Zoning Variance for Alcohol Service at Observatory Requested to be Wide Open?

The newly opened Observatory in Griffith Park is one of the true gems that adorn Los Angeles. It makes perfect sense that there is a café for Observatory visitors who would like to enjoy food, refreshments and the magnificent views overlooking the city. The Observatory's mission is public education, and this mission is intended to take priority over any other use of the facility. The café helps accomplish that mission, so long as it is used by regular visitors to the Observatory.

During the Observatory’s renovation, plans surfaced to establish a 'Destination Restaurant' on the site. The community was concerned about negative impacts on the surrounding areas, such as late night traffic, intoxicated driving down dark and windy roads and noise. The park gates would be open late and thus drug trade and prostitution might be attracted. This plan was opposed by a group of neighborhood organizations that included the Oaks, and it was eventually withdrawn. Instead, the relatively small café has been established and the city has contracted with Wolfgang Puck's Catering and Events Company to run it.

Wolfgang Puck has applied for a zoning variance to allow for alcohol to be served at the Observatory, and a public hearing will be held by the city's Office of Zoning Administration on March 13th at 10:30 a.m. in City Hall. Find the official hearing notice here.

This raises the question as to what need there is for the Observatory to have a liquor license. It turns out that there are no plans to serve alcohol to the Observatory’s regular patrons, the many visitors. That's good, but who is to be served alcohol then? The answer is: patrons of catered special events. And that raises a difficult issue: if catered special events are allowed to take place frequently enough, might that not come awfully close to a full-blown destination restaurant? In considering the variance for an alcohol license, the important question becomes, how often will there be special events at the Observatory, and how late at night could they go on to?

When the city was first looking for a concessionaire to run the café, the original request for proposals stated twice, on page 6 and on page 13, that "The City does not want its exclusive operator/caterer to be marketing, selling or promoting the Observatory as a catering venue." However, the contract that the city entered into with Wolfgang Puck allows the concessionaire to "target a broader local, regional, national, and global event customer…", "establishing the Observatory as a corporate and convention destination by targeting meeting planners, destination management companies,  (and) event producers…" (pages 23, 24 in the pdf document). Thus the need for an alcohol permit.  Sounds like a lot of events all of a sudden, doesn't it?  And it sounds like there is some money to be made, too.

On page 15 the City promises to "fully cooperate … with regard to obtaining" a liquor license. This contract was signed on September 6th of 2006 without public input and the City is now legally bound by it. That means that the City cannot change its mind on the liquor issue. Coincidentally, the City also happens to be the entity that makes the ultimate decision about the license.

To be fair, the concession agreement also states clearly that any catered events are at the discretion of the Observatory management (page 23).  The Observatory management is essentially Observatory Director Dr. Krupp and the Department of Recreation and Parks (and thus ultimately the City of Los Angeles).

By the way, Friends of the Observatory (FOTO), the non-profit support group for the Observatory is allowed to hold a good number of events, not necessarily all involving alcohol, at the Observatory, too. And then, there are items like the Mayor's Gala and potential city functions. Though they would clearly add to the event load at the Observatory, these are not regarded as controversial.

There actually is a document that offers some ray of hope, and that is the Schedule of Rates and Fees, approved by the Board of Recreation and Park Commissioners on August 9th, 2006. On page 5, the Schedule states that "rental of facility spaces ordinarily used by public operations will be permitted… generally only when the Observatory is closed… and only … (from) October 1st through April 1st each year." Also on page 5 the schedule states that alcohol service at catered events "must conclude by 9:00 p.m.".

On the other hand, the concession agreement adds (on page 17) that "the hours of operation for catered special events (are) expected to conform to the (Griffith) Park's hours of operation." That would mean that everybody would have to be out of the park by 10:30 pm.

Will the schedule of rates and fees will take precedence over the concession agreement? And why are these two legally binding documents so much out of sync with each-other?  The contradictions between the two have not been resolved in a series of community meetings that were attended by representatives for the city and for Wolfgang Puck.

What's worse, the application for the zoning variance actually asks for even fewer limitations. The Puck Company is asking permission to serve alcohol between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. every day of the week, with the number of events continuing past midnight limited to 6 per year. On paper, it appears that the only thing preventing a very busy special events calendar at the Observatory is the discretion that city has over the granting of permission for the events.

What does the city say about all this? Vicki Israel, the person in charge at the Department of Recreation and Parks, has come to several meetings with residents, including the Oaks board meeting in January. When asked specifically how many events the city would allow per year, she would not commit to any numbers, firm or otherwise.  Nor did Nancy Peterson, the consultant representing Wolfgang Puck. Asked for a worst-case scenario, Vicki Israel said that the frequency of events would be limited by what was feasible with existing staff and facilities, and she stressed that the Observatory Director would not permit egregious numbers of events. The bottom line was: “Just trust us, we're going to do the right thing.”

As much as one wants to just trust the people charged with the operation and well-being of the Observatory, it's hard to do that in light of the attempt to establish a destination restaurant, and in light of the glaring contradictions between the legal documents governing the operations. What's worse is that the protections offered by Rates and Fees Schedule might simply evaporate if and when the Board of Recreation and Park Commissioners chooses to change it.

The Oaks board, as well as other voices in the  community, has urged Wolfgang Puck to include in their application clear limitations as to the hours of special catered events and the number of such events per week or per month.  The Puck organization seems not to want to do that.

Thus, the board took the position to oppose the requested Zoning Variance, unless it would be restricted to 3 events per month, but no more than 26 per year. Furthermore, none of those events are to limit the use of those parts of the premise which are normally open to the public. Read the text of Oaks President Gerry Hans' letter stating that position here.

It's important to understand that the matter currently at hand is just the zoning variance for the liquor license. The concession Agreement between Wolfgang Puck and the City is a done deal.  Nevertheless, the Zoning hearing might be the last meaningful opportunity to prevent bad things from happening at the Observatory. Thus we urge you attend the Public Zoning Hearing On Tuesday March 13th and make your voices heard.

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