Neighbors get fired up over frozen dessert shop
The driver of the Dodge pickup honked angrily at the double-parked Lexus SUV that blocked his way.
He yelled an obscenity, gunned the truck and swerved into the oncoming lane, only to have to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting two women who were jaywalking in front of him as they nibbled from cups of frozen dessert.
He honked and yelled again. One of the jaywalkers flipped him off as the pair ambled on to the sports car they had left sitting, illegally, beneath a no-parking sign.
It was business as usual the other day in the Yogurt Zone -- the corner of West Hollywood where culture, commerce and civility collide daily.
Pinkberry is a tiny yogurt shop near the corner of Huntley Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard. It sells a tangy, South Korean-style frozen dessert that has sparked a craze across Los Angeles, drawing as many as 3,000 customers a day to the hole-in-the-wall store.
As a business, Pinkberry is everything West Hollywood would like to be associated with: cutting-edge, trendy, even chic. But its popularity has some residents questioning whether their densely populated, parking-deprived town can sustain the crowds.
The Pinkberry frenzy reached a peak in the summer when it seemed that everyone around Southern California was driving in for a dish -- earning national media attention for the swarms of customers.
Six months later, the political battle over Pinkberry continues unabated, having become a dominant issue in West Hollywood and a symbol of the clash between commerce and quality of life.
Last month, residents appealed to the City Council to force Pinkberry to move. Officials declined but opened the door to the use of a mediator to help solve the problem.
The public hearing suggested that will not be easy, however. And it illustrated the chill that the frozen dessert shop controversy has brought to the city.
Problem is, Pinkberry does not have a parking lot. There is a shortage of metered parking places in the shopping district north of it. And there’s a total lack of public parking in the neighborhood of single-family homes immediately to its south.
The parking issue simmered for months before the summer’s hot weather caused crowds of yogurt lovers to swell. Lines of customers often snaked up the street and around the corner. Pinkberry fans waited up to 20 minutes to get into the 600-square-foot shop to order their $4.95 cups of plain or green-tea-flavored yogurt.
Tempers soared along with the temperature as neighboring merchants complained that Pinkberry customers’ cars illegally clogged their parking lots and blocked commercial loading zones.
Homeowners contended that yogurt seekers gobbled up curbside parking spots on narrow Huntley that are reserved through a permit system for residents. Homes’ driveways were often blocked. Discarded Pinkberry cups sometimes littered the neighborhood.
West Hollywood officials had few options, however, because the yogurt shop is on a site zoned for commercial use. That designation was given to the former garage by Los Angeles County years before West Hollywood became a city.
The city’s Business License Commission ordered Pinkberry to limit its hours of operation and hire a security guard to monitor the crowds during busy business hours. Shop employees were asked to patrol the neighborhood to dissuade illegal parkers and pick up litter.
City parking enforcement officers were instructed to increase patrols around Pinkberry and diligently enforce the street’s permit-only parking rules. Eventually, thousands of citations would be written.
“There needs to be a real attempt to deal with zoning laws that leave anomalies such as this,” Huntley resident Philip Hoskins told council members. “Remember, this is a garage that’s been turned into a 3,000-customer-a-day business.”
Resident Ed Buck agreed. “I appreciate Pinkberry is a wonderful example of an American dream. But it’s not my American dream. My American dream is to live in my neighborhood and get in and out of it.”
Pinkberry fans defended the shop.
Los Angeles resident Donna Feinstein described herself as a regular customer. “I paid a $65 ticket when I was stopped in front of Pinkberry waiting for a spot to park. It’s not the kind of business that encourages loiterers,” she told the council.
Jerry Neuman, representing Pinkberry partners Shelly Hwang and Young Lee, said new Pinkberry outlets being opened around Los Angeles have begun to siphon off some of the Huntley Drive crowds. He said the number of parking citations issued on the street to yogurt customers had dropped from more than 1,100 in August to just 431 in October.
Pinkberry spokesman Sandy Hutchins suggested that Pinkberry yogurt shops could soon be appearing around the world as a result of the Huntley Drive shop’s success. He said the council should be showering Hwang and Lee with commendations, not condemnation.
Councilman Jeff Prang acknowledged Pinkberry’s success but described as “horrendous and chaotic” the scene he witnessed outside the shop during the summer. “It’s an uncomfortable conversation we’re having,” he said.
Council colleague John Duran disclosed that a rival yogurt shop, Kiwi Berri, is expected to open for business after the first of the year a few hundred feet away from Pinkberry. It also specializes in South Korean-style frozen dessert.
The new yogurt shop will occupy space now used by an exotic-bird shop. It, coincidentally, is a few steps away from a third yogurt shop, Angelina.
Jenny White, a clerk at Omar’s Exotic Birds, shook her head at the idea of another potentially high-traffic yogurt shop moving in.
Her pet store has no parking either, other than a small and expensive underground lot beneath its Santa Monica Boulevard strip mall.
As she talked, the phone rang. “Yes, parking is really a mess. It’s frustrating, I know,” White told the customer on the other end of the line. “That’s why we’re moving Jan. 5 to Studio City. We’ll have parking there.”
At the Angelina yogurt shop, co-owner Sydney Azria said he opened about a year and a half ago, about the same time as Pinkberry. His shop has five parking spots. Sometimes Pinkberry customers illegally use them, he said.
Angelina plans to introduce a line of South Korean-type yogurt in addition to its traditional variety, Azria said. “We’re creating a good Yogurt Zone here,” he laughed.
Across the boulevard at Pinkberry, Huntley Drive resident Steve Martin, himself a former West Hollywood city councilman, paused in front of the shop to watch a parking enforcement officer slip a citation under a customer’s illegally parked car.
“Parking is like oxygen in West Hollywood, and Pinkberry is sucking it out,” Martin said, echoing his comment to the council at last month’s meeting.
“They were writing so many tickets, we were thinking here on the street about asking for a rebate on our property taxes.”