City planners promise a hard look at Gjusta, a restaurant caught in the tug of war over growth and development in Venice

By Gary Walker

Gjusta opened last year to the acclaim of foodies and ire of local activists

Gjusta opened last year to the acclaim of foodies and ire of local activists

The crescendo of a full-throttle campaign by Venice activists to keep a popular new bakery and sandwich shop on Sunset Avenue from expanding into a full-scale restaurant will have to wait until January, but the table is set for a showdown.

One of the central flashpoints in the debate over the evolution of Venice, Gjusta—  depending which side you’re on — has been cast as either a magnet for foot traffic into what was a “dead zone” light-industrial streetscape or a tear in the fabric of an adjacent residential area bracing for an onslaught of traffic and bustle.

Venice restaurateur Fran Camaj, who also owns Gjelina restaurant on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, is seeking city permission to operate the 4,116-square-foot Gjusta bakery as a 4,675-square-foot restaurant with an outdoor patio and a license to serve alcohol on it after dark.

On Nov. 18, the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission granted Camaj two additional months to come up with a more complete environmental analysis of the potential impacts of his plans for Gjusta.

The commission’s continuance of an appeal filed by Concerned Neighbors of 320 Sunset, an outspoken group of Venice locals that has included actor Zack Galifianakis, moved Gjusta’s hearing date to Jan. 20.

Despite the LAPD expressing concerns that Venice already has an overconcentration of liquor licenses, Associate Zoning Administrator Maya Zaitzevsky gave Gjusta the green light to move forward, prompting the appeal.

Commission President Thomas Donovan said postponing the hearing would allow the body to hear directly from Zaitzevsky, who was not present on Nov. 18, and request that the LAPD and Department of Building and Safety produce records pertaining to Gjusta and Gjelina.

“The appellants have raised [Camaj’s] track record at these addresses as evidence that he is somehow untrustworthy and may not comply with conditions on the present matter,” Donovan explained. “And   the applicant has also brought people in to say that there are no problems at both locations, raising the issue of whether these matters should be looked into further.”

Representatives for L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin say he opposes granting Camaj additional time, citing what the councilman’s planning director Tricia Keane has called “ongoing violations and activity that’s still happening despite the fact that there have been notices of violations issued.”

Said Keane, “We are concerned that any further continuance of this project will just result in additional delay in getting those issues addressed. Unless the delay is really to allow the applicant to make meaningful and substantial changes to the project, we aren’t comfortable with granting additional time at this time just for the sake of additional time. We would like to see resolution to those activities.”

Commissioners appeared to take exception to the notion of Gjusta remaining open after it was cited for lacking a certificate of occupancy and other code violations.

“How can this project proceed when the current operation is operating illegally?” asked Commission Vice President Esther Margulies. “Are there any rules that say you have to be operating legally before you can proceed down a new path?”

“There’s nothing in the code about orders to comply,” a planning department representative responded.

“I am troubled that someone has been operating illegally for so long. That just sends a bad message. It just doesn’t seem right,” Commissioner Lisa Waltz Morocco said, asking for an explanation from Building and Safety in January.

Stephen Vitalich, Camaj’s architect for Gjusta, said his team is working toward bringing the project into compliance and have already secured additional parking near Gjusta.

R.J. Comer, Camaj’s attorney, told the commission that Camaj is proposing to enclose the outdoor patio in order to minimize noise from the restaurant, a new wrinkle that was not in the current environmental document.

“The environmental impact [of a business] is critical anywhere in L.A., but in Venice in particular,” said Laurette Healey, a spokeswoman for the Gjusta project. “For any project that would have an impact, even if it’s a change for the better — which in this case it is — it’s important to have the proper environ
mental review.”

The city’s Planning Department should be assessing, analyzing and forwarding to the commission information about the proposed patio enclosure and any past code enforcement or police actions at Gjusta in order to inform the hearing in January, Donovan said.

“At the end of the day, this commission is the trier of fact. We decide what’s relevant and what’s not.  We can’t do that unless we see all of the information,” he said.

Ilana Marosi, leader of Concerned Neighbors of 320 Sunset, said her group was initially against a continuance but generally agrees with Keane’s assessment and welcomes a wider probe into Camaj’s businesses.