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Restaurant in a Stew Over Loss of Parking Lot

Times Staff Writer

Susan Moore has everything a Los Feliz restaurant owner dreams of: a wall lined with autographed celebrity photographs, a location on a busy, hip street and a parking lot in back with room for as many as three dozen cars.

The only thing missing is an entryway into the parking lot behind her Hollywood Hills Restaurant.

Moore’s next-door neighbor -- angry that diners have “trespassed” on his property to get into the parking lot -- has built a 6-foot concrete-block wall next to his alley-like driveway that completely seals off her lot to cars. The parking blockade is puzzling to diners, who now have to hunt for scarce metered street spaces outside the restaurant at 1745 N. Vermont Ave. It is delivering a pounding to Moore and her workers.

Eight of them were laid off after weekday breakfast and lunch service was eliminated because there is no place for customers to park on workdays. At night and on weekends, parking is available for a fee at a nearby bank.

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The walling off of the parking lot forces Moore’s employees to roll trash containers through the dining room and out the front door. Food supplies for the kitchen have to be carted in the same way.

Moore, who moved her restaurant to Vermont Avenue in mid-2001 after operating it for seven years as a Franklin Avenue coffee shop, said her landlord had paid next-door property owner Rocco Spinoso $1,000 a month for the use of his driveway as access to the restaurant parking lot. But last March, Spinoso canceled the access-use agreement, claiming its provisions had been violated by restaurant customers. And when diners allegedly continued using his driveway, he filed a trespassing lawsuit against Moore and her landlord.

When the dispute went to court last month, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that Spinoso had been within his rights to shut off the access. “The agreement went back to the 1950s” and was continued when the Spinosos acquired their property in the mid-1980s, said Gregg Martin, a lawyer for the Spinosos.

Moore said she had tried without success to prove that Spinoso’s driveway was, in effect, a public alleyway.

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Land-use records “back to the time of Pio Pico in the 1880s” were researched to see if it had ever been designated as such, she said. But it hadn’t -- and a real alley that may have at one time run behind the restaurant apparently was abandoned and turned into part of a school playground decades ago, she said.

Spinoso could not be reached for comment. His wife, Carmela, declined to discuss the dispute in detail.

But in court papers they alleged that Moore and her landlord, Jorge Aguilar, had violated the driveway-use agreement. The revocable contract stated that those using the driveway to reach the restaurant parking lot could not block it by stopping to unload passengers or use it for “delivery of vehicles to persons using valet-type services.”

According to the lawsuit, the Spinosos notified Moore and Aguilar last March that permission to use the driveway would be terminated on May 1, 2003. But during the month of May the restaurant continued using the driveway, allowing customers to trespass on the Spinosos’ property, the couple asserted.

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The Spinosos sued for $25,000. In a judgment issued Jan. 21, Aguilar and Moore were prohibited from using the driveway in the future and ordered to pay $6,000 to the couple.

In a brief interview, Carmela Spinoso said that Moore “did not respect the licensed agreement” governing use of the driveway.

“I don’t want to go into detail. It’s between us and the neighbors,” she said. “Let her say what she wants. She should not have violated the rules and regulations.”

Moore said she had erected a chain-link fence and a gate between the restaurant parking lot and Spinoso’s driveway in hopes of mollifying the couple.

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Moore said her only hope of reopening the 5,000-square-foot lot seems to be to construct a portico-style vehicle passageway through her restaurant.

Dining room space would be sacrificed, as would the restaurant’s celebrity wall, which displays about 100 framed photos of actors and other entertainers who have eaten there. For now, though, Moore said she couldn’t afford the estimated $100,000 that such a project would cost.

“It’s a Catch-22: Because business is off, we don’t have any extra money,” she said. “But we’re not closing. We’re not going to be intimidated.”

But someday, she dreams, her Hollywood Hills Restaurant will be a drive-through.

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