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Will Surfas stay or will it go?

Times Staff Writer

PEOPLE say one can’t fight City Hall, but Les Surfas is giving it a valiant try.

As local blog watchers are aware, Surfas and his eponymous restaurant supply and gourmet food store in Culver City have lately been the focus of frenzied online speculation now that Culver City has decided to use eminent domain to claim the land on which Surfas houses his warehouse and offices. The city wants a transit-oriented mixed-use development on the site in anticipation of the Expo Line, a light-rail line. Though the eminent domain claim did not include the building that houses the new store and cafe, Surfas has indicated that it could perhaps force him to relocate the business, possibly to Orange County.

“News o’ the Day: Surfas to Close?” shouted the popular blog Eating L.A. last week, sending foodies into a panic. The city’s redevelopment agency had on Aug. 7 voted to pay Surfas $5.6 million for three properties on National and Washington boulevards. They sit just across National from the 18,000-square-foot store, which is hugely popular with restaurateurs, serious home cooks and personal chefs.

Surfas has protested vociferously, telling the city that the properties are worth closer to $7 million. But price isn’t his main beef, Surfas says. The problem is that he needs his warehouse and offices close by so that he can efficiently stock his store and cafe. Unless he can find another property in the immediate vicinity -- and so far, he says, nothing looks promising -- he’ll be forced to move.

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“They’ve got to understand my business is one big store that happens to have a street down the middle,” Surfas says. If a restaurateur orders 12 cases of glassware, he adds, she’s not going to tolerate waiting while a salesperson fetches them at a warehouse a mile away.

City officials say they’ve been pursuing Surfas’ three properties, which they describe as “blighted,” for more than two years as part of a broader effort to redevelop an area known as the triangle. Preliminary plans call for Urban Partners, a private developer, to build a mixed-use project on the Surfas lots that might include retail and live-work units.

Culver City is envisioning lots of transit-oriented development in coming years. The 8.6-mile light-rail Expo Line would begin at the existing 7th Street Metro Rail station in downtown L.A. and follow a former freight route through southwestern Los Angeles before heading west to Culver City. A temporary Culver City rail station is planned for a site just southeast of the Surfas store.

For foodies, the prospect of losing a store that sells stoves, pots and pans as well as hard-to-find products such as harissa, Tarbais beans and smoked sturgeon is cause for heartburn.

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“I do a lot of chef-ing, and Surfas is my favorite place to go,” said Neil Zevnik, a personal chef whose clients include Dodgers owner Frank McCourt. “It’s like a candy shop for grown-ups who cook.” On his last visit to the store, Zevnik said, he spent $1,000 for a new juicer and Italian chestnut honey (“my clients flip for it”), among other items.

Restaurateurs and home cooks appreciate Surfas’ central location, just off the 10 Freeway.

City officials say they’re Surfas fans too. “We do want to keep Surfas in town,” says Kellee Fritzal, economic development administrator. “He has been improving our ability to have high-quality restaurants.” She notes that Surfas’ kitchen supply business installed equipment at Ford’s Filling Station, Ben Ford’s casual gastro-pub on Culver Boulevard.

Todd Tipton, redevelopment administrator, said he remains confident that the city will be able to find a replacement property that suits Surfas’ needs. Surfas’ first pick would be a vacant building next to his store’s parking lot. City officials say they plan to meet with the building’s owner, Pacific Investment Associates, headed by William Feldman.

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Surfas freely acknowledges that he is angry that the city declined to let him participate in the redevelopment of his own property. He also said the city is rushing to oust him from the land because it is afraid of Proposition 90, an initiative on the November ballot that would bar state and local governments from condemning private property to promote other private projects or uses.

Because Surfas has rejected the city’s offer, the case will next go before a judge. Assuming the city prevails, Surfas says he suspects his buildings would get knocked down, and the property would sit empty for years while the city figures out what to do. He says he wishes the city would let him continue to use his warehouse and offices until then.

The city has filed legal documents seeking to take possession of the parcels in 90 days. But Fritzal says the city is committed to continuing negotiations and looking for alternative sites.

The timing is especially awkward, given that Surfas opened his more expansive location in November. He also has a grand plan to develop a much larger “culinary district,” which he says he envisions as “almost like a Fred Segal of Santa Monica complex.” But that idea is now on the back burner because Surfas says he is reluctant to invest further in his Culver City location until the warehouse is resolved.

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Meanwhile, he says he has hired a company to scout locations in Los Angeles, Orange County and Culver City, “anywhere that makes sense.” But he’d rather keep his family business, launched in 1937, right where it is.


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