Jane St. John recognized with Sunrise Community Service Award

The community came out to celebrate Playa del Rey resident and local real estate agent Jane St. John at the Playa Venice Sunrise Rotary Club’s annual Cultural Dinner celebration on October 20th.

The crowd at the sold-out Westchester Elks Lodge was treated to dinner, cocktails and entertainment courtesy of two singing waiters at the “That’s Amore” themed gala, which raises money for the Marina del Rey-based club’s local and international services projects.

During the event, St. John was recognized with the club’s 2021 Sunrise Community Service Award for her decades-long support of the community, events and nonprofits including AMCS, the Holiday Home Tour, Helen’s Room, local schools, the Fourth of July Parade and more. St. John has also hosted the Playa del Rey Toy and Shelter Animal Drive for the last 21 years in Triangle Park.  All of the toys collected are donated to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. This year’s event is scheduled for December 4.

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Ways to give back and volunteer this holiday season

As our thoughts turn to the holidays and ways to give back, local nonprofits are inviting the community to get involved, donate and volunteer with their organizations.

We reached out to Westchester/Playa nonprofits to learn about their upcoming projects and asked them to share how the neighborhood could support their efforts as we head into the holiday season.

Below is our round-up of local organizations offering volunteer opportunities and ways you can help make a positive impact on the community, whether you’re passionate about the environment, mental health, seniors or anything in-between. If you are feeling extra generous, make sure to visit these nonprofits’ websites and social media pages on Giving Tuesday (November 30) to donate to their worthwhile causes.

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2021 Pet Photo Contest

There’s no doubt our readers love their four-legged family members, and this year more than 200 photos were sent in for our Second Annual Pet Photo Contest with Wallis Annenberg PetSpace!

The photos of dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits and even a gold fish that filled our inbox brought us smiles, laughs and even a few “awws,” but what we really enjoyed was reading all the pet adoption stories and how much people care about their pets! Whether recently adopted during the pandemic or part of the family for years, many pet parents shared that adopting their companion animal was one of the best things that’s happened to them and their families. We also loved hearing about your pets’ unique and playful personalities, like Pepper who turns into a puppy again when he visits Westchester Park to look for gophers or Jasper who likes being naughty and finding household items, even toilet brushes!

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Community Plan Update could change zoning for multiple parts of Westchester/Playa

The Community Plan Update for Westchester/Playa is proposing some zoning changes to parts of our neighborhood that may affect our homes, neighborhood character and daily commutes.

The Community Plan is a blueprint from the Los Angeles City Planning Department that sets forth neighborhood-specific goals related to housing and development. Community Plans are important because they inform developers and residents where development will be permitted. The Plan identifies and provides for economic opportunities, and maintenance of significant environmental resources. It also seeks to enhance the community identity and recognize the unique character of neighborhoods. Together, the City Zoning Code and the Zoning Maps identify the specific types of land use and development standards applicable for land use within the Westchester and Playa del Rey area.

Birkett is closely following the Community Plan Update process and sharing information with the community.

City Planning released the first Draft of the Community Plan Update in July 2020 and held online information sessions to inform stakeholders. In-person outreach was not possible due to the pandemic. Last year, City Planning solicited stakeholder feedback and they have now compiled a summary of notes from our community members about what we liked and disliked about the first Draft of the Community Plan. In a summary of the City’s notes, they noted that 59 percent of stakeholders in Westchester/Playa strongly disagreed with City Planning’s first draft of their “Emerging Vision Statement” and 50 percent of the community strongly disagreed with their “Guiding Principles.”

Some of the proposed zoning changes that residents were most concerned with were proposed in areas bordering major corridors like Manchester Ave., La Tijera Blvd., and Airport Blvd. In some of these areas in Westchester, City Planning has proposed a zoning change from R1 or R2 with single family homes and duplexes to R4 or R5 for dense residential and/or commercial development. One goal of the Community Plan is to create more affordable housing opportunities, and according to feedback, residents felt these zoning changes would actually remove affordable housing options in some of the most diverse neighborhoods by replacing them with high density development.

