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Planning Commission defers action on Twohey’s demolition

Photo via @twoheys_restaurant Instagram.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

After raising serious concerns about neighborhood traffic and parking impacts, the Alhambra Planning Commission voted unanimously Monday night to continue a public hearing on an application to demolish the Twohey’s restaurant building and replace it with a structure that could hold three smaller restaurants and a retail space.

In a lively discussion lasting almost two hours before the 9-0 vote, the Planning Commission asked the applicant and city staff to prepare a traffic study for the proposed building to make an informed decision on whether to grant a permit to demolish the existing Twohey’s building and replace it with a multi-use commercial building. The Planning Commission is also requiring a study of the Twohey’s building and its neon sign’s historic or landmark status, as well as a construction phasing plan, to determine how demolition and building would affect traffic in and around the site, as specifically requested by Planning Commission President Debra Moreno Garcia.

Moreno Garcia was the first commissioner to speak on the matter after public comment was closed and brought up a possible continuance, pointing out that since the property owner had not yet identified tenants for the project, it would be difficult to determine parking needs and traffic impacts in the surrounding neighborhoods, especially with the traffic and parking issues already caused by In-N-Out Burger, which would share the plaza and the designated parking sites with the proposed project. The owners of the Twohey’s building also own the In-N-Out building, as well as the plaza’s shared parking lot.

The new project would be located at the the heavily-traveled area of Huntington Drive, Atlantic Boulevard and nearby Garfield Avenue. The area also includes various single-family, high-density multi-family and commercially-oriented neighborhoods, not only in Alhambra, but in the bordering cities of San Marino and South Pasadena.

“It feels as though there are too many unknown variables, without some of this information to really move forward to even make a decision on this,” Moreno Garcia said.

Several Planning Commissioners brought up the cultural significance of the Twohey’s building and asked city staff to determine whether the building has enough architectural value to be preserved as a historic landmark, or if it has undergone too many renovations over the years for that to matter.

Joyce Amaro, vice president of the Alhambra Preservation Group, an organization that is advocating for a city ordinance to protect historic buildings, said during public comment that such a dilemma could have been avoided if the city had a historic preservation ordinance that would allow Alhambra to conduct an inventory to determine the historic value of its buildings.

“The issue that this proposed demolition of the Twohey’s building highlights is Alhambra’s long overdue and critical need for a historic preservation ordinance and a citywide inventory of its historic homes, businesses, churches and schools,” she said.

Commissioner Eric Garcia also asked if the owners or the city could preserve Twohey’s iconic neon sign, which shows a diner with a clothespin pinching his nose while shedding tears, presumably having eaten one of Twohey’s famous pickle-and-onion-laden Stinko burger.

The representatives of the owners of the land also addressed the traffic and parking concerns by saying that they hoped to attract fast-casual restaurant tenants, where customers were less likely to spend time, compared to a sit-down restaurant like Twohey’s. The project architect Ken McKentley also pointed out that the building would be capped at housing three restaurants and one retail tenant. But, he said, the new building could very well host fewer businesses than that.

Both the applicant and the city said that the restaurant square footage would be reduced significantly with the new project, with the staff report depicting a reduction in dining space from 6,217 square feet to 5,416 square feet. They also pointed out a traffic mitigation measure of adding another right-turn lane at the Atlantic Boulevard entrance into the plaza, so that customers didn’t have to use the same lane to access In-N-Out’s drive-thru and the parking lot.

Newly appointed Commissioner Ron Sahu asked for a study to assess the potential traffic impacts of the new building and the business it would attract. “Especially if you’re going to have some mitigation, I think an analysis of the traffic would be a big help,” he said.

A traffic study had not originally been done because city staff determined the project to be exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act as an “in-fill development project.” The Department of Public Works had already researched traffic in the area and determined that widening Atlantic Boulevard and adding an additional right-turn lane in the plaza would be sufficient mitigation. Staff will follow up on whether further study is needed of the area.

Having celebrated its 75th birthday last year, Twohey’s is known throughout southern California for its milkshakes, its Stinko burger and as an emblem of mid-century diner culture. The restaurant announced that it was shuttering its longtime Alhambra location at the end of 2017, with owner Jim Christos telling the Alhambra Source that the owners had raised their rent by three to four times.

Pat Patterson, the developing manager for the project, told Planning Commissioners that the property has been owned since the 1920s by a family whose matriarch and her five children have deep roots in the San Gabriel Valley. They had spent a lot of time and energy trying to get Twohey’s to stay, even making the “unorthodox” move of drawing up a lease before any terms had been agreed upon. In the end, he said, Twohey’s decided to move to South Pasadena. The owners came up with this new project to hold onto the property in perpetuity and pass it on to the next generation to own and operate.

