Editor’s note: this article has been updated with additional comments.
Several weeks ago, small business owners in Valley Village’s quaint historic shopping district received the following notice from the Los Angeles Department of Building & Safety: take down your vintage signs, or pay for permits to keep them up. The shop owners were hit with other code violations ranging from awnings deemed to be illegally attached to the building to a sign found to be 12 inches past the property line.
This is the first time the shop owners received word their signs were in violation of city code, says Idrea Lippman, owner of Lucky You Resale Boutique. The light-up sign on her own store’s roof has been there for 15 years, and the man who owns the mailbox store next door has had his sign up for 27 years. To comply with the city’s orders, the shop owners would need to remove their existing signs and awnings, pay for new permits, and re-install new signage that meet specific size dimensions.
The row of stores at Whitsett and Magnolia Boulevards might look familiar to some. The small, 1934-built strip mall was featured in an episode of the TV show, Parks & Recreation, because of its Main Street, Anytown U.S.A.-feel. In addition to Lippman’s used clothing store, the vintage shopping center is home to a children’s clothing shop, an all-in-one mailbox and photocopy center, a yarn shop, and a barber shop, among other businesses.
Janet Tashman, 72, and her husband Mark, 76, own the property. They’d purchased the shopping center 15 years ago and weren’t aware the signage needed permits. When she and all her tenants each received the letters in February, it was “stunning,” she says, and not in a good way.
Many of the shopping center ‘s tenants simply can’t afford to pay the hefty fines the city is seeking. Two of the businesses are already struggling to make ends meet, says Janet Tashman. Rather than put more pressure on her tenants, she says she and her husband decided to pay for the installation of new signs, which could cost them up to $40,000.
Records show an inspector – the same one who’d sent them the violation notice – visited Lippman’s shop in February of 2009. Back then, it was owned by someone else, but no violations were found. A week later, the inspector returned, citing banner signs that required permits. City records then show the business owner complied with the orders.
David Lara, communications officer for the Dept. of Building & Safety, says he believes no malice was intended when the shop owners originally installed their signs. And unfortunately, he says, the city may not have pursued the violations had they not received a complaint. Once a complaint is submitted, Lara says, the department has an obligation to follow up on the matter.
Lara’s aware that some may feel the department’s actions are a result of a city trying to fill its budget gaps.
“That’s totally incorrect,” he says. He considers his department very business-friendly, he says, and due to their limited resources, inspectors do not proactively seek businesses who may be in violation of city codes.
Councilmember Paul Krekorian of District 2, which encompasses Valley Village, was contacted by Lippman regarding the signage issue.
“We need to do everything we can to make it easier to do business in L.A., especially for small businesses,” Krekorian says in an email statement. “I’m fed up with hearing about established family-owned businesses being aggressively cited for technical violations of overly complicated regulations by a byzantine bureaucracy.”
Krekorian adds that no business owners should feel the need to hire lawyers or lobbyists just to put signs up, especially during hard economical times.
“While I can understand the need for regulations to prevent sign blight, there has to be a balance so these regulations don’t end up killing the very mom and pop shops that are the foundation of our economic recovery and that make each community unique, vibrant and interesting,” he says.
Lippman and Tashman are aware someone had complained about their signs. Unsurprisingly, Tashman said the inspector handling their case said he “could not divulge” on any further information on the individual who submitted the complaint. Lippman says she and the other shop owners wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the work of a developer with their eye on the property.
Since buying Lucky You from its previous owners over a year and a half ago, Lippman has barely made a profit. Though she’s the owner, she hasn’t gotten paid yet, but she loves what she does: providing a place where women can buy affordable clothes, or simply hang out and chat. Anything she doesn’t sell is donated to women’s shelters downtown.
Now, the mom-and-pop shops are fighting back. A demonstration will be held at noon Saturday, March 16 to protest the city’s demands that their vintage signs come down. The businesses have already received plenty of support from locals. After attending the Valley Village Neighborhood Council’s meeting in February, Lippman says everyone has been “completely supportive of the little shops on Magnolia.” People said the city’s move to fine business owners felt like “a shakedown,” and that something needed to be done to preserve the block’s small-town atmosphere.
So far, the Tashmans have already paid about $400 in code violation inspection fees. When the city inspector told them they’d have to comply with the signage order by March 30, Janet had her attorney send a letter to get an extension to the compliance date, and a department superior replied, stating it was “within his power” to abide by their request. Otherwise, she and her husband would have faced $1,925 in additional fines. And had Janet gone to the city office on her own, it would have cost $475 to get the extension.
“They’re scared,” says Lippman. “They’re ready to do what needs to be done,” even if they can barely afford it. At the same time, Lippman says she, the property owners, and the other tenants want to stand up for themselves.
“This is happening all over the country, and we’re just one spot on the map,” says Lippman. “Enough already.”
Though she’s not expecting 5,000 people to show up on Saturday, Lippman said it doesn’t matter whether there are 15 or 100 people.
Tashman says she applauds Lippman’s actions to stand up for herself and their small business community. She and her husband have opted to take the legal route in dealing with the violations, but Tashman says she would have preferred the city handled the situation in a more “civil” matter with a simple notice to take the signs down.
And in the grand scheme of things, the fines Lippman and her fellow business owners face may not be a big deal, but it can make a big difference. Maybe a teenager will find inspiration in their act of defiance, and “one person sees that there’s possibility to make a change,” Lippman tells me.
“This is about (David and) Goliath,” she says.
Supporters of small business owners in Valley Village and neighboring communities of Studio City and North Hollywood are encouraged to join the rally Saturday, March 16 at noon. Organizers will meet at the Rite-Aid parking lot at the northwest corner of Whitsett and Magnolia Boulevards.