Larchmont Bungalow, 107 N. Larchmont, owner Albert Mizrahi had his day in court on Friday when he presented testimony to Judge Kathleen Kennedy. But the city won the day. Mizrahi and his defense attorney, Alan Fenster, failed to convince Judge Kennedy to dismiss the city’s criminal case against the Bungalow on the grounds of discriminatory prosecution.
This was the second defense motion for dismissal the judge denied. The decision came after Mr. Mizrahi testified for more than an hour beginning by explaining that he suffered from Myelofibrosis, a chronic blood disease that leaves him very tired. He explained that he acquired four buildings (107, 121-123, 150 and 227 N. Larchmont) on Larchmont in 2007 because he thought the street had great retail potential. He said he just wanted to “shine up” the street and give people more options for spending money in the neighborhood.
Mizrahi said he originally planned to open a retail store at 107 N. Larchmont but when structural problems made that impractical he decided to tear the building down. In June 2008, the Los Angeles Business Journal reported that Mizrahi said he wanted to bring a restaurant into the 3,000 square foot space.
After refusing repeated meeting requests from Councilman Tom LaBonge because he was unable to travel downtown, Mizrahi testified that he met LaBonge at his Beverly Hills home. When LaBonge learned of his plan to tear down 107 N. Larchmont, LaBonge objected. So, Mizrahi said he decided he would open a restaurant instead and began working closely with Renee Weitzer, staffer to La Bonge, who advised him to open a “take-out” restaurant to avoid conflicts with the “Q” conditions on Larchmont Blvd that restricts the number of restaurants, banks, etc.. Mizrahi said he wasn’t aware of the “Q” conditions when he bought the building and relied on Weizter, who he called the “mother of the street,” to guide him through the permitting process. He said he spent $1.1 million dollars renovating the space.
Mizrahi said he was confused when his architect informed him that LA Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) required him to sign two convenants to secure building permits; one for an attendant to manage the tandem parking and one stipulating there be no seating for dining. He said he was told that everyone was required to sign the convenants. He said he he didn’t really think it was a big deal and began construction since he wasn’t worried about the covenants.
The covenant prohibiting tables and chairs is central to the case. The building permits were issued as a condition of the covenant and subsequently revoked when Mizrahi violated the covenant. Mizrahi’s lawyer contends his client was singled out by LADBS asserting that other “take out” restaurants operate on the street with tables and chairs. Mizrahi and his lawyer said a small group of long-time residents complained to the city because Mr. Mizrahi forced out the local hardware store. Fenster told the judge that if Mizrahi had kept the hardware store his client would not be in court today.
In testimony last November, an LADBS staffer said Mr. Mizrahi was asked to sign the covenant because the space was quite large for a “take out” and the department was seeking assurances that it would not become a restaurant since no new restaurants are permitted under the “Q” conditions.
In her cross examination, Los Angles City Attorney, Serena Christion focused on the covenant. She asked Mr. Mizrahi if anyone from LADBS told him to sign the covenant, he responded no, his architect told him to sign. She asked if he received a notice from LADBS of the violation and the oder to remove the chairs and tables in October 2009, he replied yes. He said he was aware that he had a problem, but did not remove any tables and chairs, even after his certificate of occupancy was revoked.
After hearing arguments from both sides, Judge Kennedy said she did not see any evidence presented by the defense of anyone else who signed a covenant, violated the covenant but was not prosecuted. As a result, she said she denied the discriminatory prosecution motion. She said Mr. Mizrahi seemed like a sophisticated business person but once he signed the covenant he was ”dead in the water.” Because Mizrahi signed an agreement and subsequently violated the agreement, the criminal case would proceed.
The case now moves to Division 40 where it will be heard on February 15, with an expectation that a trial will begin within 30 days. That hearing may be combined with another complaint the city has against the Bungalow for violating the fire code. In September, fire department officials shut down the Bungalow for overcrowding. Further inspection revealed the Bungalow had failed to file a permit with the fire department. Since the Bungalow now lacks a certificate of occupancy (it was revoked in 2009 by LADBS for violating their covenant prohibiting tables and chairs) they can only operate with 49 people in the space at any time. Fire inspections are ongoing to prevent a safety hazard.