Council approves outdoor display test

Laguna Beach businesses got a boost Tuesday from city officials.

The City Council unanimously approved a summer moratorium on the enforcement of a ban on displays outside local stores. The action was taken in response to entreaties from business owners to help them combat the lackluster economy.

"A lot of us need something to get us through the summer," said Heidi Miller, owner of Tight Assets on South Coast Highway. "Outdoor displays make a huge difference in my business. Last weekend, knowing I was going to the council, I asked my customers what brought them into the store. I'd say that 90% of them said it was the displays."

The council approved displays only on private property, unenclosed areas in front of the shops, within the footprint. Displays are limited to 10 square feet and must not impede safe passage by pedestrians.

Inas Azzam, owner of Satisfy My Soul on Forest Avenue, submitted suggested guidelines to prevent abuse of the temporary moratorium on the displays.

"We need to keep everyone in check," Azzam said. "The displays shouldn't be used to just advertise sales, but should be related to what is sold in the store."

He also recommended that displays be limited to one per store, without obstructing the sidewalks, conform to all city sign regulations and not be "tacky."

Business owners have been allowed to have outdoor displays if they had a temporary use permit. But those were hard to come by.

A virtual ban against outdoor displays has been in effect for about 20 years, City Manager Ken Frank said.

"Some of them were tacky, even tawdry, and they were encroaching on public sidewalks," Frank said.

The city cracked down, citing the long-established Axeline's Shoes, which had for years displayed racks of shoes in the space in front of the recessed entrance to the store. Businesswoman Cayenne Bird was also cited and she involved the Chamber of Commerce in an aborted attempt to recall the City Council, which led to ill feelings. Councilman Dan Kenney resigned as City Hall liaison to the chamber and relations were strained for a substantial period.

"I agree there has to be some control," Miller said. "There are a lot of junky stores and a couple have put up tacky displays."

One neighboring store tacked up a couple of nails on his door and hung a cheap T-shirt on a hanger, Miller said.

Stan Ezratty, owner of 240 Shoes on Beach Street, said he exchanges his outdoor display daily to keep it fresh and attractive to passersby.

He said he didn't need an outdoor display when he had a second shop on South Coast Highway. But a display in front of a shop on a side street helps bring in business.

"It definitely makes a difference," Ezratty said.

Sasha Stajic said business picks up when she displays a dressed-up mannequin outside her store.

"When we put out the mannequin, we get people buying what's on the mannequin," said Stajic, owner of Sasha's on South Coast Highway, just north of the Downtown Specific Plan area that ends at Legion Street.

Stajic said the display also helps differentiates her store from neighboring shops that cater to a different clientele.

The four store owners who spoke at the council meeting had all been warned by the city in certified letters that their outdoor displays violated the city code and citations would be the next step. Citations start at $100 and go up from there.

"This all started when letters were sent to the city complaining that the mannequins didn't conform to the village atmosphere," Azzam said.

He opined that the merchants need to be part of the process of policing the displays.

"Don't wait to get a letter from the city," Azzam said.

After their pitch, the retailers left the Council Chambers and did not know until Wednesday morning that the council had decided to take action on the item as a matter of urgency that came up after the agenda was posted and had decided in their favor.

"I am very happy with the council's action," Azzam said Wednesday. "It is in the best interests of everyone that we make it work."

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