Esther Kang

Manhattan Beach City Council continues pause on downtown development

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The Manhattan Beach City Council has imposed a one-year moratorium prohibiting any conversion of existing uses in businesses as the city grapples with establishing a long-term vision for its downtown commercial district.

Under the interim zoning ordinance, downtown retailers, restaurants, offices and banks may not convert to another type of business until next July when the moratorium expires. When it does, the council has the option to extend it for another year.

The moratorium addresses the growing concerns among residents and independent business owners that the town’s quaint downtown is transforming into what one community member described as “Generica.” Manhattan Beach’s rising profile is luring global brands into its downtown area, resulting in higher rents that have edged out a long list of beloved independent retailers in favor of corporate offices, restaurants and retailers. 

“There is a palpable fear among small business owners downtown based on justified reasons,” Councilman David Lesser said. “ … This is a tool for calling a timeout so that we can conduct a good planning process.”

The unanimous vote, which came at the close of a long, often impassioned public hearing Tuesday night, extends a 45-day moratorium currently in place until next July and is intended to maintain the status quo and lay the groundwork for a visioning and planning process that will begin this fall.

On Oct. 4, the council will select a consultant to undertake either a general design plan or a specific downtown plan, which will update the city’s 1996 downtown plan.

Despite strong opposition from Lesser, who advised against “doing it on the fly,” the council also gave the staff direction to ascertain whether the council can amend the ordinance to include the prohibition of formula chain stores during the emergency period. The ordinance currently does not address these businesses but forbids any change of use, such as retail to restaurant, restaurant to office and office to retail.

Nearly 30 people — predominantly residents and members of the downtown business community — spoke before the council Tuesday. Many urged the council to protect downtown’s quaint, hometown vibe that brought them to Manhattan Beach in the first place.

“I hate the word protection … but the downtown needs some help right now,” said restaurateur Michael Zislis, who owns Shade Hotel and four restaurants in town. He said he receives emails daily from corporate suitors inquiring when his restaurants’ leases will be up. His restaurants are doing fine, he said, but he’s particularly concerned for the retailers who he says brings business to his restaurants. “They need some well thought-out planning.”

Rita Goldstan, a 22-year resident, urged the council to make the moratorium permanent. The value of a certain use should not be determined solely by an economic yardstick, she said, but also by how it contributes to the community. For example, in her many years of recruiting donors for the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation’s annual wine auction, locally-owned merchants have been “very forthcoming and generous,” she said. The corporate businesses, on the other hand, have not come through, she said.

“I get responses like ‘I have to talk to corporate and get back to you,’” Goldstan said. “Six years later I’m still waiting.”

Tony Choueke, who owns five commercial properties in downtown, was just one of two landlords to speak Tuesday. He said he had considered converting Shellback Tavern into another use 10 years ago but changed his mind when the community vocally opposed it.

“Property owners need to be brought into the discussion,” he said. “They’re not the evil people they’re made out to be. We want to cooperate.”

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