Thursday, January 31, 2008

Community Outrage Over Proposed Las Villas Alcohol License and Arcade A Little Too Close To Home...I Mean School

Here is a local neighborhood issue that people in the Lincoln Heights area have been contacting me about over the past several months. The issue is now before the community, and Carlos Morales, Publisher and Editor of The Voice Newspaper has this as the front page story this week.


By Carlos Morales

A meeting was held on Wednesday, January 23rd at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church auditorium to inform the community of a proposed controversial project in Lincoln Heights that is being supported by Councilmember Ed Reyes.

In the middle of the controversy is Las Villas Inc. A proposed 21,950 square foot youth and family-themed restaurant facility to be built in Lincoln Heights on a 48,840 square foot lot on North Broadway. Here is the description THE VOICE found at; "Villa Palacios is an 11,000 square foot event and meeting facility divisible into rooms from 4,000 to 1,000 square feet and designed primarily for large parties, events and business conferences. Villa Palacio relies on its in-house partners to supply additional event services such as video, floral design, and tux and gown rentals, photography, limousine and other products that will help complete your event needs. Villa Palacio offers food service. The food and beverages offered in this branch will resemble that of other banquet facilities (with a Hispanic flare) and will be available on a per plate or buffer basis.

Villa Cri-Cri is a 7800 square foot theme restaurant and children's entertainment center designed primarily for families and younger children. Villa Cri-Cri serves a limited number of menu items, featuring foods drawn from the culture of its target customers as well as pizza and other mainstream foods. Life-sized cartoon characters including Cri-Cri, the singing cricket will supply the entertainment. This location will feature piƱatas, an arts and crafts section as well as different fun-rooms where children can enjoy and learn about the Hispanic culture. In addition, children can engage themselves in the Villa Cri- Cri's physical activity maze or challenge themselves in dress-up, art and video arcades.

Villa Cri-Cri offers for sale merchandise created around the Cri Cri character. Come have a pie and a beverage or celebrate your birthday party. We have arcade games for those looking for more challenging fun.

On December 6, 2007, Associate Zoning Administrator Larry Friedman approved numerous variances of the City's municipal code to facilitate the proposed construction of the project. These variances allow the backers of the project to construct what will be the tallest building in Lincoln Heights at 45' high, while permitting zero percent building setback from the sidewalk, the ability to erect a large overhanging advertising sign and less than 25% of the required parking needed for a building of this size All of these architectural elements are in direct contradiction to a series of Community Design Overlay regulations jointly created and approved in 2004 by Lincoln Heights stakeholders and the City Planning Department to improve the North Broadway commercial corridor.

Additionally, Zoning Administrator Friedman approved the sale and dispensing of beer and wine and a variance to allow 100 video games on the premises. The facility will also be able to stay open for extended hours on weekends and will be open for business during school hours - including the video arcade. This is the second time that such an approval has been granted for the 7 year old project that will sit on a site which once included two homes - one of which was part of the original architectural site plan.

THE VOICE found testimony from the Zoning Administrators determination letter of December 6, 2007 that the developer had utilized the services of a contractor who verbally stated that the homes contained hazardous materials. Shortly thereafter the homes were demolished without either a regular or hazardous materials demolition permit with little regard to the potential airborne exposure to children at the adjacent schools. After a previous approval almost 3 years ago, the developers had not been able to secure funding for the project outside of the original CRA-sponsored Community Development Block Grant of $1.5 million to purchase the property.

Recently, the project backers have secured a commitment from Wilshire State Bank as a lender based on Las Villas' successful procurement of a liquor license for the site. As expressed by attendees at the meeting held at the Sacred Heart Church auditorium, the major areas of concern are the location of the restaurant with it's proposed alcohol sales and video arcade environment next to three local schools. The project site is adjacent to Lincoln High School, Gates Street Elementary School and Little Flower Missionary House. The America Vietnam-Chinese Kwan Ying Buddhist Church is located within 500 feet of the Las Villas project boundary and within a 1000' radius of the project site is the Gates Street Early Education Center.

Given the close proximity of the project to their location and the listed hours of operation for the Las Villas facility, sisters of the Carmelite Covenant at Little Flower Missionary House have stated that if the project is built with it's beer and wine license, the convent may have to relocate for the safety of the school's 100+ pre-school and pre-kinder children. The Carmelite nuns have resided at their Lincoln Heights place of worship since 1943.

Parents of Little Flower students have organized in protest to the proposed project and the sisters have filed an appeal to the project. Next to the Las Villas site is Abraham Lincoln High School with a school population of over 2600 students. According to the LAUSD Superintendent's Strategic Plan for High Priority Schools report dated on December 13, 2007, the campus is a PI Status School with an API score of 593 placing it in the 17 lowest performing high school in the LAUSD system. Schools which fall into this performance index are in danger of take over by the California State Department of Education.

Opponents of the project have cited that the ease of entry to the video arcade designed in the Las Villas building plans would lead to increase opportunities for truancy during school hours, an increase in after-school loitering and the failure of marginal students to go home and do much needed additional studying. Directly across from the proposed project is Gates Street Elementary School with a student population of approximately 830 students. Community opponents have expressed a concern that elementary school children will be in danger while crossing Lincoln Heights' main thoroughfare of North Broadway during peak traffic hours enroute to the video arcade at Las Villas.

Included in the submitted application by Las Villas is a letter of written support by LAUSD School Board President Monica Garcia. Upon learning of Garcia's support for the project, THE VOICE attempted to contact her office for comment several times. As of press time, no return calls or email have been received.

