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Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark
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Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

September 23, 2016 -- After being used as a dental office for nearly 25 years, the building on Lincoln Boulevard that once housed the Penguin Coffee Shop will soon become a restaurant again.

The Planning Commission on Wednesday approved a permit for a 24-hours Mel’s Drive-In at the location off Olympic Boulevard. Mel’s is a throwback California chain with seven locations that was made famous by the film "American Graffiti."

Picture of Penguin Coffee Shop
The Penguin Coffee Shop (Photo Courtesy of Santa Monica Librrary Image Archives )

Commission Chair Richard McKinnon said this was a great location for the restaurant, and it would reinvigorate the area.

"It's a pretty dreadful end of town at the moment," he said. "It's really not that interesting."

Approval of the project did not come without controversy. Commissioners Jason Parry and Jennifer Kennedy were concerned about noise coming from the proposed surface parking lot affecting nearby future residences.

Several residential and mixed-use projects are planned for the surrounding area, including a 100-unit development next door and one with 139 units across the street ("Another Step This Week in Transformation of Santa Monica's Lincoln Boulevard," September 20, 2016).

"It runs up against this tension we’re going to find time and time again as we are trying to use the downtown area to expand our housing supply, we’re going to run up against entertainment impacts and residential desires for quiet, peaceful enjoyment of their homes," Parry said.

The rest of the commission did not share their concern, rejecting proposals for the requirement of a security guard during late-night and early-morning hours on certain days as well as other measures.

Other commissioners said the existing noise ordinance would take care of any potential issues.

Mel’s will be able to serve alcohol from 6 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. There was some some opposition to that.

"I'm hardly a prude," Commissioner Leslie Lambert said. "Nor am I a non-drinker, but I think serving at 6 a.m. is a little excessive for serving alcohol."

Lambert proposed the start time be moved to 10 a.m. or later. But she did not have enough support for this shift. McKinnon said he expected it would be rare for people to be drinking that early anyhow.

"It's a hamburger restaurant and a coffee shop,” he said. "Serving alcohol at that time seems very surprising to me."

The existing freestanding pole and sign on the property featuring a billboard topped by a penguin will remain. The City designated that feature as a "meritorious sign" in 2000.

Commissioner Nina Fresco, a landmarks advocate, recommended the applicant pursue landmark status for the building, which would grant it protection.

She called the building, which was built in 1959 and designed by Armet Davis Architects, one of the "gold standards in Googie Santa Monica architecture."

Googie architecture has a futuristic Space Age look, experts say, that was popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Its name comes from a defunct West Hollywood coffee shop. Not always popular with the critics, it has popular appeal.

"Googie, with its extremes, metaphorical qualities and humor has always been hard to categorize,” the website Googie Architecture Online states.

The website adds, "This may have been partly why 'serious architects' had trouble taking it seriously while the masses seemed to love it. Googie architecture and design was art that told a story."

Fresco told a Mel’s Diner representative, “I would really strongly encourage you to look into [going through the Landmark designation process] and protect this building for the community."

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