The city's $100-million plan to expand the Buenaventura Mall may threaten the area's oldest and one of its most beloved restaurants.
In a petition effort called "Save the Bell," Mission Bell Cafe owner Charlie Gartman has gathered 1,000 signatures from loyal customers protesting a city plan to close Dunning Street at Main Street, the corner where the cafe has thrived since 1936.
Lush landscaping is planned for the end of Dunning Street, which would become a cul-de-sac.
That means Mission Bell customers would have to take a circuitous route--turning north on Lang Street to Ocean Avenue--to get to Dunning so they could park. The city's plan also calls for installing a 3-foot wall around the cul-de-sac, which Gartman said would obscure the available on-street parking along Dunning Street.
"My regular customers will drive through hell to get there," Gartman said Tuesday. "My concerns rest with the tourists who are driving along Main Street and won't know how to get to Dunning."
To make matters worse for Gartman, as drivers along Main Street round the corner to Lang, they would find a rival cafe, Main Street Restaurant, with a similar menu.
Mayor Jim Friedman said Gartman is worrying needlessly.
"He's making it sound like, 'Big city beats up on little guy,' and that's absolutely not what's happening here," Friedman said. "He's going to be next door to what will be the largest mall in the county. And 70 feet away from his front door will be 3,000 parking spaces at the mall."
Gartman says the issue is not so simple.
"It's like a George Carlin routine," he said. "The city thinks I should be lucky to be next to the county's biggest mall. But customers have to take three turns through a residential area to get to the parking; there's going to be a wall around the parking to make sure you won't see it from the street. And to top it off, there's going to be a similar restaurant on the way to the parking."
Gartman said some city officials were unaware that Macerich Buenaventura Limited Partnership, which owns the mall, will not allow Mission Bell Cafe customers to park in the roughly 3,000 stalls planned for the expanded mall's parking lot.
"No, he's not allowed to park on our property," said Neil Jurgens, a development manager at Macerich. "They're for our paid tenants. . . . If there is a parking problem at Sears or the food court, we might be forced to take action."
Councilman Sandy Smith, emphasizing that "all of us love the Mission Bell," pointed out that the city is designating a new patio area for the restaurant.
"I'll say this as a restaurant owner: He's sitting on a gold mine," said Smith, who owns the Rosarito Beach Cafe on East Main Street. "Damn, the city is building him a patio and parking will be available."
But Gartman said the patio space is large enough for one table, although city officials dispute the amount of space available.
Neighbors who live along Dunning Street wondered why Gartman waited so long to raise concerns. In the past four years alone, the city has conducted about 25 meetings on the mall expansion.
"We've had over 100 neighborhood meetings on this," said Jean Ringo, who has owned a home on Dunning since 1977. "Where has he been?"
Gartman said his mother, Janice, had attended the meetings for years. When she died two years ago, the city had proposed building a 10-stall parking lot in front of the cafe to complement the 17 spaces currently along Dunning. He thought that was still the case until April, when the property owners informed him the plans had changed.
"At every meeting since Janice died, I have expressed concern about the parking for the cafe," said Jim Boatman, who co-owns the adjacent Mission Bell Motel and the land that the cafe sits on. "But what can you do if they are set in their ways? They have done everything in the world to please the neighbors and nothing to please the cafe or the hotel."
Steve Chase, Ventura's deputy city manager and the city's point man on the mall expansion, said that was not the case. In addition to the patio, the city has offered to post signs indicating where patrons can park.
Still, Gartman said he is not satisfied.
"They're nice guys at the city," Gartman said. "They're not trying to be jerks. But I'm really getting the short end of the stick."