Two Los Angeles obsessions — dieting and parking — have collided with the fury of rutting mule deer in West Hollywood, according to Deborah Netburn of the Los Angeles Times.
Netburn’s story describes what happens when Hyekyung Hwang, a USC business school grad, bought a little storefront on Huntley Drive. She wanted it to be an English tea room with outdoor seating, and ran up against the local property owners’ group. Of course, under the City of West Hollywood’s rules (which are typical for Southern California cities), the neighbors had the right to tell her she couldn’t offer outdoor seating. Then she thought, what about serving something elegant like sherry? Using the liquor license laws, again the neighbors slapped her down.
This was, by the way, a store that previously had been a tattoo parlor and then a medical marijuana outlet. So it’s worth pondering what these homeowners thought would be so destructive of neighborhood values if instead of pot Hwang sold sherry. What’s probably the case is that the medical marijuana dealership and tattoo parlor operated under the regulatory radar, but Hwang needed a permit. In local politics, the need for a permit brings out the trolls under the bridge who demand payment to let you cross.
So what other kind of business could an entreprenuer slide into this slot without incurring the trolls’ wrath? Hwang settled on selling frozen yogurt made with her own recipe. Low-fat, but without artificial flavorings, served with fresh fruit on top. She called it Pinkberry.
By February 2005, one month after it opened, Pinkberry was already turning a profit. The lines started that summer. By that August, it was discovered by Daily Candy. By spring, Los Angeles had fallen hopelessly in love. The little store on Huntley where the tattoo parlor used to be now serves about 1,300 to 1,600 customers a day.
This, of course, was not exactly what the neighbors thought would happen. Hwang said when she first opened the store the neighbors were friendly and welcoming. “They were like, ‘Good luck, Asian lady’ and buy a yogurt,” she said. Now they are plagued with increasing traffic on their once sleepy street of million-dollar bungalows and people double parking “just for a minute” to run in for a quick Pinkberry (though with the long lines, there is no such thing as a quick Pinkberry any more).
For neighbors, there is Pinkberry trash on their lawns, and sometimes Pinkberry customers too. The angriest of the neighbors stand outside at night to remind yogurt lovers that the street is all permit parking, and they will be ticketed if they park illegally. But even that doesn’t always work.
“The bottom line is the customers that go to Pinkberry don’t mind paying $68 for a tub of yogurt,” said Huntley Avenue resident Oliver Wilson, handily adding the price of a parking ticket to the $7.45 cost of a large yogurt. “It’s all Escalades and Mercedes and BMWs. You tell them, ‘Don’t park here,’ and they do. They can afford it.”
I love it!
“Permit parking.” If you’re not a well-off homeowner in certain parts of Los Angeles, West Hollywood, Santa Monica and other desireable locales near attractive commercial neighborhoods, this concept might be alien to you. Beginning about 20 years ago, such homeowners decided it wasn’t enough that they had a house with a driveway and a garage, and they could walk to stores, parks, pubs and other urban play areas. They wanted to own their street, or at least all its parking spaces. However, they didn’t want to have to pay for this additional valuable property. So someone came up with the brilliant idea of getting the city to give it to them, like a present.
So, if you own a house on Huntley Drive, or on one of the hundreds of streets like it, you get to park in front of your house, but no one else can, even though we’re all taxpayers, and we all paid for the street, the curb, the park strip and so on.
Huntley Drive runs right into busy Santa Monica Boulevard, which was a commercial street long ago. The little bit of Huntley that abuts the boulevard was also zoned for commercial. The homeowners weren’t blindfolded when they purchased their homes. In fact, proximity to Santa Monica Boulevard is, for some, an added attraction. Nonetheless, they feel they are entitled — entitled! — to enjoy the amenities of a suburban neighborhood ambience in which outsiders are unwelcome.
I worked in LA City Hall when the permit parking trend first took hold. I couldn’t believe such a thing was legal. I found it even harder to believe that a city political culture supposedly dedicated to equality thought the better-off residents who could afford to buy homes in pricey neighborhoods were deserving of a gift of public property that all taxpayers had paid to build and continue to pay to maintain.
But these homeowner groups were unbelievable. They depicted daily life in their cozy little neighborhoods as if everyone who parked there threw a week’s worth of garbage on their front lawn and then urinated on it. Every time a new permit parking zone was approved, the debate would be the same. The local councilmember would agree with these organized homeowners that it was a “crisis,” an “emergency,” from which only permit parking would save them.
I figured, if these people want to buy the parking rights in front of their home, fine. The city could use the revenue. Charge them market rates — in fact, have an auction, with the proceeds to fund additional police, more teachers, health clinics, the kinds of things government is supposed to do. But — it wasn’t my department. And I’m sure if I’d pushed this idea in City Hall, I would have been instructed, not so patiently, on who really runs the city. The 10-20 percent of those who vote in municipal elections are disproportionately property owners. So you do what they want, or you find yourself unelected.
All bad policies have a way of blowing up in someone’s face eventually. Well, the brilliant Hyekyung Hwang and her “frozen heroin juice” (as one fan calls it) did the deed. She created a yummy, low-fat product that wealthy people from another part of the Los Angeles area were willing to pay the price of a parking ticket to buy. Why can they afford to pay $68 for a yogurt, night after night? Oh, lots of reasons I suppose, but one of them must be that their homes have also risen in value and low-interest home equity loans can help pay their bills–including their parking tickets. Their homes probably are really nice, lots of amenities, big shady trees — and permit parking to keep the riff-raff away.
Meanwhile, Ms. Hwang, on behalf of the South Bay, I want to welcome you here with open arms whenever you’re ready to franchise your concoction. Permit parking is relatively rare, and there are lots of storefronts on PCH with ample parking out front. And we are just as obsessed about our waistlines down here as anyone in West LA.