Liquor license is the wrong ingredient for Venice, police say


By Gary Walker

When comedian turned Hollywood A-lister Zach Galifianakis shows up to speak at a city planning hearing, you know things have gotten serious.

“The Hangover” star and LAPD Pacific Division Capt. Brian Johnson have joined a  growing chorus of voices opposing a liquor license for Gjusta, the 320 Sunset Ave. bakery and sandwich shop opened last month by the proprietor of Abbot Kinney Boulevard’s Gjelina restaurant.

Owner Fran Camaj is seeking to extend Gjusta’s service into evening hours by obtaining a liquor license and building a 65-seat, 579-square-foot dining patio behind the 5,000-square-foot restaurant, a former office building.

At a Nov. 13 hearing, Johnson and Pacific Division Vice Unit Sgt. Robin Richards told West Los Angeles Zoning Administrator Maya Zaitzevsky that police are concerned about the already high density of alcohol-related businesses in Venice as well as the staunch opposition to the project by many of its neighbors.

“We constantly try to create a balance working with the community and businesses. Emotions are very high and tensions are very high about this bakery in the community. Maybe in six months we can revisit it, but as of now we are opposing the liquor license,” Richards said.

More than 40 people attended the meeting. Speakers expressed concern about the patio’s close proximity to homes and apartments, some just across a narrow alley, and increased traffic and density in an otherwise low-key neighborhood.

Camaj said he hoped positive nighttime activity at the restaurant would inject life into a longstanding “dead zone” of Venice with few retail options and a large homeless presence.

“Since we’ve opened I’ve seen babies in strollers on the 200 block of Sunset for the first time ever. If we can produce an interesting enough product in terms of food and atmosphere, people will frequent the area at night and that kind of activation can only help.”

Zaitzevsky, who is expected to issue a written ruling, appeared to be most interested in complaints about potential traffic problems raised at the hearing, noting that Camaj had not initiated a traffic study. Camaj said he is considering whether to pursue such a study.

“I’m taking the case under advisement, but at this point I have no ability to approve the patio portion. Given that there is opposition to the patio, it might be your best option to just eliminate it and add interior seats,” Zaitzevsky told Camaj.

Currently about 90% of Gjusta’s footprint is dedicated to food preparation, according to Camaj.

Many who spoke during the meeting complained of customers eating on milk crates in Gjusta’s parking lot. Carmine Gamgemi, a chiropractor whose office is next door to Gjusta, complained that patients now struggle to find parking and that his entrance is frequently blocked by bakery patrons eating on the steps of his office.

“I need access to my office and so do my patients,” he said.

Galifianakis, a Venice resident, instead voiced concerns related to the gentrification of Venice. He faulted Gjelina and now Gjusta as detached players in an economic and cultural shift that’s robbing the community of the unique character that made it special.

“I’m against this project. Commerce always follows art; it always has and always will. I think the problem with this business is in part its lack of reaching out to the community. I saw them do this at Gjelina, where it’s this, ‘Here we are, we’re cool, we don’t care about the neighborhood,’” Galifianakis said. “It’s the soul-wrenching velvet-roping of Venice Beach and we’re here to say enough is enough.”

Camaj said that no diner — celebrities included — gets any special treatment at his restaurants and attributed their success to local support.

“We’re Venice born and bred. I’ve lived in Oakwood since 1996. My managing partner has lived in Venice 35 years. We connected with our chef, Travis Lett, an artist in his own right, who lives in Venice. And the amount of Venice residents we employ … We want to employ 100 people [at Gjusta],” Camaj said.

Sarah Blanch of the Westside Impact Project, an organization that has conducted extensive research on the proliferation of alcohol-selling businesses, said during the hearing that Venice already has 33 per square mile — among the highest density in the county.

“The research shows that time and again, the more bars there are in an area, the higher there is a range of problems from drinking and driving to public nuisance issues,” said Blanch, a Venice resident.

Johnson echoed Blanch’s remarks.

“Based on the density study by the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control and the saturation of ABC licenses, it’s my position that there not be any more licenses. I’m not open to reevaluate my position on that,” he said.

EditorJoe Piasecki contributed to this story.