Irv's Burgers

Historic Preservation in Young Adulthood - Too Mature Too Fast

by Ryan Gierach
West Hollywood Tribune
December 5, 2004

Irv's Burgers joins the list of the "threatened" in West Hollywood which Landmark is next to fall to the wrecking ball?

For a city on the cusp of its legal majority, the hew and cry raised throughout West Hollywood over development in the last year seems an odd fit: how many youths of 20 object to the wholesale replacing of old building with new or the filling of vacant lots?

This youthful city, for one, appears to object to turbocharged development. Over the past year public outcry has led the City Council to reconfigure or put on indefinite hold housing and business developments that would have replaced aging structures with new ones, improved land use by accommodating more housing, and beautified what can only be described as "urban blight" across the street from city hall.

Residents protesting development planned for "Tara" on Laurel Ave. (four housing units expanded to 40 senior housing units), the Ramona on Harper Ave (replacement of a "courtyard" apartment complex with condos) and Irv's Burgers on Santa Monica Blvd at Sweetzer Ave. (a business development containing a Peet's Coffee) base their opposition in historic preservation and urban quality of life arguments.

One city hall employee who declined to be named because of their direct involvement with the development/preservation issue, asked plaintively, "What will do without Irv's? A little spot of California history will be bulldozed, a little ray of sunshine will be snuffed out and our village will become a little bit more corporate."

Developers point to a dire need for more housing, business activity and more effective land use while reminding resident that a good deal of historic protection has already been accomplished in the city.

According to the developer of the Irv's site, Gregg Seltzer, "Much of the important and urgently needed preservation in West Hollywood was done after the city's survey of historic properties in 1984."

"Some of these remaining [properties] just don't meet the threshold for historic protection." Mr. Seltzer asked, "Is Irv's Burgers a Tale O' the Pup? A Barney's? A Formosa? Hardly."

West Hollywood, even with a reputation for preservation, today finds itself often at odds with tenants, preservationists, and quality-of-lifers who say they've been repeatedly frustrated by the City Council's decision to vote against recommendations of their own Historic Preservation Commission to allow developers to demolish the old and build anew.

But anti-development activists are split as to their reasons for this board opposition. For example, the tenants at "Tara" are angry with what the consider broken promises about the use of the city wide estate and its lush grounds and have filed suit to prevent groundbreaking.

Tara residents claim that Elsie Weisman, now deceased, intended the city to preserved of its open space and buildings when she gave the city the property. Buildings forty unit, four story senior housing block behind Tara "destroys the visual impact of the site while protecting the house's facade, which is absurd" according to Allega Allison, a Tara resident.

Proponents of saving the Ramona see "a whole way of life being destroyed. When they tear down the Ramona they will tear down lives, not just a building," said Thomas Wright, an expert on court style living in Southern California.

"What makes [courtyard apartments] so nice is they encourage community," said Heavenly Wilson about the endangered buildings, one of which she herself faces eviction from.

She and others claim that by replacing the green space and courtyards with modern, security-obessed condos will fray the tapestry of civic life. "Passing neighbors in a passageway can't replace our courtyards and green spaces for getting to know the neighbors," Ms. Wilson said.

Even Irv's supporters are split – some see the historic import of the 1950s burger stand and the legacy of old Route 66 endangered, while others simply fail to see why they should give up the unique service and food at Irv's they enjoy for yet another frappuccino bar.

According to Shawn Green, age 27 and a West Hollywood resident and supporter of the cause to save Irv's, "People aren't being listened to by government, the same problem that created this city to be what it was – a place concerned with people and not money.

Mayor John Duran sees it differently. "Preservation doesn't mean restricting property owner's rights. We seek a balance between economic growth, a housing crunch, parking problems and protecting our history. We don't choose between people and money, we try to develop and protect both."

"A year and a half ago we had a vote on the courtyard protection issue, and the council voted down 4-1 – I was the lone vote for it," Mayor Duran noted. "There was no outcry then. The politics have changed in the last year."

Developing the site on which Irv's Burgers stands and its owner, the Hong family, serve up food and smiles, poses a particularly prickly problem for developers and city officials alike.

Sonia, Sean and Momma Hong have become family to scores of locals because of the delightful customer service and fresh food they have served up since 1999. They now rely on the support from customers to try to save their family investment ($100,000) and livelihood from demolition.

When they learned of the developer's plans to replace them with a new building containing a Peet's Coffee and Tea, the Hongs began a petition campaign, continued by the newly formed "Burger Brigade" headed up by local resident and businessman John Tripp.

"We want to save Irv's," Mr. Tripp told the Tribune, "but I'm a businessman and I know that the developer needs to win on this also. We are developing a plan that would cost him less to build and save Irv's while keeping the neighborhood, and contracted with Peet's to build for the 5900 square foot lot, includes a 1400 sq. ft. coffee restaurant and 12 parking spaces."

"I tried to keep Irv's when I worked with the architects, but there was no way the substandard building could be brought up to code – it's a tear down," Mr. Seltzer said.

"And the rent," he continued, "because of the construction costs, etc. would be over twice what [the Hongs] pay now. As it is, because of the parking, it's even high for a high volume retailer like Peet's – between nine and ten thousand dollars a month."

They pay it because they desperately want a West Hollywood Santa Monica Boulevard location and have been searching for months.

Peet's declined a request for an interview.

The Hongs were notified in October that construction on the development would begin in March, giving them just four more months of operation. Had the Burger Brigade or the Hongs applied for historic status on the stand before the plans were filed, according to city officials, they would staved off demolition while the city studied the claims, as has happened at the Ramona.

Supporters of Irv's, however, feel hope that another review mandated by state law under the California Environmental Quality Act will turn back the contractor's spades.

Susan Heeley Keen, acting director of West Hollywood's Community Development department told the Tribune that "we will be reviewing the historic status of the business to determine the impact of development on the neighborhood."

Until that review is done and his bulldozers can scrape the lot clean, Mr. Seltzer says he would rather generate revenue from Irv's than throw them out on the street. "But my patience has a limit. The Hongs have tried to hurt my brother (a special education teacher for the LAUSD) and me a couple of very small businessmen, for trying to improve a city we love. If that continues we'll be forced to cut losses."

He said that the whole affair was so aggravating to him that he has reached the point of "throwing my hands up and leasing the lot to the Burger Brigade and letting them do whatever they want with Irv's – let Sonia stay for free! They say they have 1700 names on the petition? They can have it for just about three or four thousand bucks a month per signatory if they can get me out of my contract with Peet's."

To Mr. Tripp, that sounds fine. "We need to take that offer under advisement. The best route though, would be to have everyone making money [Mr. Seltzer] included. Let's develop the history and the economy at once."

At the culmination of the first "Wrecking Ball Tour of Endangered and Already Lost Historic Sites in West Hollywood" on November 13, 2004, local historian Marc Wanamaker told the crowd of fifty that the city's stock historic buildings is in decline.

"We don't have much left of our history," he said. "Certain places can't be museums or used for what they were intended. We need to use the land, but move toward compromise by using facades, green space rather than shoddy 7-11 architecture to develop the historicity of the neighborhoods."

City Council member Jeff Prang, a keen supporter of preservation in the city, told the Tribune that it was high time for a Historical Society to be created in West Hollywood. "We have too much important history and no one is charged with protecting it. Too many buildings are demolished just because they're old. Once it's built it's gone."


IRV'S BURGERS Since 1950
7998 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90046

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