In this verdant residential city, what little commercial development that exists is low key--office buildings along Silver Spur Road, and the Golden Cove shopping center, where the most visible tenants are a supermarket and two restaurants.
Then there is Western Avenue, which perches on the city’s hilly eastern boundary and for a two-mile stretch is unlike any other commercial street in the city.
A wide, high-traffic thoroughfare, it has a lineup of what seems to run the gamut of a commercial directory: fast-food outlets and other restaurants, neighborhood shopping centers, specialty stores, offices and professional buildings, a home-products center, a coin laundry and a nursery.
Until three years ago, when Rancho Palos Verdes annexed the predominantly residential Eastview area, Western Avenue was in unincorporated Los Angeles County. And according to several merchants, its business life--which started growing up in the 1950s--was, and still is, firmly intertwined with that of neighboring San Pedro in the city of Los Angeles.
Three years later, Western is still caught up in an identity crisis over its Los Angeles past and its Rancho Palos Verdes future.
Contending that the avenue lacks identity and is marred by some outdated business complexes and a clutter of signs, Rancho Palos Verdes city planners are shaping new standards for the avenue and are requiring that some signs--notably tall pole signs fronting the roadway--be removed within five years.
But many merchants are resisting, claiming that the city is trying to impose restrictive standards on an area that has its own ambiance and must compete with businesses in San Pedro, where the rules--particularly with regard to signs--are more permissive.
“We have a city on the other side of the hill that says we should sacrifice what is reality to satisfy a figment of their imagination,” said Nels M. Ostrem, who said he developed the first commercial property on the Western strip nearly 30 years ago.
“The issue is competition across the street. We want the same rights as people across the street,” said Barbara Kennard, who owns Western Avenue property and heads the Western Avenue committee of the San Pedro Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.
She said the city has “this thing about being in grand and glorious Rancho Palos Verdes,” but that in fact, most merchants feel they are a part of San Pedro.
But Robert Benard, Rancho Palos Verdes environmental services director, said the real issue is change: “They now face change, and no one enjoys that because it’s threatening. They are in Rancho Palos Verdes, and that does not have to be bad.”
Benard and other city officials said that through a series of specific plans for Western--one has been adopted, and a second is before the Planning Commission--the city is considering the special character and needs of the street.
“A specific plan opens dialogue at an early state of development of any of these sites,” said City Councilwoman Jacki Bacharach. “Property owners get to tell us their ideas about the site, and we are able to say what the city parameters are.”
City planners say that in some respects, specific plans will be more liberal than current restrictions on the avenue--for example, by permitting taller buildings by relating height to the elevation of the bluffs rising behind many Western properties. As long as no residential views are obstructed, buildings could be up to 50 feet high, as opposed to the current 30 feet, planners say.
Merchants are asking flatly that Rancho Palos Verdes adopt the city of Los Angeles’ standards for Western Avenue, which are more liberal in sign control, landscaping, and building setbacks. Rancho Palos Verdes officials say that is not being considered.
For example, the Rancho Palos Verdes development code calls for a 20-foot street setback for construction, while no specific setback is required by Los Angeles. Los Angeles permits four square feet of commercial sign for every linear foot of street frontage, while the Rancho Palos Verdes permits one square foot of sign for every foot of frontage.
Pole signs may be put up with consent of the Rancho Palos Verdes Planning Commission, but the city prohibits directory signs--listing major tenants in shopping centers--which are common at Western Avenue centers on the Los Angeles side.
Rancho Palos Verdes planners believe that Western needs an aesthetic shot in the arm.
“We want to upgrade it,” said Benard. “We want people to choose the Rancho Palos Verdes side by looks.” He said he is not talking about snob appeal, but about making Western “a visually appealing, functional district where people will say, ‘We like to shop here.’ ”
Greg Fuz, Rancho Palos Verdes associate planner, said Western Avenue has several problems. Signs are too cluttered and have no design pattern, he said. “They are small, large, lighted or not lighted.”
Pole Signs a Problem
One of the biggest problems is pole signs in the embankment beside the street, he said, adding that too much mechanical equipment is mounted on roofs, landscaping is sparse and traffic circulation in some older shopping centers is poor.
Planners emphasize that new standards will apply when there is a substantial change to the property--either a fire or other disaster, or redevelopment by a new owner.
“Our intent is looking at development, to recognize that it may be close to the end of its economic life,” said Benard. “The standards are so when the area recycles, it does so in a manner representative of Rancho Palos Verdes.”
He said the city’s goal is to promote “visitor-serving uses” on Western, including hotels, restaurants and bars.
Signs to Be Modified
But the major grievances merchants have are about signs, and some whose signs do not conform to Rancho Palos Verdes standards already are feeling the effects through letters from the city telling them they will have to modify their signs within five years.
One is Mary Maellaro, owner of Ship’s Belle Dress Shop, who said she has been informed that the name of her business has too many letters for the amount of space permitted. “I’ve been here 10 years, with no problem,” she said.
Joe Pizzocchieri, who opened his Portofino Italian delicatessen and restaurant after the Rancho Palos Verdes sign regulations were in effect, calls his experience a “horror story.”
He contends that the city told him he could put up a pole sign but that after he had one made, he was informed that it would have to be installed on the ground. The ground sign was vandalized twice by youngsters, he said. It has since been replaced by a temporary wooden sign, which is overshadowed by pole signs owned by older businesses at the shopping center where Portofino is located.
“Here I am out $4,500 for some stupid sign that is not even lighted at night,” he said.
Another business owner, Tim Stanton, took a gas station and transformed it into a nursery called the Ark Gardens. One of the things he put up was a 16-foot sign, topped by an Oriental-style roof of blue tile, but it eventually will have to come down under the city sign policy.
“You try to make an attractive entrance, and you get penalized for it,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
Merchants contend that they need larger signs, including directories that list major shopping center tenants, in order to attract people driving on Western.
‘Not a Walking Street’
“We can’t fight the San Pedro neighborhood with lower signs,” said Melissa Brown, owner of a beauty supply store. “This is not a walking street, this is a major street.”
But Councilwoman Bacharach disagrees. “Attractive signs will make them competitive, as long as they are visible and . . . say what they need to say,” she said. “They don’t need garish signs.”
Benard said one of the biggest problems on Western is the lack of communication between merchants and the city, and officials hope that a recent meeting may have bridged that gap. Merchants agreed to put together a specific proposal for development standards they want on the avenue, and the city agreed to look into problems of specific merchants--including Pizzocchieri. Another meeting will be held Sept. 16.
Bacharach said she believes the meeting opened a dialogue. “We have a road map now, something we can actually attack.”
But several merchants said they don’t believe the city knows the problems they face on Western.
Said diamond merchant Helen Nadaf: “Generally, merchants feel Rancho Palos Verdes is hurting them, not helping them.”