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Too Much Beauty

Manifold manicures and superfluous salons

By Vrinda Normand

WHAT DO you get when you have too many beauty salons, not enough window-shopping, an angry antiques dealer and a perturbed pedicurist? A Los Gatos Town Council meeting! Business owners and local government officials are entangled in a dispute that has carried on for over a year now, and when the nail polish hit the fan a month ago, it looked like Biter might not be able to get her toes done.

The Island Pedicure, nestled in the heart of downtown Los Gatos, is the ideal spot to honor your feet. Self-indulging patrons lounge in cushy chairs enclosed on both sides by private dividers and relax in a dimly lit, woodsy atmosphere. But there's tension behind the scenes at this cozy little parlor.

Owner Jennifer Taroni brings Biter to a room behind her shop. We duck under plastic covers and step over boards. Taroni motions to the unfinished walls. "It's been in this state for six months!" she says in a desperate voice. "I've never felt so frustrated about anything in my entire life!"

In June, Taroni started construction on the retail space that would allow her to expand the size of her business. But she was red-tagged and recently told she needed to apply for a conditional-use permit—for a fee of $4,000. Taroni balked at the cost, but since she was "knee-deep" in her project, she forked it over. What she didn't realize was that her permit application might not be approved.

Why? Because some Los Gatans have had enough of the personal-care businesses that they believe are taking over the downtown area. Last summer, Shirley Henderson, co-owner of the Antiquarium antique shop, was sitting in her doctor's office reading San Jose Magazine. Under "Good places to go for hair and nails," it said Los Gatos. "I decided I was just going to take a look," she exclaimed. "And do you know, there are too many of them!"

According to Bud Lortz, community development director, there are 100 salons, parlors and day spas in the town's 14 square miles, nearly 60 of which are crammed into the quaint central district. Town Council members got wind of Henderson's complaints, which Lortz says were backed by a "groundswell" from the community. They decided on a moratorium for all new personal-care businesses. The freeze lasted for one year while the council conducted a study on how to regulate the problem.

The answer was conditional-use permits for every new personal-care business (or expansion, as in Taroni's case), which took effect in September after the moratorium was lifted. In other words, if the permit in question asks for prime downtown, first-floor retail space, "we will consider very carefully if that is best use of property," explains Councilwoman Diane McNutt.

"We want to make sure the business mix is exciting and diversified," says Councilwoman Sandy Decker, "[Downtown] loses its vitality if you don't have a varied mix of experiences as you walk down the street."

Taroni argues that she has cooperated in this regard—from the street, her salon doesn't look like a nail parlor. The front reception area is filled with retail items like flip-flops, body lotions, perfumes, books and candles.

Aside from the controversial image of Los Gatos as a hair/nail/skin hub, there's also the money to consider. "The majority of our services are paid for by sales tax revenue," explains Councilwoman Decker. Personal care services add very little, if anything, to that pot.

A short walk to Santa Cruz Avenue is Priorities Salon, a hairdressing haven inside a charming cottage. With hair dryers and gossip in the background, owner Mindy O'Toole says she thinks regulating new salons is a good idea. "We have so many great places here already," she says, "Why not focus on making them better?"

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From the October 6-12, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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