to change.”
On behalf of the Eagle Rock Chamber of Commerce, ERNC President Michael Nogueira, who is also the Chamber president and the owner of Bellissimo café, pointed out that police cars are often seen parked near the 7-Eleven on Colorado Boulevard.
“I would love to have a black-and-white pull in front of my [café], park next door to deter crime,” he said. “I do understand what a lot of people in the community talk about as a ‘hang out’ but the thing is that if you go down to the 7-Eleven on Colorado, you’ve got your homeless who do come in there, but you also have a lot of black-and-whites that pull in there.”
Mismatch With York?
Land Use Committee Chair Oren Bitan remarked that although he’s impressed by the proposed development’s “attractive design and smart team,” his concern is the lack of community outreach.
“I am tasked with evaluating the benefit of developing a vacant piece of land that’s essentially useless to the neighborhood,” he said, adding: “I do frankly agree that [a] 7-Eleven doesn’t match the character of the remainder of York Boulevard.”
In response to a question from Bitan whether Huizar’s office had taken a position on the 7-Eleven proposal beyond asking its proponents to continue community outreach, CD 14 representative Kevin Ocubillo replied that “there’s a lot of other questions that we have, mostly [about] operations [and] where’s the liquor license coming from—is it a new one.” Whether the proposed development is a “potential problem site” is another concern, he said.
Land Use Committee member Robert de Pietro was heckled when he said that “having a 24-hour facility is actually a good thing, provided it brings in reasonable clientele.” A national chain, he added, “really can’t afford to have a bad name.”
Amid guffaws from some attendees, Tonawanda resident Garay asked: “When was the last time you went to a 7-Eleven at one o’clock in the morning?”
Replied de Pietro: “I drive by the 7-Eleven here,” inviting this riposte : “Do you live next to one?” Said Garay: “Seems to me like you’ve already made up your mind.”
De Pietro said he would be inclined to approve the 7-Eleven application subject to certain conditions, which were read out by Land Use Committee member Michael Tharp and are part of the Land Use Committee’s recommendation to the ERNC Board:
• Alcohol sales be limited from noon till 10 p.m.
• A landscaping plan be submitted and reviewed by the Land Use Committee and the ERNC board for approval.
• That after a year, the 7-Eleven developers return to the planning process for an approval of the operation, at which point there would be an opportunity identify and rectify any problems.
• That a “Right Turn Only” sign be installed next to the proposed center’s driveway on Tonawanda Avenue (even though the sign would not be enforceable by law, de Pietro admitted).
• That at least one surveillance camera be installed outside to monitor the parking lot.
• A “No Loitering” sign be posted.
• That the design of the facility conform to what was presented on the PowerPoint at Thursday’s meeting.
• That no more than 20 percent of the proposed 7-Eleven’s profits from gross sales be from the sale of beer and wine.
“It’s a big piece of property that’s causing trouble and sooner or later it’s got to be occupied for the benefit of the community,” Tharp said.