West Hollywood Councilmember Jeff Prang, a long-time supporter of WeHo’s Irv’s Burgers and instrumental in getting the landmark burger stand designated as a “cultural source” in 2005, reiterated his support for the Hong family on Tuesday while expressing frustration with the current owners.
According to a recent report from Route66News, the 63-year-old hamburger stand, which is run by the Hongs and sits near the northeast corner of Santa Monica and Sweetzer, has been served an eviction notice by its landlord, Standard Oil Investment Management.
“This is an old Route 66 hamburger stand that used to be all around the country. There aren’t many left,” Prang said. “It’s a thriving business, there are always lines. It’s not like it’s a struggling nostalgic business. It’s very vital. I would think that they (owners) would see not only is the business a real asset to the property, but the Hongs are an asset. Those are really wonderful colorful people who add to the community.”
Irv’s owner Sonia Hong, who works with her brother and mother behind the counter, and is known for penning personal notes on nearly ever paper plate she serves, has made the stand a neighborhood favorite for more than a decade.
Prang also shed some light on the ongoing saga between the Hongs and their current owners.
According to Prang, Irv’s Burgers is part of a single piece of property that also includes the adjacent space where Standard Oil plans to construct “Beach Nation.”
“Because it is a single piece of property, when Beach Nation was approved, the city also required them (Standard Oil) to bring the Irv’s site up to code, which means it needs a new roof, and the outdoor tables with umbrellas also need to be brought into compliance,” Prang said.
According to information Prang received Tuesday from Community Development Director Stephanie DeWolfe, the Hongs have been told by owner Steven Bohbot, vice president at Standard Oil and the “point person” in talks with the Hongs, according to Prang, that they need to pay for the roof and outdoor patio improvements if they want to stay.
Hong has also said her landlord has attempted to more than double her rent to $10,000 and put her on a month-to-month lease, which makes the eviction possible.
“It seems as though it’s ‘constructive eviction,'” Prang said. “You’re not evicted, but I’m going to double your rent and make you pay for the roof and all these other things. It’s a historic business and it really should be the building owner’s responsibility.”
Prang said he has tried reaching out to Bohbot in the past. “But he never returned my calls or responded to my letters, which I thought was unusual,” said Prang, who was mayor of West Hollywood at the time. “When the mayor is calling, one would think you would call to find out what the mayor wants.”
Prang also said that City Manager Paul Arevalo had reached out to the owners without a response.
“It seems to me they’re saying ‘Yeah, you could stay.’ But I think he (Steven) knows it’s probably bad PR to evict her,” Prang said. “But he’s dumping an economic package on her she could never afford, so they’ll have to leave.”
This isn’t the first time Irv’s has tried to fight off an owner. West Hollywood designated Irv’s Burgers as a cultural resource in 2005 after a campaign dubbed the “Burger Brigade” that was sparked by the property owner’s plan to demolish it and use the area for parking for a Peet’s Coffee planned for the adjacent lot.
“If we could designate people as a ‘cultural resource’ we would designate the Hongs because they have one of those really unique personalities. It’s one of those things,” Prang said. “There’s a personal attribute that is as important as the business. A really unique group of people.”
The city’s designation of the business as a cultural resource is no guarantee that it won’t be closed and the building demolished. If the property owner can prove that the building is in poor shape and reconstruction will be too expensive it likely will get permission to destroy it.
“A lot of property owners who buy properties are mercenaries,” Prang said. “They are out for the money. They might state that the people and the culture and all that’s wonderful, but that doesn’t help their bottom line. That’s very hard to fight.”
Late Tuesday, the city issued a statement: “The current entitlements require that the rehabilitation work to the building in which Irv’s Burgers is currently a tenant be completed prior to the opening of the second restaurant on site. Although the city has no authority with regard to commercial landlord and tenant matters, we have been in contact with both and offered them our assistance.”
The city has stressed that the current plans do not include demolishment of the building.
“We’ve done about as much as we can,” said Prang. “That was why I was making personal efforts to reach out to the owner to appeal to their sense of community and history, of compassion for the Hongs. But if it’s not a message they’re interested in, there’s nothing I can do to compel them to do it.”