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Who Wants to Demolish the Famous La Cienega Norms?

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Early this month, the company that owns the Norms diner on the border between Los Angeles and West Hollywood received a permit to demolish the building. Diners are kind of special to Angelenos, though, and that outpost of the local Norms chain happens to be an especially beloved local landmark and one of the best extant examples of the Jet Age architectural style called Googie, designed by a couple of its best practitioners, Louis Armet and Eldon Davis and built way back in 1957. A week and a half ago, the LA Conservancy sounded the preservation alarm and filed for landmark status, everyone vented their outrage, and LA's Cultural Heritage Commission gave the restaurant a stay of execution for at least 75 days while it considers more permanent protections. But why was the demolition permit ever pulled in the first place? Who would buy a local icon (which, incidentally, usually seems to be packed) just to tear it down?

Norman Roybark founded Norms in 1949 (at Sunset and Vine) and the Roybark family still owned the chain until late in 2014. Members of the family also controlled several of the properties that their restaurants sat on. Late last year, they began to sell off both. Separately. The chain of restaurants sold in December to Restaurant Management Group, which a Roybark family statement said "were carefully selected to protect the legacy of Norms." Jim Balis, CEO of RMG, told Curbed in a phone call last week that "It wasn't our decision and we love that site."

But the site and its building sold late last year too—to a company called Norman Cienega Property Group LLC, formed in November 2014, presumably for the purpose of buying the site. Both the LLC and documents related to the sale tie Norman Cienega to Jason Illoulian, founder of West Hollywood development firm Faring Capital. While Balis didn't name the owner, he did confirm that "they're a real estate company; they buy and develop real estate."

Faring Capital has a number of dramatic developments in the works close to the Norms site: a five-story housing and retail project that would replace the Meltdown Comics building on a stretch of Sunset Boulevard in western Hollywood, a five-story multi-use project near Beverly and Robertson in West Hollywood, a fancy retail and commercial building at the high-profile San Vicente/Melrose intersection. Illoulian is also co-developing the Robertson Lane project, which is set to replace West Hollywood's infamous The Factory nightclub with a walkable retail and hotel district.

Illoulian hasn't responded to several requests to talk about the property. (The name associated with the LLC has been changed since Curbed contacted him. Faring doesn't list an address, phone number, or any staff besides Illoulian on its website; publicly listed addresses for the firm are for an oriental rug store.) But Balis says he believes Norman Cienega wanted to build a three- or four-story mixed-use building, with residential units above a new restaurant space for Norms; since the dust-up last week, the owner has brought on architect Craig Hodgetts to consult on the project and "now they're talking about building around [the restaurant] … They have said whatever happens they would like it to be there."

The strip just north of Beverly Boulevard and the Beverly Center mall has been pretty low-rent and low-rise for years, but is just starting to show major signs of change. The high-end NMS@La Cienega apartments have just opened and there's a mixed-use housing development planned across the way; the Maimonides Academy is also giving their building an extensive makeover.

Whatever Norman Cienega Property Group wants to build, no plans have been filed with the city yet, so it's still a mystery why anyone would get a demolition permit, which is usually the last step before redevelopment begins. A statement from RMG says that Norman Cienega has "assured us that there will be outreach to the community, the stakeholders and us before moving forward with any proposal for the property." Balis said in our interview that the restaurant chain and the property owners are "on good terms," but made it clear that ultimately "It's really not up to us … we're somewhat the victims of what the landlord and what the property owners do. We really don't have a say in what happens."