Community leaders want to let the restaurant take over a blighted lot, but a ban on drive-thrus has the city saying no

By Gary Walker
Westchester’s neighborhood council has been taking complaints for years about a boarded-up former Grinder restaurant on Sepulveda Boulevard near Manchester Avenue, which until recently was occupied by a group of homeless men.

So when Chick-Fil-A came calling with an interest in taking over the site, it looked like a win-win.

Instead, a longstanding ban on drive-thru restaurants in downtown Westchester has Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin opposed to the plan and butting heads with a neighborhood council wanting to make an exception to the rule.

The stalemate between Bonin and supporters of the fast-food chain has property owner
Perry Mann also considering leasing the lot to an airport valet parking service. Sam’s Airport Parking used the space as a parking lot for several months last year.

“I think [Chick-Fil-A representatives] are backing out. It looks like they’re not interested anymore,” Mann said. “Everybody seems to be in favor of Chick-Fil-A except Bonin, but I have to move forward.”

The Chick-Fil-A proposal —a 2,867-square-foot, 84-seat restaurant with drive-thru service — has staunch support from the LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce, the Neighborhood Council of Westchester – Playa and other community organizations. They favor making an exception to the Downtown Westchester Community Design Overlay, which prohibits drive-thru restaurants between Sepulveda and La Tijera boulevards.

Neighborhood Council of Westchester – Playa President Cyndi Hench said the former Grinder site has become a blighted eyesore and thus far the fast-food restaurant is the best option on the table.

“The reality is that a drive-thru at that location is not a horrible idea. The community supports it, and we think the city should make an exemption for Chick-Fil-A,” she said.

Bonin said he remains adamantly opposed to changing the zoning code for Chick-Fil-A out of deference to the team that created the zoning plan.

“The folks who worked on this community plan put in a lot of sweat and a lot of time on it and that should be respected,” he said. “I’m really strict about changing zoning codes without a very clear and compelling reason to do so.”

Westchester resident John Ruhlen, who helped craft the Downtown Westchester Community Design Overlay when he was member of the Westchester Business Improvement District, said he’d be OK with an exemption because Chick-Fil-A is offering to have the drive-thru area behind a covered patio that will limit its visibility.

“If you were driving down Sepulveda, you wouldn’t know that it’s a drive-thru,” he said.

In exchange for development rights, Chick-Fil-A has offered to hire between 40 and 60 local residents and implement a package of community benefits that includes the replacement of five sidewalk-busting ficus trees on Sepulveda, funding for three public trash receptacles, transit passes for employees who do not drive to work, $3 million in landscaping and lighting improvements, an offer to fund programs at the Westchester Senior Center and the Westchester YMCA, and financial contributions to an area homeless organization and toward a new community design plan for Sepulveda.

Chick-Fil-A representatives did not return calls.

While there is overwhelming support for the project among Westchester neighborhood leaders, some of their constituents feel that there could be a better use for the site.

The Westchester Democratic Club sent Bonin’s office a letter opposing the restaurant, citing potential traffic and congestion problems at Manchester and Sepulveda, due in part to the Chick-Fil-A’s plan to have traffic enter the restaurant and drive-thru on Manchester.

Vincent Bertolini, an architect and a long-time Kentwood homeowner, says creating more traffic at that location could exacerbate congestion at an intersection that is one of Westchester’s busiest and is seen as a gateway to Los Angeles International Airport.

“How many travelers will stop at Chick-Fil-A to grab a sandwich before they get on a plane?” Bertolini asked. “If Chick-Fil-A comes there, it would be like the nail in the coffin for urban planning.”

Kentwood resident Greg Fina said public officials have encouraged Los Angeles-based eateries to set up shop at LAX and should do the same for downtown Westchester instead of backing a national fast-food chain.

“I would love to see a new restaurant unique to Los Angeles that reflects the food culture energy that is going on right now,” Fina said.

Hench thinks certain parts of the Downtown Westchester Community Design Overlay should be re-examined.

“It has had a stifling effect on the small businesses in Westchester. Sepulveda is the driveway to LAX, and the reality is people often eat in their cars. To tell Chick-Fil-A they shouldn’t be there is not reflective of the context of the area,” she said.

Bonin said the Westchester Streetscape Association, Rep. Maxine Waters’ (D- Los Angeles) office and Los Angeles city officials have worked hard to make Sepulveda a more walkable street with less congestion, and he’s convinced a drive-thru eatery would have the opposite effect.

“This is about proper zoning,” Bonin said.

Meanwhile, Mann said he can’t afford to wait much longer for a decision about Chick-Fil-A.

“I have to make some decisions very soon,” he said.