Despite Changes, Village Clings to Tradition : A New Day in Larchmont

Times Staff Writer

Larchmont Village has seemed nearly immune to change since it was founded in the 1920s. While Los Angeles has gone Big City, Larchmont has remained Small Town.

But today, there are signs that economic pressures are bringing changes to Larchmont.

The city of Los Angeles may step in to protect the area, and is considering a moratorium that would limit development in part of Larchmont to two stories.

Meanwhile, merchants are vying for locations in this affluent area near the Wilshire Country Club, and developers are bidding against each other to acquire property on the village's tree-lined main street, Larchmont Boulevard.

The boulevard is just six blocks long, extending from Melrose Avenue to 3rd Street, midway between La Brea and Western avenues.

Valuable parcels on Larchmont are changing hands and new owners are raising store rents to cover their costs, forcing out long-time businesses, including a shoe repair shop and a dry cleaning service.

Merchants say that in the past two or three years, rents have doubled or tripled, to as much as $2 a square foot.

The latest casualty is the Safeway market, which will close its doors in June after 45 years in Larchmont.

According to company spokesman Jim Gaube, Safeway offered to buy the store site for "the highest price we could afford." But bank trustees who are responsible for the property refused Safeway's offer in favor of a bid twice as high, he said.

"It's the old scenario of owners seeking the highest and best use (the most profitable) for a property, and that's not a supermarket," he said. "We are saddened to leave, but we stretched the economics as much as we could."

Land values in Los Angeles are so high that it is difficult for supermarkets to acquire the space they need at a price they can afford, given their small profit margins, he said.

News of Safeway's leaving has buzzed through the close-knit Larchmont community and some merchants fear that the closure will lead to a drop in business.

But real estate sources say that the market will be replaced with several high-quality retail shops that they expect to generate more business rather than less.

According to the owner-developer, Ronald A. Simms, the new project will be "totally consistent" with the village atmosphere of Larchmont.

Merchants' and residents' fears that the property will be turned into a convenience shopping center with fast-food shops and a mini-market are unfounded, he said.

The new retail complex will be a one-story brick complex with quality stores, he said.

Tenants will be selected to complement the village's business community and will be limited to kinds of stores and services not currently available in Larchmont, said Doug Jensen of Coldwell Banker.

The new tenants will be chosen "to meet the needs of Larchmont without competing with existing tenants," he said. "Those tenants have been there for years and years and we respect that."

Larchmont businesses cater to the carriage trade from Hancock Park, Windsor Square and Fremont Place. These elegant old neighborhoods supply a steady stream of well-heeled customers who are Larchmont's mainstay.

The self-proclaimed "village," actually a part of the city of Los Angeles, had its start in 1920 when the city's trolley system was extended to the Hollywood Mineral Hot Springs at Larchmont and Melrose, according to the Windsor Square-Hancock Park Historical Society.

Businessman Julius LaBonte saw the promise of the area and began commercial development of Larchmont in 1921, according to a history compiled by the society.

Floodlights installed on power poles down the middle of Larchmont Boulevard made the area "one of the best illuminated sections of the city," according to a 1921 newspaper advertisement luring visitors from downtown Los Angeles to this remote outpost of civilization.

Larchmont was the backdrop for early Hollywood films in which the Three Stooges careened down the boulevard in their Model A's, weaving precariously among the power poles, the historical society reported.

The Model A's are gone, but two original businesses remain on Larchmont: Dippell Realty Co., established in 1923 by Albert Dippell and now owned by his son, Cutler Dippell, and Poinsettia Cleaners, also established in 1923.

Although nearby Melrose Avenue has gone trendy, appealing to the Yuppie generation, Larchmont has remained steadfastly traditional, retaining a feeling of small-town America.

Larchmont is off the beaten track, far enough from Los Angeles' freeways and major thoroughfares to be pretty much a neighborhood secret.

"This is the closest thing to a small-town atmosphere you will find in the city of Los Angeles," said Bob Landis, head of the 150-member Larchmont Boulevard Assn. He owns and operates the Landis Department Store, an old-fashioned general store that his father founded in 1933.

"There is nothing quite like this in Los Angeles," agreed J. Dale Williamson, vice president and resident manager of the Miracle Mile office of Coldwell Banker Commercial Real Estate Services.

"It has the ambiance of an East Coast village. The merchants all know each other, and they know their customers. This is very unusual in Los Angeles."

Small Stores

Along the boulevard are small stores that offer a variety of goods and services. Among them are a barber shop, beauty salons, banks, jewelers, florists, dry cleaners, stationery and gift stores, a supermarket and smaller food stores, restaurants (one with a soda fountain) and the village's own monthly newspaper, the Larchmont Chronicle.

A small Post Office branch is located in the Landis Department Store. Residents say that Landis has been known to open up the branch after hours and sell a few stamps to help someone out.

Merchants know the neighborhood families, including the children, said Lucy McBain, who was raised in the area and is Coldwell Banker's top residential real estate saleswoman nationwide (all from homes in the Larchmont neighborhood, she said). Youngsters have an incentive to be on their best behavior after school because they know the storekeepers know their parents, McBain said.

Residents and merchants, city officials and real estate professionals prize Larchmont as an old-fashioned neighborhood in the heart of Los Angeles.

Because of emerging pressures for more development, Councilman John Ferraro has proposed a moratorium limiting development on Larchmont between Beverly Boulevard and 3rd Street to two stories.

The moratorium has been introduced in the City Council and has been sent to its Planning and Environment Committee for review, said field deputy Tom LaBonge.

The zoning proposed is the city's most restrictive zoning, designed to "maintain a low-profile, neighborhood feel," according to John Perica of the Planning Department.

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