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Untimely Signs : ‘50s Diner Ordered to Come Back to the Future, Remove Stylish Window Decals

Times Staff Writer

Just like the 1950s-era diners it tries to emulate, the Busy Bee Cafe in downtown Ventura sports decals on its front window advertising, “Malts, Burgers, Shakes, Sodas, Chili, Sundaes.”

And like so many diners of that period did, the Busy Bee boasts, in six-inch block letters painted so that snow appears to have fallen atop them, that the cafe is “Air Conditioned.”

But in the 1950s, Ventura had no Architectural Review Board and no ordinance regulating commercial signs.

These days, the city takes a dim view of ersatz “American Graffiti” decor along historic Main Street. Much to the chagrin of owner Ed Warren, who opened the popular restaurant 1 1/2 years ago, officials have ordered the signs removed as too large and too garish.

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“If this were on any old street in any old town, it wouldn’t be that bad,” said David Sargent, one of three architects on the city’s seven-member Architectural Review Board. “But, as it is, it’s the only building on that particular street with those particular graphics and it sticks out.”

Warren, who has collected about 300 signatures from customers in preparation for his appeal at a March 27 meeting of the board, called the order arbitrary and confusing.

“We think the signs blend in nicely,” he said. “They contribute to the feel and the ambiance of the place. . . . I don’t understand exactly what they’re trying to tell me.”

Beyond the question of whether the malt signs will stay, however, the dispute strikes an increasingly familiar refrain in Ventura, where there are few aesthetic guidelines to help developers meet the constant cries to preserve small-town charm.

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Although such design standards are to be discussed when the City Council reviews Ventura’s general plan later this year, officials in the meantime often make subjective judgments about a project’s style, regardless of its other merits.

Project Turned Down

Just two weeks ago, for instance, the council rejected an upscale three-unit condominium project that, even though it met virtually all city zoning standards, was considered too tall and bulky to stand next to a quaint, European-style inn on the same downtown street.

“It can be an arbitrary decision,” said Fred Goodrich, an associate city planner who assists the Architectural Review Board. “It just isn’t written in the book, what is good design.”

Warren, who owned the cafe, then called Warren’s, from 1963 to 1978, thought that he had found a good design when he bought back his restaurant in 1987 and adopted the 1950s-era style that was sweeping trendy diners in Los Angeles.

But in a routine inspection of the Busy Bee in May, a city code enforcement officer found that Warren did not have the needed permits for any of the signs on the building facade.

Warren applied for and the Architectural Review Board approved a neon rendition of the cafe’s namesake that hangs above the storefront. But the funky soda shop decals had to go, board members said.

A city code limits the total area of signs on commercial buildings to one square foot for every foot of storefront, which, for the Busy Bee, translated into 26 square feet of signs. Of that, however, only 20% can be used for product advertisement, the law says. And the decals along the bottom of Warren’s window occupy 19 square feet, or about four times as much window as they should have.

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Appeal Denied

Warren went to the Architectural Review Board in October asking for an exemption, but was told that the signs were just “too much” for his storefront and the neighborhood, Goodrich said.

On a drive down Main Street, one can find numerous signs more obtrusive than Warren’s decals, including the likeness of a large Arabian genie hoisting the name of a carpet store above his head, a multicolored hot-air balloon atop a furniture store announcing a going-out-of-business sale, and even a big, ragged banner advertising a sale on color film printing at a camera store next door to the Busy Bee.

Officials, however, explain that they do not have the manpower to enforce sign standards at every business in the city. Moreover, they say, some of the gaudiest signs were in place before Ventura adopted its sign ordinance in 1971. And, they add, temporary banners fall into a special category, which permits them to fly for 90 days a year as long as they’re not up for more than 30 consecutive days.

“There are ugly signs all over the city,” Sargent said. “As we have the time and personnel to deal with them, we do. . . . The Busy Bee is better looking than a lot of storefronts on Main Street and just not as good as some others.”


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