Area crime statistics have also been a subject of great debate in the Las Villas fight. The project is located adjacent to a requested temporary closure and gate installation on Gates Street proposed by Councilman Ed Reyes and LAPD due to an increase in gang activity, loitering, vandalism, robberies and drug dealing activities. According to LAPD statistics, the adjacent neighborhood is plagued with various violent and problematic local gangs. Several gang injunctions are currently in effect in the area which includes noted gang territory within 1000' of the proposed site. Increased gang and criminal activity was confirmed by LAPD Hollenbeck Captain Todd Chamberlain's testimony at the January 23, 2008 City Council meeting regarding the denial of an alcohol license at another North Broadway location due to the high gang activity in the area.

At the October 15, 2007 zoning variance hearing held at City Hall and conducted by Zoning Administrator Friedman, patrol and vice officers from the LAPD Hollenbeck Division along with representatives from the City Attorney's office testified that the area does have significant challenges from gang activity.

Concerns were also expressed about issues seen in the community regarding alcohol consumption and increased drunk driving citations at other local establishments. Despite community concerns, political support for the project has been overwhelming. At the forefront of the Las Villas cause is Councilman Ed Reyes who has publicly stated that the project will spearhead the revitalization of the North Broadway corridor.

The Councilman and his staff have been advocates for the Las Villas project since its inception. The backers of Las Villas have been astute in their access to political support as evidenced by the various letters of support submitted in the project zoning application from State Senator Gloria Romero, Supervisor Gloria Molina, former Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, and former LAPD Hollenbeck Division Captain Paul Pesquiera.

In addition to political support, several key community members have also expressed their support for the Las Villas project including Boys and Girls Club Executive Director Juana Lambert, Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council members David Galaviz and Martha Riley, and incoming Lincoln Heights Chamber of Commerce President Richard Macias who stated at the October 2006 hearing that "there is no place to have a nice dinner in Lincoln Heights".

Recently the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council hosted an informational presentation by Las Villas backers Alice Corona and Teresa Duarte. Although not listed as an action item on the agenda, several board members rose in support of the project and it's backers attempt to build their themed restaurant in the community.

However, there were questions left unanswered including a concern for the project's location and alcohol service in what is being billed as a family-oriented restaurant. During her presentation at the sparsely attended LHNC meeting (which was attended by THE VOICE), Ms. Corona on several occasions indicated that "We are targeting families with children at this facility". When asked by LHNC board member Tony Bukta "If you can't get a beer and wine license is this project economically feasible?", Ms Corona replied " We wouldn't get the loan from the bank." A concern voiced by opponents to the project is that if the facility is closed in the future, all granted variances including the liquor license and gaming variance needed for the video arcade, will be transferred to the site's new owner who may not have such a family-friendly venue in mind. Ms. Corona and Ms. Duarte are local business women who operate Teri's Fashion, a garment manufacturing facility in the industrial part of Lincoln Heights.

In response to Associate Zoning Administrator Friedman's question as to whether either owner had any restaurant experience, Rick Kresser who identified himself as the Las Villas CFO stated no. THE VOICE was informed that Mr. Kresser may have been the Former Chief Financial Officer with the United States Small Business Administration. (SBA) Upon further investigation, the name of Rick Kresser also appears online in an inquiry into a potential conflict of interest:

rick kresser - 10:04pm Jan 14, 2007 (330. 506/522) "Stock Purchase Option"

I have recently resigned from a position with the federal government and my post employment activities are subject to certain ethics rules and regulations. One of the issues raised by the Agency I resigned from was a determination that I cannot have an ownership position in a company that I was involved with while I was a federal employee for two years from the date I resigned. I am allowed to be a paid consultant for this company and future ownership in the company after the two year restriction expires is being discussed. I would like to enter into an agreement with the company that specifies what percentage I could own after the restriction expires and how much that ownership interest will cost me. We have discussed signing a Stock Purchase Option Agreement that would specify the future ownership interest and the cost of that ownership. I believe that since I would not be an owner of the company until and if I chose to exercise the option and pay the agreed upon price for the stock that this arrangement would not violate the two year restriction on ownership in this company. Lastly, I would like to reference the Stock Purchase Option in the compensation section of the consulting agreement that the company and I are planning to sign. What are your thoughts? Can a Stock Purchase Option Agreement between the company that owns the stock and a consultant that receives the Stock Purchase Option as part of the compensation for consulting be considered as a legal ownership interest in the company granting the Stock Purchase Option? (Inquiry can be found at)

Concurrent with Las Villas' request for a liquor license is the plight of the J & L Meat Market -a small local market displaced through eminent domain by LAUSD and relocated to Lincoln Heights. Whereas, J & L Meats previously held a valid liquorlicense, the owner's license transfer has been blocked through efforts spearheaded by Councilman Reyes and the City Council who cite similar issues raised by the opponents of Las Villas such as: the preponderance of gang activity, the number of alcohol licenses in Lincoln Heights, and the proximity of local schools and churches in the community.

This story will continue in the next issue of THE VOICE. The East Los Angeles Planning Commission meets on February 27, 2008 @ 4:30pm at the Ramona Hall in Highland Park. At the meeting, testimony in two separate appeals to the granted zoning variances will be heard and the public is invited to express their opinion on the future of Las Villas.

Carlos Morales
Publisher / Editor

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So this is what happens when two politically connected carpetbagging sweatshop owners bag a ton of loot from the CRA and make "nice nice" (or is that "slurp slurp") with a few of our brain dead politicos.

Unreal. Next there will be a carpetbagging Neighborhood Council president to complete the trifeca. Oh wait, that has already happened!