CITYWIDE — Local merchants and commercial brokers say the economy is not the only reason businesses are struggling and vacancies are increasing here.

According to both groups, Santa Monica’s permit system, code restrictions and a lack of employee parking are challenges to surviving in this difficult economy. In response, the Planning Commission last week directed city staff to seek ways to alleviate these obstacles for businesses.

Gary Gordon, executive director of the Main Street Business Improvement Association, provided the commission with a list of 16 items that he would like to see changed in order to help Main Street businesses. These included adding employee parking, reviewing restrictions on sidewalk signs and sales, and creating a crosswalk mid-block between Ashland Avenue and Hill Street.

Another request was removing the restriction on the number of restaurants per block, particularly north of Ocean Park Boulevard where only one restaurant is allowed per block. Janabai Owens-Amsden, owner of the raw food store Euphoria loves Rawvolution, said this restriction has hurt her business.

At the Planning Commission discussion, Owens-Amsden reported that sales at Euphoria are down 40 percent, largely because of the economy, but anything she has done to try to boost sales, such as a sitar concert and a poetry night, has hit a dead-end because these are not allowed under her business designation. Her business is labeled “incidental food use,” which means she can sell food only as part of her business, and she cannot have sit-down serving. She said the lack of sit-down service hurts the business because she loses staff when they aren’t making tips and she is held to a certain price range.

The restaurant license for her block, the 2300 block of Main Street, is owned by Urth Caffé, she said.

“We’re doing everything right by this city … but every idea I’ve had has been stopped by the city because of the restaurant rule,” Owens-Amsden said at the Planning Commission meeting on Wednesday.

She also suggested adding a liaison to help small businesses navigate the planning and permitting process, and “demystify the bureaucracy of the city.”

Another small business owner at the meeting, Christian Pezza, said a liaison would have helped him about a year ago, when he began plans to expand Tao Healing Arts Center.

Pezza said he has been trying to get the approval for the addition of a dry, hot sauna at his Tao Healing Arts Center, located at 2309 Main St. He said the center is not struggling for business, but adding the sauna would help him compete with similar businesses in West Los Angeles.

But the planning process has taken so long, he said, that it is costing him business, as well as increasing the cost to expand.

“The planning process is too complicated and it takes too long,” Pezza said. “If I was a big corporation with a big budget, I would have the money to do this and wait, but it’s just me.

“Unless we want Pinkberry and Starbucks all along our commercial corridors, people like me need help.”

And it is not just the businesses that are hurting. According to commercial brokers, they cannot get retailers into vacant spots.

Commissioner Jay Johnson, who brought the discussion to the meeting, said that the code’s use restrictions are too limited and local commercial brokers lose potential businesses to adjacent neighborhoods when owners are told they cannot open without going through the city permit process.

Eileen Fogarty, director of planning and community development, agreed, adding that she often turns away interested businesses because there is no flexibility in the code, which would allow the city’s planning department to approve businesses if they are similar enough to allowed uses in districts.

“I have cases every single day. Ninety percent of the time there is nothing I can do because there is no [flexibility],” Fogarty said.

Another big problem for both Owens-Amsden and Pezza is employee parking — even for themselves. Pezza said last year he paid about $1,500 in parking tickets because he has to park in metered parking.

“And those are just the ones I kept track of,” he said.

Two years ago, Owens-Amsden said she tried to have a bike rack installed, but hit another obstacle when City Hall told her that only six bicycle racks are granted per year. There was a waiting list, but it is years long, so she offered to pay for the rack if City Hall would install it but was denied.

Commissioner Johnson said these problems are prevalent among Santa Monica business owners. “I think the point is proven tonight,” he said, adding that if the commission’s discussion had been advertised more, “we would have heard stories for the next three hours.”

After hearing from Gordon and the business owners, the commission asked Fogarty and city staff to report back which of the issues would likely be covered in the update of the Land Use and Circulation Element, such as employee parking options, and which items could be addressed immediately.

They asked for “creative ideas” to help with the code issues, particularly how to try to add flexibility to the commercial district uses, the possibility of adding a small business liaison and alleviating the restrictions on Main Street such as the limitations on the number of restaurants per block.

The commission also wanted to know the barriers to allowing advertising in empty store fronts for special local events, such as the upcoming Cirque du Soleil, which will be advertised in the windows of empty storefronts on Main Street.

Owens-Amsden said she was relieved by the commission’s action.

“I felt very heard by the Planning Commission,” she said. “They seemed to understand that this needs to happen immediately, and action won’t be good a year and half from now. Some of us [businesses] may not be around then.”

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