Addressing the rent issue, Patterson said that the restaurant had been operating on a 40-year ground lease based on 1975 property prices and that half of In-N-Out’s rent went back to them. “We only wanted a fair rate for 2018,” he told the Alhambra Source.

Reached for comment by phone, Christos countered that he offered to pay rent above the fair market rate, but that the property owners wanted to still go higher, an amount that was “not realistic” for him. Since their lease expired at the end of 2017, Twohey’s has been paying a higher rent to stay open in Alhambra, while construction occurs on their new space on Fair Oaks Avenue in South Pasadena.

Christos described the current Twohey’s building as having a “vintage appeal” to him and a lot of Alhambra residents. He said that Jack Twohey built the current restaurant building in 1978 and was working on bringing the Twohey’s neon sign to the restaurant’s new location. “The sign is something of major relevance to us, we have been talking to South Pasadena to bring it over,” he said.

Around 20 people attended the public hearing, with seven addressing the Planning Commission on traffic, parking and historic preservation concerns. Alhambra City Councilmember Katherine Lee addressed the commission as a resident, a rare occurrence for a City Council member. She commented that she and her husband often have to park in adjacent neighborhoods when visiting Twohey’s.

“Sharing the parking lot with In-N-Out Burger, the parking spills out into the residential area,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that this project, whatever proposed project is in its place, has enough proposed parking [on] its own.”

Garcia also voiced his misgivings over adding four businesses to that plaza, saying that In-N-Out would take up almost all available parking, unless there was a way to dedicate spaces to the other businesses. He added that he wasn’t sure if he would vote for the project, unless the owners could address how to guarantee enough parking for the new tenants.

At first Garcia also expressed his hesitation over approving the project, even with more information, until Deputy City Attorney Greg Murphy said that denying the project would not allow the applicant to reapply for a permit for another year.

“You may want to consider the continuance to give them the good time to present evidence that might potentially sway you,” he said.

McKentley was taken aback by the Planning Commission’s overall decision to continue the issue with a newly required traffic study, historical study of the building and construction plan. “We tried to come up with a project to address all these issues,” he told the Source, adding that this was the first he and his colleagues had heard of any historical significance tied to the Twohey’s building.

Parking also a concern for roast chicken store in Costco plaza

The issue of parking was also a major concern for the Planning Commission’s first hearing of the night, on whether to grant a permit to Wing On Market to open a store specializing in roast chicken in the Costco Plaza. The application called for Wing On Market needing two more parking spaces than their proposed store front’s previous tenant, the former Scottrade discount brokerage firm, increasing the parking needs from 8 to 10, which could be accommodated by extra spots in the plaza.

Newly appointed Commissioner Danny Tang expressed concern over finding two more parking spaces in the plaza, since those two spaces would have to come from Costco, whose parcel has a different owner than the proposed Wing On Market storefront.

“That’s going to be a lawsuit,” he said, unless Costco expressly agreed to let Wing On Market use two additional parking spaces. Castagnola clarified that the parcel owners have an implicit agreement for the businesses in the plaza to utilize the entire parking lot, no matter how many are officially allotted to whichever business. Because the Costco plaza has 964 spaces out of 890 required spaces, there would be plenty extra for customers of both businesses.

Project applicant Nick Wang addressed concerns over a new business attracting more customers and stretching the Costco Plaza Shopping Center to the breaking point.

“People really like the fresh chicken, instead of buying a big pack of chicken from Costco,” he said, adding that he anticipated many people stopping by their store after shopping at Costco, without any significant change to the number of people taking up parking spaces in that lot.

The Planning Commission voted 8 to 1 to approve Wing On Market’s permit, with Tang being the lone dissenting vote. Moreno Garcia added a condition that the market limit their delivery time to 9 a.m., so as not to interfere with traffic in the plaza. Newly appointed Commissioner Suzi Dunkel-Soto extended those hours until 10 a.m. with a friendly amendment, to minimize the business impact on Wing On Market.

This article was updated at 2:39 p.m. to clarify research done on traffic in the area where the Twohey’s building stands, as well as to clarify that the entire Costco Plaza requires 890 parking spaces, not Costco on its own.

This article was updated at 10:41 p.m. to correct Joyce Amaro’s title from president of the Alhambra Preservation Group to vice president.

This article was updated on March 6, 2019 at 10:39 a.m. with comment from Twohey’s owner Jim Christos and further information on the restaurant building.

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