Neighbors Say Walker’s Cafe has Unpermitted Construction, Owners Say It’s Just Repairs

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Trash and old appliances are left behind at the site of Walker's Cafe. Photo by Fabiola Esqueda

San Pedro residents say that Walker’s Cafe has been under construction the past few months without permits. However, a representative of Prospect Group, which owns the café, said they are only completing repairs, and that permits are not necessary.

Walker’s Cafe, a beloved San Pedro diner that had been in operation since the 1940s, closed in October 2021. After a campaign and petition to save the café and have it preserved as a historical monument, Prospect Group purchased it in March 2022.

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“I just assumed they had pulled permits to do what they were doing,” said Noel Gould, a member of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council who lives next door to the café. “So, I didn’t really say anything about it for a while. And then we checked and found that they hadn’t pulled a single permit.”

However, Silva Harapetian, a representative of Prospect Group, said this was a misunderstanding.

“It’s not construction, there have been repairs,” Harapetian said. “All of the stuff that we’re talking about have not required permits, there have been repairs.”

Harapetian said these repairs were discussed in a meeting with representatives from the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, the Office of Historic Resources and Council District 15. These repairs included a leaking roof, exposed electrical wires and termite damage that threatened the structural integrity. She said that the city representatives did not make any approvals of these repairs, but they discussed them.

“These repairs were absolutely necessary, otherwise the integrity of the building was in jeopardy,” Harapetian said. “This property has not been touched in decades. It has been in disrepair for decades.”

In addition, Harapetian said there have been many break-ins and vandalization, so Prospect Group often has people looking after the property even if they aren’t working on it. The city council is currently considering the building for historical monument status, so no major changes are supposed to be made. But Harapetian said these changes would not affect its status.

Nora Frost, public information director of the City Of Los Angeles Department Of City Planning, confirmed that such a meeting took place online on May 25.

“The owners discussed minor maintenance-related work they were planning to do,” Frost wrote in an email. “The Office of Historic Resources requested an outline of the work to review for conformance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. Since that meeting, OHR has not received such a report or any such communication from the owners.”

Emma Rault, a member of Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council and the leader of the initiative to have Walker’s Cafe declared a historical monument, has heard complaints from neighbors.

“A number of people sort of passed by the site and said just from the level of noise it seems like it’s fairly invasive, not just kind of minor fixing,” Rault said.

Gould has witnessed the work being done on the property, and has taken video by looking over his fence. He has also spoken to an inspector from the Department of Building and Safety.

“He went down there initially, and caught them in the middle of construction,” Gould said. “He asked permission to gain entrance to the property, but he was denied. And he issued a stop work order on the spot.”

Gould said the workers got their boss on the phone and said they were just doing routine maintenance, but the inspector did not believe them.

Tony Pelaez, senior management analyst for the Department of Building and Safety, could not confirm anything about the inspector, but did say the department is currently investigating a complaint against the property. On the department’s website, it lists a complaint of construction done without permits or inspections, and lists the date received as June 29. It lists two additional violations, that the building is substandard due to hazardous electrical wiring and plumbing. However, it has an effective date of July 14, and says it is under investigation.

Harapetian denies that any stop work order was given. 

“The inspector, he showed up to the property, and he wanted access to the property,” Harapetian said. “There was no representative with Prospect to allow him in. … Because of the fact that he couldn’t gain access, he wrote us up.”

Harapetian said that repairs were not still being done, and that they were addressed several weeks ago. However, Rault said this is false.

“I received a video from a community member of work being done on site yesterday,” Rault said on July 31.

Rault and Gould say that construction work has continued even after the stop work order. Gould said they do not do it as often, but it has happened at least a couple of times.

“They’ve got the place all fenced off and very dark,” Gould said. “But I was able to peer in at one point when they were working and I could see that the floors had been worked out and there was all kind of Romex, you know, electrical stuff, that they were laying on the floors and everything. So, it’s obvious that they were doing major electrical work.”

Gould said they also put in windows in the back where they had not previously been, and did major plumbing work, including replacing a pipe about 40 feet long.

“They’ve kind of struck out on their own in effect,” Rault said. “And we don’t know the extent of the work they’ve been doing. And it’s not inconceivable that they might have at this point done irreparable harm to a historic structure.”

In addition, as of July 30, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, or AQMD, placed a notice to comply on the fence surrounding Walker’s Cafe, asking for proof of a prior asbestos survey, where hazardous waste is being transported to, among other things.

“They didn’t get any permits from AQMD either,” Rault said. “At this point, they have fallen foul of the city and the Air Quality Management District. … So [what] we’re looking at is pretty serious, basically completely ignoring the regulatory bodies that exist when you’re doing work on a building.”

Rault has spoken with a man who was in talks with Prospect Group about potentially renting the property, but he said the company was only willing to rent him the front building, not the buildings in the back.

“He said in order for it to be a viable business concept, [he] would need access to the café,” Rault said. “But also think about things like outdoor seating in the back, or having an ancillary building that could be a fully-functioning kitchen if you want to offer a bigger menu. And it was his impression, just from his conversations with them, that they were more interested in using the rest of the parcel and or the buildings that are currently in the back and converting that into some sort of residential units as a different income source.”

Harapetian said Prospect Group will not turn part of the property into residential units.

“There’s been no discussion, no plans, no permitting, none of that has been part of our conversation internally,” Harapetian said.

Rault said that Prospect Group quoted the buyer $10,000 to $12,000 a month for the rent on the front building alone.

“That’s not a sum of money that anyone could recoup with that kind of square footage,” Rault said. “What that suggests to me is that perhaps they are not acting in good faith, and they are not serious about leasing it out as a café.”

While the buyer in question could not be reached personally for comment, Rault shared an email from him, confirming everything she said about him.

However, Harapetian said it’s not written in stone how much Prospect Group will be charging for rent.

“[If] we have to change, for example, the kitchen, or get permits, whatever it is, if Prospect Group is spending the money, then the rent and business structure with the operator would be different than if someone came in and spent their own money to bring it up to operation,” Harapetian said.

Harapetian said everyone she has spoken with has been in discussion to rent the entire property.

“Everyone we’ve spoken to, the conversations have been geared towards specifically finding someone who can operate a restaurant that is going to protect the integrity of Walker’s Cafe,” Harapetian said.

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