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The Pinkberry Effect: Are Our Neighborhoods Changing for the Better?

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An opinion piece in today's LA Times raises the issue of what seems to be the rampant Pinkberry-fication of many of our local neighborhoods, using recent food and retail closings and openings in the popular Larchmont Village as an example of how major-chain development affects the unique vibe of a given area.

Larchmont Village, which is the bustling strip of shops located on Larchmont Boulevard between Beverly Boulevard and 1st Street, is starting to experience the closing of once-stalwart mom-and-pop institutions, like Larchmont Hardware (opened in 1925 and recently shut down), at a more rapid pace, with the vacancies swiftly replaced with outposts of recognizable (and questionably uber-trendy) chains, like the ubiquitious fro-yo mecca Pinkberry. Developer Albert Mizrahi, who owns four buildings on the Boulevard and may be looking to buy more, is quoted in the Times as equating "quality retail" with "quality community."

If Mizrahi is right, then, that where you can spend your bucks in your borough determines the area's appeal, does this mean that chain retail and restaurants are the only merchants able to supply the quality we're looking for? Other areas in Los Angeles are undergoing the same kind of development pains, and many parts of town known for their place in history, like Little Tokyo, for example, are trying to ascertain how they can retain their identity in the face of commercial-space "improvement." Many neighborhoods fight hard to keep the "big-box" or big name chains out, like Glassell Park's battle to keep Home Depot away, but oftentimes landlords, lured by the major-chain's cashflow, drive out small, independent retailers by jacking up the rent higher and higher, thereby making the choice for the neighborhood's residents by removing the choice altogether.

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Some who examine this trend see that the major chains' ultimate handicap is in adapting to the unique pulse of the neighborhoods they invade. Reason Magazine's Michael C. Moynihan explains: "While big-box retailers have enormous competitive advantages--sui generis leverage with distributors and manufacturers, unparalleled capital resources, immense political influence--they also face a distinct disadvantage in adjusting themselves to local preferences." Hard to imagine the attractive, uniform, and overall popular chain retailer having those "new school" insecurities, uncertain of where to sit in the cafeteria or if anyone will want to befriend him.

The battle against large retailers isn't a new one in Larchmont. A 2001 article published in the Los Angeles Business Journal chronicles the battle between the residents and the property owners over the number of food-serving establishments on the two-block strip. Back then the debate swirled over the definition of food-serving establishments, and whether Blockbuster Video counted as a "restaurant" by definition because of their candy for sale near the registers. Residents turned to the local officials, as they are inclined to do now, to create laws protecting their neighborhoods and the businesses operating within them. The article cites a City of Los Angeles ordinance called "the Q condition" that was set in the early 1990s, which "et a limit of 10 restaurants on the two-block area, but with a loophole. It permitted an unlimited number of coffeehouses, juice bars, bakeries and take-out places."

Now City Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes Larchmont Village, is trying to establish another ordinance that will affect retailers. "LaBonge has introduced a measure that at least would impose height, width and setback standards on Larchmont, while ensuring that existing zoning restrictions remain intact. The idea is to keep a store with a large physical footprint, such as the Gap, from invading the boulevard" as explained in today's LA Times. A comparison can be struck between this legislative desire and that a bit farther west:

In Venice, activists are pushing for a city ordinance that, by mandating certain design parameters, would effectively prevent "formula" retail stores such as Starbucks from opening on Ocean Front Walk and Abbot Kinney Boulevard. The appeal of the ordinance is understandable: Who doesn't prefer mom-and-pop stores to corporate retailers that have homogenized much of the urban landscape?

If we like our neighborhoods because of their inherently individualistic charms, historic significance, ambiance, and sense of community, we should, by rights, be keeping out big retailers as best we can. But we speak with our wallets, doling out upwards of $4 a pop for that Starbucks latte or that cup of Pinkberry topped with fruit, and our local landscapes begin to change, leaving the consumers the ones fearful of having to adapt, or pack up our homes and try again somewhere else.Photo by Roshan V via Flickr