Update: The partners creating a new restaurant at Police Administration Building in downtown Los Angeles have won their challenge to city officials' order evicting them.
Sam Vagarshakian, a partner in L.A. Reflections, says that after a five-day trial, an L.A. Superior Court jury unanimously rejected the city's attempt to evict them. See original story below.
After Los Angeles city officials took land that was supposed to be a park to build the $437 million LAPD headquarters, they promised that, in return, it wouldn't be a fortress. The Police Administration Building (PAB) would fit in and be an asset to downtown and its dwellers.
Having gobbled up potential park land, the PAB headquarters promised to include an acre of needed green space, as well as two adjacent buildings on the grounds aimed at the community: a 400-seat auditorium and a public restaurant. But now that City Hall has its beautiful PAB headquarters, filled with 2,100 police and top brass and hailed as an architectural gem, those promises are fading fast.
First the grass at PAB was accidentally wiped out by crowds attending a police fundraising event; that was followed by squabbling over who should restore the brown eyesore at the corner of Second and Main streets. The big lawn was saved, but neighborhood groups are working on a plan for volunteers to maintain it; word is the city doesn't have the money.
Now, L.A. Weekly has learned, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich is moving to evict from their nearly finished restaurant two Civic Center mall shopkeepers who worked for months, and spent nearly $1 million, creating a friendship-themed restaurant in a building on PAB's grounds that looks out on the lawn. Called L.A. Reflections, its menu was to be based on the cuisines of L.A.'s sister cities.
Would-be restaurateurs Sam Vagarshakian and Michael Simon tell the Weekly Trutanich's case is so weak that quiet talks have begun on a possible settlement. Vagarshakian and L.A. Reflections went to court Dec. 6 to fight eviction from their leased restaurant. But no settlement was reached and the legal battle continues.
Vagarshakian is appalled and baffled. "It's like somebody comes in and throws you out of your house," he says. "I don't know that I have words to describe how I feel after two years of work."
While City Councilwoman Jan Perry and top LAPD brass appeared supportive of the restaurant and wanted to sort through issues during its difficult planning and interior construction, Vagarshakian says, others seemed eager to throw up roadblocks. He singles out Police Administrator Thom Brennan of LAPD's Facilities Management Division and Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, director of asset management in the city's Department of General Services. Jones-Sawyer refused to comment and Brennan did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Within key city departments, he says, "There doesn't appear to be any communication."
Vagarshakian and Simon are not fly-by-night characters accustomed to eviction threats. For years both ran shops in the mall beneath the Civic Center, a favorite lunch spot for government workers and police. Vagarshakian, the CEO of L.A. Reflections, ran a cell-phone store. Simon's family jewelry store was the first tenant to open in the mall, decades ago.
But it hasn't exactly been brotherly love with City Hall since the pair won the restaurant lease in 2009. "We wanted something that would really reflect the diversity of the city and the Civic Center," Vagarshakian says. "That's where we got the name."
Vagarshakian says Deputy City Attorney Nancy Wax told his attorney, Jeff Coleman, that the city no longer wanted a restaurant on the PAB site, citing security concerns — for the heavily secured site.
"My head started flying away — how they could think this after two or three years of work?" Vagarshakian asks. "I don't know a word in English to describe my reaction. It was crazy information that I got, that a city this big could have such a lack of information, such a lack of strategy, could have made such a miscalculation."
Wax referred questions to Trutanich spokesman Frank Mateljan, who declined comment.
The restaurateurs' tale is particularly jarring, coming just as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner aggressively mount a PR campaign pledging a new "openness" to businesses and efforts to "streamline" development and lure companies to a city thrashed by 14 percent unemployment.
Trutanich's lawsuit seeking to evict the men claims that L.A. Reflections is months behind in opening and accuses them of violating their lease — by serving alcohol without permits to people attending downtown's popular monthly Art Walk earlier this year.
But a judge in September had no problem with the two partners serving alcohol during Art Walk, a sidewalk cultural event that draws thousands of people downtown.
When the Los Angeles City Council chose this pair to develop the restaurant, they pointedly did not turn to someone like Wolfgang Puck. Nor did they choose experienced developers accustomed to bringing in projects on deadline
Instead, they chose a team that boasts roots in the Armenian-American community, is commited to charity and has experience in areas including catering and restaurant work.
According to the agreement in July 2009, the partners would get an empty, new city building suitable for transforming into a restaurant. Construction delays prevented them from starting, the partners say, but officials from the General Services Department appeared willing to work with them.
Vagarshakian and Simon say Perry's office stepped in to smooth difficulties.
Vagarshakian says they were supposed to take possession of the building in March 2009, but due to various delays, the city didn't turn it over until February 2010. They couldn't open by the agreed date of March 2010, so, he claims, city officials gave them 140 more working days.
Simon says one reason they were chosen by the City Council was because they planned to give back to the community. And indeed, they wasted no time in doing so, catering an event for the Los Angeles Police Foundation and handling the breakfast for the swearing-in of Police Chief Charlie Beck a year ago. John Mack, president of the L.A. Police Commission, wrote to thank them: "Your work reflected nothing but professionalism and graciousness, and you were truly a pleasure to work with."
Last spring, Vagarshakian and Simon used the unfinished restaurant to participate in Art Walk, which draws big crowds to cafés and galleries. Vagarshakian says they obtained permits. The city's General Services Department even provided tables for their events, which included art displays and live music, while council members Eric Garcetti and Perry provided chairs.
But in September, an LAPD officer issued them a citation — for holding an unauthorized event. Vagarshakian says he went to court, showed a judge his permits and got the citation dismissed.
Then on Friday, Sept. 17, with a few weeks of interior finishing to be done, the General Services Division notified L.A. Reflections that its lease was being terminated and it had three days to get out. On Monday, Sept. 20, they filed an objection. On Sept. 23, Trutanich filed an eviction suit.
Vagarshakian says they had expected to open as soon as the finishing work and issues with the city over where to place a pollution control device — about the size of an industrial AC unit — were resolved.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, city officials give a sharply different version of events.
They say Vagarshakian could have taken possession of the space in October 2009, but chose not to. They deny that the city agreed to give the men 140 extra days last March.
City officials accuse L.A. Reflections of inviting artgoers inside the unfinished restaurant during Art Walk — and serving alcohol.
Vagarshakian says wine was served at a private event during one Art Walk, but not to public passersby.
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Either way, it's an interesting issue for City Hall to get its dander up about. Alcohol is widely served throughout Art Walk by galleries and boutiques. It has become a point of contention among LAPD, Art Walk organizers, the business community and others.
But evicting a new company with nearly $1 million sunk into a project?
Vagarshakian insists, "All these city officials knew what we were doing! Why weren't we issued citations at the time? Why was the citation that was issued dismissed?"
Simon mutters darkly about "an abuse of political power." After all the years they've worked in the Civic Center, they're mystified by the way they've been dealt with.