The stretch of Seventh Street that climbs up a gradual incline east of MacArthur Park feels like the heart of a village. The main corridor is narrow, banked by bike lanes and lined with storefronts housing discount shops and panaderias. Jacaranda trees and fan palms dot the side streets, where children and parents pour out of two elementary schools, stopping to buy crisp chicharrones de harina snack rings or hot chocolate champurrado on their walk home to low-rise apartment buildings.
Just up the hill, downtown L.A.’s skyscrapers sprout from the horizon, harbingers of the booming development that is coming to Westlake.
For the last year and a half, a block of vacant storefronts on Seventh Street and Burlington Avenue has become the epicenter of controversy over development in Westlake, which is sandwiched between rapidly changing downtown and Koreatown. Last Tuesday, the owners of the Westlake properties were granted a conditional-use permit allowing liquor sales and extended hours until 2 a.m. in all five establishments.
Father and son Erwin and Mark Sokol want to open four full-service restaurants and a lounge/nightclub in the long-vacant buildings, which their family has owned for 70 years. The Sokols also own Hotel Erwin in Venice, where locals say the family has a strong track record as responsible proprietors and engaged, philanthropic landlords.
“I look at this as a social gathering spot, a place to connect,” says Mark Sokol, pointing to the walls of windows that he hopes will beckon people from the neighborhood.
But a grassroots neighborhood group, Westlake Advocacy, opposes the development. Its members, who are mostly students in their teens and 20s, working mothers and retirees, say they don’t want businesses that serve alcohol and operate late at night across the street from the neighborhood’s two elementary schools.
“Institutionalized racism, sometimes masked as high-end alcohol outlets in [school] zones, needs to stop in our community,” says Manny Flores, a postbaccalaureate student in biology at UCLA, who founded Westlake Advocacy with his brother, Gustavo.
“Why not put in something like a gym, things that help our youth to stay out of problems like gangs and drugs?” says Estella Escamia, whose son attended one of the nearby schools.
Zoning administrator Jonathan Hershey considered the Sokols’ application for six months before approving it and issuing a 50-page rationale. Opponents have until Feb. 10 to file an appeal.
When the proposal for the bar/restaurant complex came before the Westlake South Neighborhood Council, the Flores brothers, two of the youngest members of the council, were shocked to see other council members in favor of it.
Westlake South Neighborhood Council president Nelson Castillo was one of the supporters. “This would be creating jobs, revitalizing that block that is sitting vacant and not generating income for the city,” he says. “We’re looking at restaurants, not a liquor store or a nightclub.”
The question of whether this development will be a nightclub or a series of restaurants is key.
Mark Sokol says that only the corner unit will be a late-night bar, and the rest will be affordable restaurants. He envisions a pit-fire pizza place, a Salvadoran-Guatemalan fusion restaurant and a coffee shop serving breakfast and lunch. He says the building has been empty for more than eight years because it was badly in need of repairs. He has since upgraded the roof, electrical and plumbing systems and made it ADA-compliant and seismically secure.
Still, the Sokols filed for liquor licenses and operating hours from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. for all five businesses — which is what concerns some residents.
“Their proposal is contradicting what they are saying,” Manny Flores says. “It’s obvious that it’s going to create problems if you’re going to put that in front of schools.”
He and his brother set to work doing research, knocking on doors, passing out fliers and talking to local officials about the development. The Flores brothers grew up in a large family in a rundown home in nearby Pico-Union and have seen firsthand the effects of poverty and alcohol abuse in their neighborhood. Gustavo Flores, who studied political science at UC Merced, recently completed a Latino Leadership Initiative fellowship at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, where he studied with Marshall Ganz, a well-known civil rights organizer and contemporary of Cesar Chavez.
“I came back from college and I’m trying to pass it down to my community,” Gustavo Flores says.
Their group compiled a thick dossier on the area surrounding the Sokols’ development — records of the high crime rate, data on the hundreds of low-income families living near that intersection, maps of school routes and evidence of the high concentration of alcohol outlets in the area. They collected more than 700 petitions, in Spanish. Local residents checked boxes saying alcohol sales would endanger schoolchildren, increase violent crime and disturb the peace of the neighborhood.
