City tightens reins on future hookah lounges

DOWNEY - Hoping to launch a new hookah bar or cigar lounge in downtown Downey? Be ye warned, city officials may think twice before letting that happen.

In a 5-0 vote last month, planning commissioners unanimously recommended the city council require a conditional use permit for any hookah bar or cigar lounge wishing to set up shop in the 131-acre downtown district.

While hookah bars and cigar lounges are currently permitted "by right" in specific portions of downtown Downey, city staff believes more regulation of such establishments is necessary. In a city staff report, senior planner David Blumenthal admitted the two current hookah lounges operating downtown, Mosaik Hookah Lounge and Hookah Time Cafe, had become problematic for other businesses and the surrounding area.

"When the city adopted the Downtown Downey Specific Plan, it was envisioned that the hookah/cigar lounges would become a low-key environment, in which patrons could go to relax and enjoy hookah/cigars," said Blumenthal. "In reality, these businesses are functioning more like night clubs rather than unobtrusive lounges."

Blumenthal cites recent complaints of late night crowds, littering, vomiting in alleys behind the businesses, and night club activities occurring within the lounges.

"In fact, one of the hookah bars recently advertised for a lingerie night, in which ladies who wore lingerie would get in for free," said Blumenthal, speaking of Mosaik Hookah Lounge. "Fortunately, the city was able to intervene and the business owner canceled the event."

Functioning more as night clubs then hookah lounges, the Planning Commission is recommending that a conditional use permit be required to establish new hookah or cigar lounges within the Downtown Downey Specific Plan.

Adopted in October 2010, the specific plan boundaries are formed by Brookshire Avenue to the east, the Union Pacific railroad to the south, Paramount Boulevard to the west, and an irregular northern boundary along Fourth and Fifth streets. The former Gallatin Medical site and Rives Mansion, located on the corner of Third Street and Paramount Boulevard, are also included in the plan area.

If approved by the city council, the specific plan amendment will allow the commission to review all new requests in a public hearing and based on the findings either approve or deny the application. If approved, commissioners could also include conditions of approval to mitigate any potential impacts.

According to the staff report, the two existing hookah lounges are not required to obtain conditional use permits, but if the city council approves the amendment, these establishments cannot expand without obtaining a permit first.

During the March 20 meeting, the Planning Commission also unanimously approved the construction of a 9,650-sq.-ft., three-story addition to the Swami Narayan Temple, located at 12147 Lakewood Blvd.

The expansion project, which adds 65 new parking spaces, including 39 in an underground garage, will merge the temple and the 17,600-sq.-ft. used car dealership to its south.

According to the city report, Swami Narayan Temple, which opened in 1999, acquired the used car site a few years ago. In addition to construction, the commission granted applicant Masood Mian a lot merger, which consolidates the two existing properties into one legal parcel.

The temple, known exteriorly for it traditional East Indian style, is hoping to utilize the additional property to expand the temple building, adding a multi-purpose hall with kitchen and storage areas for various religious activities.

Currently, the building facilities include a 5,368 sq.-ft. temple with a 2,623 sq.-ft. assembly area, a priest's retreat, an office area, and a kitchen space.

City staff say the proposed use should not generate noise, traffic, or parking issues because the new facilities will be able to accommodate the number of people the temple will attract.

The Planning Commission also approved a code amendment initiation request in order to bring the city's zoning code into compliance with state law, which mandates all cities and counties adopt a cottage food ordinance.

State law defines a cottage food operation as an enterprise at a private home where low-risk food products are prepared or packaged for sale to consumers.

The code amendment initiation now allows staff to analyze the mandate and set the matter for public hearing.

********** Published: April 4, 2013 - Volume 11 - Issue 51