The planned retirement of a popular restaurateur coupled with a bureaucratic mistake has sparked soul searching in Oak Park about whether to add liquor stores in an area working hard to overcome its troubled past.
Frank Louie wants to close the eponymous Chinese restaurant he’s run for 27 years in a strip mall at the busy corner of Stockton Boulevard and Broadway and concentrate on heading the Stockton Boulevard Partnership, a public-private group that advocates for local businesses.
He owns the building that houses the restaurant. Convenience chain 7-Eleven wants to move in.
Louie would like a stable tenant, and a business he views as good for the neighborhood.
“Our passion is in our community,” said Louie, who never expected his retirement plans to become news.
But along with hot dogs and lottery tickets, 7-Eleven sells alcohol.
The city forbids any stores selling alcohol to open along a specially designated corridor through Oak Park that runs east down Broadway from Alhambra Boulevard to just past Stockton Boulevard, and south on Stockton to the Elder Creek Road area.
But maybe it didn’t mean to.
There’s confusion about what the law is, what it was meant to be, and what it should be. The ambiguity is fueling a neighborhood fight between residents who think Oak Park has gentrified beyond its distressed history and those who say it would be all too easy for old ways to creep back.
The situation is so muddled that at a recent city meeting, neighbors and city planners spent three hours trying to sort it out with no luck.
Up until a few weeks ago, city planners thought that liquor stores were banned by a 2001 ordinance that created the special planning district along commercial streets in Oak Park. The measure was enacted to clean up the surrounding neighborhoods by banning new “nuisance” businesses like nightclubs and bottle shops.
The liquor store ban applied to places smaller than 15,000 square feet where more than 50 percent of shelf space was devoted to alcohol sales for off-site consumption. The rule targeted mom-and-pop endeavors with bars on the windows and loiterers out front that many perceived as adding to crime and blight.
They were “tiny little places where you might run in and get gum, and you’d be stepping on cockroaches,” said former councilwoman Lauren Hammond, who helped pass the ordinance. “They were just horrible places.”
When the city updated zoning codes in 2013, however, city planners say it inadvertently expanded the Oak Park ban to small stores selling any alcohol, including places like 7-Eleven that devote only a fraction of their space to such beverages.
But that nuance was lost on both residents and city officials who have long been operating under the assumption that all new stores with alcohol were forbidden. No one has tried to open one along the corridor in years.
Louie lit the fuse that sparked the discussion when he began telling people about his desire to retire. Though Louie has not applied to the city for any permits, he inquired about the feasibility of a 7-Eleven, and the corporation hired a local lawyer.
Last week, the city proposed returning to the original 2001 language that allowed some stores. But many in Oak Park want the more restrictive mistake to remain.
“Can there really be any doubt that this is what the intent was?” asked Bill Motmans, a member of the Tahoe Park Neighborhood Association, at the recent meeting.
“The intent was always to get rid of these little tiny stores … whatever the definition was 20 years ago,” he added later.
Hammond said he’s right.
“The thinking in 2001 was that we had too many liquor licenses,” she said. “We were as a community just disgusted with the sheer number.”
Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg, who represented nearby Tahoe Park on the City Council when liquor stores were a neighborhood concern, said, “There was a reason why we proposed that limitation in the first place and in general, it would be a heavy burden … to convince me that it would be worth changing.”
Motmans and others argue that the fragile renaissance underway in Oak Park would be waylaid by more retail outlets selling alcohol, even ones that only devote a small space to it. The proposed 7-Eleven would give less than 10 percent of its shelves to beer and wine.
They are concerned that even as the neighborhood draws more upscale eateries and shops, it remains plagued by problems associated with poverty. If bottle shops return, they worry, so might crime and decay.
If the restrictions are repealed, “those problems are going to come back,” said Hammond. “We’ve come a long way … but we’re not done yet.”
Currently, 17 of the city’s 289 off-site liquor licenses are in Oak Park and nearby areas. Fourteen of those are concentrated on Stockton Boulevard, and three are on Broadway.
Contention over alcohol sales in Oak Park is not new. Closing bars and bottle shops has been at the heart of improvement efforts for decades, and the city has used millions in redevelopment funds to purchase and shutter troubled businesses and lure better ones.
An example of those efforts can be seen just across the street from Louie’s restaurant. Where years ago Warner’s Rendezvous bar and Springer’s One-Stop Shop held court, a Food Source grocery store, Walgreens and Chase Bank now exist, thanks to redevelopment dollars.
The turnaround evidenced by the influx of more desirable businesses is proof to some that a few new liquor shops wouldn’t hurt the area, and could even bring jobs and upscale offerings like craft beers that could appeal to residents of the gentrifying surrounds.
Kevin Carter, an Oak Park activist who said he had lived there since 1964 and worked at a bottle shop that was a notorious magnet for drug crimes, spoke in favor of 7-Eleven at the meeting.
“This is going to open up the door to where Oak Park residents can get many other businesses to come in there,” he said.
He said he believed it was time to lift blanket restrictions and allow the neighborhood to review each proposed business on its merits under the same process used in other parts of the city.
That position was echoed by others, including attorney Jeff Dorso, who is representing 7-Eleven. Dorso is a well-known local lawyer who advised Mayor Kevin Johnson on issues related to the arena, and represents the Kings. He spoke in favor of returning to the original language of the 2001 ordinance that would allow stores with less than 50 percent of space devoted to alcohol sales to apply for a conditional use permit that could place site-specific restrictions and rules.
There is also dissent about 7-Eleven as a tenant beyond selling alcohol. Some residents see it adding little value either in economics or charm.
Dorso said the chain had evolved in recent years.
“The 7-Elevens I grew up with seemed to be all Slurpees and doughnuts,” he said. But now, “it’s good business to be healthier.”
Faced with the confusion and dissent from all angles, the city Planning And Design Commission hasn’t figured out a solution and will revisit the issue in September after city staff gathers more information and community input.
That leaves Louie in limbo.
He said he’ll “respect the process,” and keep running his restaurant in the meantime.
“We will continue to be good neighbors,” he said. “That will never go away.”