But Brian Pratt, captain of LAPD’s Rampart Division, doesn’t see the proposed business as a threat to public safety. He says alcohol-related crimes stem more from businesses with off-site liquor permits (such as liquor stores) or businesses with irresponsible operators.
His division approved the conditional-use permit for the alcohol licenses and extended hours after the Sokols added an in-depth security plan to their proposal, pledging to have cameras and security guards operating at all hours and to have all employees trained in responsible alcohol service.
Gustavo Flores argues that those security measures may protect patrons in the establishments but will not extend to the surrounding neighborhood. He says having more intoxicated people in the street will increase assaults and drunk driving.
Manny Flores points to evidence that intoxicated people are easy targets for gang members and a report from Rampart Division that violent crime and gang activity are on the rise in the area.
“We’re not saying that our community is perfect,” says Samantha Sanchez, a junior at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy high school, who is active with Westlake Advocacy. “We’re saying that it has enough problems already.”
In her school binder, Sanchez carries around a copy of a letter that former LAUSD superintendent Ramon Cortines wrote in October, requesting that the state alcohol board deny liquor licenses to the Sokols’ development because of its proximity to Esperanza Elementary and Liechty Middle School, two of the most dangerous schools in the district for children to walk to.
But other local officials approve of the development.
After talking with the developers, concerned community members and LAPD, Councilman Gil Cedillo’s office wrote a letter of support for the development with the conditions that the owners submit to regular compliance reviews, serve food at all operating hours and sell alcohol only during nonschool hours.
Philip Lance, president of nearby Camino Nuevo, also is on board with the development. He used to rent space from the Sokols for an office, a thrift store and a worker-owned janitorial co-op at the site of the proposed development.
“I’ve known them as responsible, ethical landlords,” says Lance, who also wrote a letter in support of the Sokols. “There’s not many moderate quality dining establishments in the neighborhood, so I thought it would be a good thing.”
Both Lance and Brad Rumble, principal of Esperanza Elementary, indicated they would be open to leasing their school parking lots to the Sokols to alleviate parking issues in the already congested neighborhood. Although residents worry this would create a conflict of interest with after-school programs, USC Urban Planning professor Raphael Bostic says it is not uncommon to view buildings and parking lots in a 24-hour context in cities that are strapped for space, and that safety issues would depend on management.
Rumble wrote a letter to the developers saying he was pleased to know the family had deep connections to the community and that “such gentrification can increase job opportunities for local residents and decrease crime.” Rumble declined to comment for this story.
Gerald Gubatan, senior planning deputy for Councilman Cedillo, admits that Council District 1 is “the epicenter for gentrification.”
“There is an underlying fear. It was palpable when we went before the neighborhood council,” says Gubatan, who met with organizers to hear their concerns. Still, he says Cedillo wants to attract private investment without causing displacement.
“My first goal is to be able to accommodate people who live here,” Soko saysl. “I don’t want people to be displaced.”
But Javier Martinez, a student at UC San Diego who grew up in an apartment building around the corner from the Sokols’ buildings, doesn’t believe current residents will benefit from the businesses. “You can compare gentrification with colonialism,” he says. “They feel we are not using the resources that we have here to our full potential, and they believe it is their authority to take over.”
Ivera Chavez, 73, who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years, agrees. “What do we need with their restaurants? We have our restaurants. We have our culture.”
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Revel Sims, a gentrification scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is familiar with the Westlake area, says that commercial development of vacant properties can indeed lead to displacement, and that low-income people of color are the most vulnerable.
“Change in commercial corridors can spark change in residential population,” he says. “As people come to the area to walk and eat, they might notice houses that they can buy and fix up to be close to a hip street with new bars and restaurants. If Westlake changes and this property makes a successful business, where are these folks going to go if they end up getting kicked out?”
Gustavo Flores says change in Westlake is inevitable — but that it should be the right kind of change.
“We’re not against development,” he says. “It’s going to happen. We’re going to continue to be displaced. But let’s have some respect for our children that are still here and our schools — and not put alcohol outlets less than 50 feet away.”