Larchmont Village, the peaceable, walk-able stretch of small shops, eateries and caffeine emporiums that stitches together Hancock Park and Windsor Square, has come down with an ominous case of prosperity.
The economic microbes that have been massing around it in recent years, as property values in that area of Los Angeles have shot skyward, are raising some residents' temperatures, and, especially, rents.
Some residents fear rising rents will overwhelm the neighborly character of the village and kill off some of its most prized attributes, such as Larchmont Hardware, which has existed for 75 years, and Chevalier's Books, a mainstay for 67 years.
The concern of many residents of the affluent neighborhood centers at the moment on the fate of La Luna Ristorante, a family-friendly Italian restaurant and community favorite for 17 years. La Luna has lost its lease, according to its landlord, in a rent dispute and could be out of business in as little as six weeks if eviction proceedings run their course.
Village preservationists are haunted also by tales of a wealthy businessman who recently went into escrow, at enormous purchase prices, on three commercial buildings on a block-long stretch of Larchmont Boulevard. They fear he'll rent out the buildings at rates so high only chain stores can afford them, further diluting the village's local flavor.
Chain stores already exist along the strip, including Rite Aid Drugs, Starbucks Coffee, Peet's Coffee and Tea, Jamba Juice, and Blockbuster Video.
The La Luna imbroglio centers on whether the restaurant and its landlord, longtime Larchmont property owner and former village merchant Francis "Mickey" McCullough, had a binding oral contract to extend the restaurant's lease long-term in exchange for doubled rent, to $6 per square foot.
La Luna opened in 1990. "We came because we liked the European look, the neighborhood look and the people walking," said chef and co-owner Robertino Giovannelli. "We also liked having the butcher across the street, and the little market, but they're all gone now."
The restaurant, which the chef owns along with the husband-and-wife team of David Whitworth and Theresa Kim-Whitworth, was a success with local residents from the start, in large measure because of its neighborly atmosphere.
"My son grew up going there," said neighborhood activist Diana Buchantz. "The restaurant opened a month before he was born and I waddled in there during that time. Afterward, Theresa used to literally carry my son around for 20 minutes so I could eat."
Joseph Fischbach, La Luna's lawyer, contended in a lawsuit filed in January that the restaurant's owners and McCullough, the landlord, made a binding oral agreement in 2000 for a 15-year extension of the lease in exchange for doubled rent.
Tom Cairns, McCullough's lawyer, rejected that assertion. "The Statute of Frauds states that certain contracts, including the conveyance of property, of longer than one year must be in writing," he said.
In January, McCullough signed a lease with new tenants, whom Cairns described as "successful third-generation operators of upscale restaurants and hotels." La Luna was given till March 31 to vacate. It will remain open, however, until required by legal due process to stop, Fischbach said.
The landlord has "a moral obligation" to negotiate with La Luna, Fischbach said, adding: "The operative word is 'fair.' Most of the landlords have been here a long time, and now they want to make it into a high-rent district like Beverly Hills, with El Toritos and Jamba Juices."
The restaurant's plight has ignited a public campaign to save it. Organizers have collected more than 600 signatures on a petition calling for the restaurant's preservation. Placards are going up on store windows and front lawns. "We want to visually send that message to the landlord and the new tenant that the community is not going to support what they're doing," said La Luna activist Beth Garfield.
Joane Henneberger-Pickett, who owns two boutiques in the village and is a past president of the Larchmont Boulevard Assn., said there is "a lot of hysteria and misinformation" surrounding the La Luna issue, with people describing McCullough as an "outsider" and trading rumors the new tenants want to establish a cheap Mexican restaurant. In fact, they've always been associated with white-linen eateries, she said, and used to own Table 8, a fine-dining restaurant on Melrose Avenue.
"Everybody's getting bogged down in what's really a legal issue between the landlord and tenant," she said.
She said the activists' effort reminds her of a campaign that sprang up when Blockbuster and Rite Aid arrived in the mid-1990s and local stores that sold drugs and videos were threatened and soon vanished.
"Both were big deals at the time," she said. "People said, 'We're going to fight for Mom and Pop,' but it just doesn't always work out."
Activists have tried to enlist City Councilman Tom LaBonge in their cause. LaBonge has set a public meeting for Wednesday to hear from the protesters. He made it clear, however, that the real issue is the future of Larchmont, not the specific case of the restaurant.
"That's a free-market issue," he said. "There's not a mechanism to say, 'OK, we like this restaurant. Find a way to make it stay.' "
The ultimate agent of change is rising property values throughout the Larchmont area, said Cairns, the lawyer for La Luna's landlord. Cairns, who lives two blocks from the village, noted that his home, like others in the area, has tripled in value in 15 years. "I don't know why people are surprised when commercial property doubles while residential property triples," he said.
Cairns said businessman Albert Mizrahi, owner of several properties on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, approached numerous Larchmont landlords through a broker, "throwing around some astronomical numbers to see what nibbles he got, and obviously he got a lot of nibbles."
Cairns said the broker made an offer to McCullough, who turned him down.
In e-mail response to questions, the broker, Jonathan Ahron of Charles Dunn Co., a real estate firm, declined to identify his client or discuss pending transactions.
Neighbors clearly fear the village will go the way of the Grove or the Third Street Promenade, but Ahron pointed out that Larchmont Village is "supported primarily by the surrounding community." As a result, he said, it's "hard to compare to larger shopping areas that have a regional tenant base, like the Third Street Promenade or Robertson Boulevard.... It will not command rents as high as areas that attract larger-profile clients."
Buyers looking into the village, he added, "know that it won't change aggressively and that the quaint, neighborhood setting will remain intact."
Henneberger-Pickett said the sale of the three buildings warrants more alarm by preservationists than the La Luna matter. "If this guy buys all these buildings and raises the rent to $10 [per square foot], which is the number everybody is talking about, all of these mom-and-pop businesses are going to go away."
Russ Wilson, owner of Larchmont Hardware, in one of the buildings in escrow, has resigned himself to the inevitable -- closing up shop. Wilson, who also owns Koontz Hardware in West Hollywood, is on a month-to-month lease.
"I've been subsidizing the Larchmont store with Koontz for years," he said. "At the new rates, it's only a matter of time. I can't pay what they're going to be asking. I can't subsidize something just so the landlord makes some money."
Filis Winthrop, a retired English teacher who co-owns Chevalier's Books, predicts "there'll be plenty of fights on this block."
Her store's lease runs out at the end of this year. She hopes, however, that Chevalier's can avoid the fate of Larchmont Hardware, at least for a time.
Her landlady is Charlotte Lipson, whose father owned the building when Chevalier's went into business in 1940.
"We expect the rent to go up," she said. "We've always expected it, and that's the way it's always been. But she's always been reasonable, and we've never had any trouble getting our lease. We're grateful for every day she's alive."