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"About six and a half years ago I entered this quiet and beautiful neighborhood, and operated this market in the past and I would like to operate it in the future." -- Translation of the remarks of Hong J. Ahn, proprietor of the Mini-Mart at Seventh and Marine, at the Planning Commission meeting, April 2, 2003

By Frank Gruber

It's always puzzled me how people who live in neighborhoods without corner stores typically panic at the idea of having them, while people who live in neighborhoods with corner stores panic at the idea of losing them.

There is no good or bad here, no moral issue -- it's just that people like what they are used to.

Since my high school years I've lived in neighborhoods with corner stores. I won't pretend to be objective. It's hard for me to imagine living somewhere where I can't walk a block or two to buy a gallon of milk or a six-pack of beer.

When we have friends over for dinner, it's great to give the kids some money and send them out to buy ice cream.

I recognize the attraction single-use zoning has for people. People have an instinct for order, even if in real-life they rather enjoy chaos. This is not a progressive vs. conservative, or old fashioned vs. avant-garde issue. Modernists whose politics were radical liked the order of separating functions, as do traditionalists whose architecture is conservative.

Even people who live in and apparently enjoy neighborhoods made of diverse forms and functions can react negatively to the idea of more "disorder." For instance, neighbors who live on Second Street in Ocean Park, who acknowledge that they enjoy their proximity to the relative chaos of Main Street, insisted that Abby Sher, when she developed Edgemar, build a big wall to separate them from the development.

What this separated them from was the charming "piazzetta" that Frank Gehry designed in the middle of the development. That sweet spot could have been part of their neighborhood, but now they have to walk around the block if they want to get a coffee from Peet's or an ice cream from Ben & Jerry's. What's the use of that? They still complain about noise in the parking lot.

When I moved to Beverley Avenue three years ago the market at Fourth and Hollister became "my store." It's been in operation since 1925. That's fortunate, as it could not have been built even a few years later. In 1948 the City, following the trend to single-use zoning, decreed that stores in residential zones would have to close in 25 years.

Fortunately by 1973, when the 25 years were up, something in the mindset had changed, and the City allowed markets to continue operation if they obtained conditional use permits.

My store, along with two others in Ocean Park, the "Mini-Mart" at Seventh and Marine, and the "Fair Market" on Fourth near Pacific, now need to have their conditional use permits renewed, and for that purpose all three markets were the subject of the April 2 Planning Commission meeting.

It was interesting. The Planning Commission heard from about 20 neighbors, all of whom were in favor of allowing the markets to continue operation, without regard to zoning law limitations on store hours and the sale of alcohol. The neighbors were eloquent, speaking not only about the convenience the markets provided, but also the social benefits of having a place to bump into neighbors or to leave your keys for out-of-town guests to pick up.

The commissioners received a real lesson about how zoning rules enacted purportedly for the benefit of neighbors may in fact not benefit them at all.

Planning staff wants to help the markets survive, and to this end proposed, among other things, amending the zoning law to give the Planning Commission and ultimately City Council more flexibility in adjusting impracticable zoning requirements.

Planning commissioners initially had a hard time grasping the concept that sometimes actions taken and standards adopted in the past need to be revisited (as if that ever stopped them from voting down a development that was consistent with existing development standards), but ultimately came around and blessed the markets and sent them to City Council for further proceedings.

City Council, however, should take a deeper look at one issue -- hours of operation. Currently, by ordinance, neighborhood stores cannot open before eight a.m. or operate after nine p.m., and the Fair Market on Fourth Street is required by its permit to close at 7:30.

Currently, at both markets on Fourth Street, the operators either ignore these restrictions or don't know they exist, and they open at seven and stay open until midnight.

And it's a good thing. One of the reasons to have a local store is so that you can run out in the morning to buy milk or eggs for breakfast without starting up the car. And being open late at night, the stores also provide security for neighbors out for a walk.

According to staff, there have been no complaints relating to the hours of operation of the three stores. Hopefully City Council will direct staff to initiate a process for another zoning amendment that would legitimize longer hours.

There are technical problems with this, because the stores are classified as "legal, nonconforming" uses that cannot be "intensified," but City Council should look into amending the underlying zoning, which is already special to Ocean Park.

* * *

This issue of later hours, which several of the neighbors mentioned, struck a chord with Planning Commissioner Arlene Hopkins, who at one point asked staff the reasonable question whether there was any legal process available to fix the problem.

While usually commissioners treat each other with exaggerated courtliness, the same tone people use when talking to known psychotics, and allow each other to wander off in whatever tangents they want to go, something snapped in Commissioner Kelly Olsen. He came down on Hopkins like a ton of glass block, accusing her, among other things, of not knowing the zoning code and wasting everyone's time by "thinking out loud."

This outburst came right after Olsen had ruminated for quite some time in a reverie of his own on an irrelevant "angels on the head of a pin" type issue regarding what theoretical change in the Fair Market's operation might be sufficient to trigger the need for a special permit for selling alcohol.

I'm not sure it was thinking, but it was out loud.

After the meeting, Hopkins confronted Olsen on the dais. Reliable sources report that they went at it, nose to nose, in the presence of other commissioners and staff, for more than five minutes, Hopkins letting Olsen know that she didn't appreciate being lectured at.

Apprently Olsen forgot that the tone the commissioners use on staff, or applicants and their representatives, or members of the public they disagree with, is not appropriate to use on other commissioners.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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