Council Vetoes More Gelato

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Saying there are enough downtown gelato stores already, the City Council unanimously denied an appeal to bring the frozen Italian confection to a storefront in the vacant movie theater building.

Robert Abdalla of Los Angeles wanted to bring a Sweden-based gelato store here with flavors like salty popcorn, Coca Cola and carrot cake to the movie theater’s retail space across from Main Beach at 154 S. Coast Highway. Juice and Shakes vacated the storefront four months ago, which Haagen Dazs previously occupied for 30 years.

The council’s decision contradicts part of the city’s downtown specific plan, which lays out development guidelines just for businesses in the downtown retail village and Laguna Canyon art festival areas. The plan states there can be 10 take-out dessert shops. The new gelateria would have made seven.

The decision was based on proximity and diversity.

“The saturation issue is not a concern,” council member Bob Whalen said early in the discussion at the Tuesday, Jan. 12, meeting.

There are two other gelato shops now operating in the seven-block downtown retail district, Dolce Gelato on Broadway Street and Gelato Paradiso 850 feet away. There is one ice cream parlor, Chantilly, on the corner of S. Coast Highway and Park Avenue. The rest are chocolatiers.

“Ten is not a magic number,” commented council member Kelly Boyd. “For that particular type of business, we’re at the threshold.” Boyd owned the Marine Room Tavern on Ocean Avenue for 25 years.

The rejected shop had planned to offer more than 290 rotating flavors, which didn’t prove diverse enough to persuade council members of its distinctiveness. Uniqueness is another criteria for granting downtown business permits.

“If it was ice cream or frozen yogurt, I would not be having the reaction I’m having,” said council member Rob Zur Schmiede. “It really isn’t something different.”

Another purpose of the Downtown Specific Plan is to encourage a diverse merchant base with distinctive inventory, which can protect existing businesses from similar competitors, according to the plan. The entire plan is currently being scrutinized for possible revisions by land use consultants. Its various provisions have been the focus of numerous public workshops, including one focused on parking slated for next Wednesday, Jan. 27, at City Hall.

Abdalla appealed to the council to overturn last November’s decision by the city’s Planning Commission, which denied a temporary-use permit for the gelato shop. Commissioners said they preferred a long-term lease over a short-term one.

The short-term lease was the theater owner’s idea, not his, Abdalla told the council. Christopher Leonard, the attorney for Principal Theatres, Inc., and its owner Leslie Blumberg, said they won’t fight the council’s decision.

“We’re ready to move on,” Leonard said Monday. “We respect the council’s decision.” Blumberg is looking for another short-term tenant while looking to bring movies back with upscale food and beverage concessions in one or both of the adjacent storefronts, he said.

“We’re trying to get a first-run movie house back in there,” Leonard told the council. “So far, we haven’t succeeded.” South Coast Cinema, the city’s only movie house, closed in August. If unsuccessful, Blumberg will likely sell the theater building that’s been owned by her family for six decades, he said.

The short-term lease worked against him, Abdalla said Monday, adding that he would consider reapplying to the city if Blumberg would agree to a long-term lease.

Due to the temporary permit, Abdalla’s attempt to open a gelato shop here was derogatorily labeled a “pop-up” business capitalizing on the summer tourist trade, according to planning commission reports.

Dolce Gelato owner Rick Baedeker launched the complaint against Abdalla’s proposal. Another gelato shop “will cause one or both stores to fail,” predicted the shopkeeper, who said he just started making a profit after six years in business.

If a third gelato store opens downtown, Barbara Stoddard, Baedeker’s landlady, told the council that Baedeker won’t renew his lease. “They simply cannot sustain business in the long term with a temporary pop-up business like this cannibalizing sales during the critical peak months,” Stoddard said.

Leonard countered the claim. “Nobody’s swooping in,” he told the council, noting that Abdalla planned to start his business in December and not in the high-tourist summer season. He questioned the fairness of Baedeker’s opposition. When Dolce Gelato received city approval to open, Golden Spoon frozen yogurt shop and Haagen Dazs operated in the same block as Dolce Gelato, he noted. Both closed in 2013, according to Anthony Viera, assistant city planner.

“Now that they’re the only ones, it’s ‘No, no, no, we can’t have more than one ice cream parlor on the north side of downtown.’ I just don’t see that as being a valid reason,” Leonard said.

 

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