Walk through the quirky shops and restaurants in Larchmont Village, just south of Hollywood and abutting Hancock Park, and it's hard not to think of it as a bourgeois Mayberry.
"It's like the hidden gem of Los Angeles," says Michael Mizrahi, the owner of Library, a boutique with antique-style decor that sells boyfriend jackets and high-end hipster couture. "And it's not that it necessarily needs to be a crazy-busy street, but the people here enjoy good stuff."
His father, Albert Mizrahi, might (fairly or unfairly) be the most hated person ever to open for business in the charming shopping village on Larchmont Boulevard — the "gem" that, like other L.A. neighborhoods, is seeing its unique shops replaced by chain stores and restaurants.
Albert's father, the late Joseph Mizrahi, started buying up space at Santa Monica's outdoor mall in 1970. He struck it rich in 1989, when a city bond measure subsidized a dramatic update. The new Third Street Promenade attracted names like Guess, and local shops were squeezed out.
But in L.A., Albert Mizrahi has made enemies. Larchmont and Hancock Park area residents and blogs have slammed him for spending $23 million on four Larchmont buildings, then driving out Larchmont Hardware, Floret Floral Design and Larchmont Village Estate Jewelers and Fine Arts and opening an allegedly illegal restaurant, Larchmont Bungalow.
The shuttering of Larchmont Hardware "was kind of the straw that broke the camel's back," says Patty Lombard, who blogs at LarchmontBuzz.com. After that, a venomous dispute erupted over Larchmont Bungalow, a trendy, busy restaurant with vegan specialties that opened in October 2009 without sufficient parking.
The city yanked his Certificate of Occupancy permit in December 2009, just three months later. The very next month, Mizrahi was charged by the Los Angeles City Attorney's office with three criminal counts for providing false information to obtain his permit, then ignoring shutdown orders.
Mizrahi countersued the city and lost. This month, he faces pre-trial in an unusual criminal case in L.A. Superior Court. Among other things, City Councilman Tom LaBonge's chief of land use, Renee Weitzer, has been subpoenaed by the defense.
City attorney Serena Christion declares: "Your Certificate of Occupancy was revoked, which says you shouldn't be operating, and you're still operating. ... At some point it has to end."
Mizrahi started buying Larchmont shops in 2007 with plans to remake them. But he botched relations with many locals by stratospherically raising rents on the treasured 82-year-old Larchmont Hardware, prompting it to close and earning him an ugly reputation. His wife, Renee, seemed to mock critics when she transformed the space into a boutique — named "Hardwear."
Renee Mizrahi insists that "Hardwear" was an innocent effort to utilize name recognition. Her more defiant husband declares, "The problem with that [closure] isn't really me — it's that the community needs to support these stores."
Larchmont Bungalow, just down the street, attracts the Sunday brunch set yet is vilified by many. Last year, LAPD responded when a Bungalow employee allegedly claimed he'd been shoved by a reporter from LarchmontLA.com who had tweeted: "Illegal restaurant Larchmont Bungalow trying to buy affections of farmers market vendors with free drinks. Won't work..."
It seems that nearly everything Albert Mizrahi does in this leafy community, whose residents are roughly equally divided among Latinos, Asians and whites, creates criticism of his trustworthiness.
Mizrahi tells L.A. Weekly that he tried to make a deal with Larchmont Hardware owner Russ Wilson to keep the beloved store open, but Wilson preferred to close. Wilson, who also owns West Hollywood's Koontz Hardware, flatly denies Mizrahi's claim.
However, it was the alleged whopper Mizrahi told city officials that landed him in criminal court.
"He used to say, 'There's nothing on this street I want to buy,' " recalls Norma Blunt, who owned the jewelry shop that Mizrahi turned into Larchmont Bungalow restaurant. "He'd come over to the shop and he'd stand on the front stoop of the shop and he would look up and down and go, 'This all could be so wonderful.' "
Mizrahi warned Blunt that when her jewelry store lease expired in a year, he planned to boost her rent to more than $25,000 a month. Blunt moved to Pasadena.
Mizrahi described Larchmont Bungalow as a "take-out" restaurant when he sought his city permit. He also signed a covenant with the Department of Building and Safety promising not to install seating.
To handle take-out customers — who leave more rapidly than dine-in patrons — the city typically would require seven parking spaces. But when Mizrahi opened Larchmont Bungalow, he unveiled a complete restaurant with sit-down dining — requiring far more parking. The city quickly revoked his Certificate of Occupancy.
At a tense neighborhood meeting, Mizrahi's then-partner, Ken Bernard, absurdly told residents that Mizrahi was not defying city law — the dining tables and chairs inside were actually for sale, he claimed, making Larchmont Bungalow a "furniture store" plus a take-out cafe.
"It's his whole, entire disregard for the neighborhood and for the city," says blogger Lombard, who lives in nearby Fremont Place. Mizrahi "sees this as a personal affront — 'You must not know how great I am. ... You don't want new things in the neighborhood. You don't understand what's going on.' And in all that huffing and puffing, he missed the underlying fact that [whether or not] you are the most interesting person in the universe doesn't change that you said one thing and you did another."
Mizrahi's lawyer, Alan Fenster, tells the Weekly Mizrahi was not required to indicate, on drawings he gave the city, that Larchmont Bungalow would include dining. Mizrahi also argues that owners of nearby gelato shop Baciami were not asked to sign the same covenant, so there's "no basis to give [me] this form to sign."
Norma Blunt says, "The reason he was forced to sign it is the neighborhood didn't trust him."
Mizrahi admits that touting Larchmont Bungalow's furniture as sales items was a "very silly thing that we did as we tried to figure out how to keep this legal."
Local zoning prohibits a sit-down restaurant at the site under the Department of Planning's "Qualified Rezoning," or so-called Q conditions. Jane Gilman, owner of the Larchmont Chronicle, says one intent of the Q conditions was to "prevent Larchmont from becoming a food court."
But Tom Kneafsey, of the Larchmont Village Business Improvement District, says sit-down restaurants were arbitrarily restricted while "bagel stores, ice cream shops" and others were allowed.
Katie Treviño, partner in the now-closed restaurant Larchmont Larder, says the complicated Q conditions can baffle landlords: "Many of the businesses in Los Angeles would be considered not compliant."
Larchmont residents have repeatedly fought businesses they feel threaten the mom-and-pop character of the street.
But Michael Mizrahi and Jonathan Ahron — Michael's boyhood friend and Albert Mizrahi's partner in Larchmont Bungalow — are critical of Larchmont's long-enduring neighborhood ethos.
Says Ahron: "Don't we want to build our community? That doesn't mean you have to go out of business, it just means you have to keep up with the times. ... It's the potential of the area, the potential of what can be done ... over the course of time."
LarchmontBuzz.com's Lombard sees it differently: "Mizrahi misread the depth of the sentiment in this community. Repeatedly misread, I would say."