City Planning is also proposing elevating Manchester Ave.’s identity as an active, walkable street corridor with retail and housing options. This zoning change would affect adjacent R1, R2 and R3 neighborhoods currently zoned with single family homes, duplexes and small apartment buildings and allow high density mixed-use (housing and retail) development. Some of the concerns residents have expressed were that dense mixed-use development removes existing affordable housing options and would create inappropriate transitions between “high-scale” development and “lower-scale” residential areas. In addition, the market rate housing created by upzoning would not adequately address the affordable housing crisis.

Other areas that City Planning is targeting for zoning changes include the Triangle area in Osage; the eastside of La Tijera from Kittyhawk to Belford; Flight Ave. between 80th and 85th in Westport Heights; and Lilienthal Ave. between 86th Place and Yorktown, just west of Airport Blvd. These neighborhoods are currently zoned R1 and R2 for single family homes or duplexes. City Planning is proposing these areas be rezoned as “Medium Residential Core,” which would allow for three to five stories and up to 10 units per lot. Residents living in Westport Heights and Osage expressed concern that these zoning changes would allow for large scale development literally right next to single family homes, with inadequate transitions and a loss of neighborhood character. Other concerns expressed by residents were that these changes would decrease quality of life, increase traffic and decrease property values for residents near zoning changes. The primary concern expressed with all of these zoning proposals is that our community would potentially lose existing affordable housing options like duplexes and small, low rise apartment buildings in favor of high density market rate units.

With the Community Plan Update, we have a unique opportunity to design a more user-friendly and walkable downtown Westchester in the Central Business District, as well as preserve and enhance the Triangle business pedestrian district. We have an opportunity to advocate for goals that are important to our community, more open green space, improved commercial and mixed-use development in appropriate areas that does not remove existing affordable housing and protects our historic beach town of Playa del Rey by limiting building height and promoting coastal resilience.

The Second Draft of the Community Plan is set to be released in the next few months. City Planning will again solicit feedback from our community residents. It’s not too late to submit your comments about these proposed changes. Email your comments to planning.thewestside@lacity.org.

The current draft can be found HERE. A link to a summary of the community comments can be found HERE.

By Cory Birkett. Cory Birkett is a longtime Westchester resident and has closely followed the Community Plan Update process. She also serves as a member of the NCWP’s Planning and Land Use Committee.

Posted September 2021.

Westchester chef shares passion for fusion cuisine

Michael Kitano loves mixing flavors and cuisines, so it’s no surprise that when he decided to launch his new catering company, Hapa Meals, he would pull together what some might call unlikely pairings to create unique dishes with a twist. Asian inspired Chicken Parmesan? Hawaiian Meatloaf? Poke Nachos? Korean Style Tostadas? Yes, please!

Kitano’s love for cooking and inspiration to get creative with recipes began by watching the original Iron Chef on TV. Iron Chef showed him that there is room for experimenting in the kitchen. Looking for an outlet to express himself, he enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu in Orange County. Even at Le Cordon Bleu, his yearning for creativity and innovation was met with some resistance.

“One Cordon Bleu instructor asked all of the students to state two foods that go together,” said Kitano. “Students said things like, ‘spaghetti and meatballs’ or ‘bacon and eggs.’ I said ‘chicken and waffles’ and even the instructor was shocked! They had never heard of putting chicken and waffles together!”

After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, he got a job working at Disneyland. He quickly discovered that this position didn’t allow any deviation from recipes and was definitely not the type of cooking he had hoped to be doing after culinary school. Everything in the kitchens was prepackaged, premeasured and carefully designed. Kitano knew that this was not the vision that he had as a chef and he left after two years. He bounced around from restaurant to restaurant for a while until he landed in a traditional French restaurant. This eatery utilized the French Brigade System or Brigade de cuisine, a system of hierarchy found in restaurants and hotels employing extensive staff. The concept was developed by Georges Auguste Escoffier in 1846 and is still used in many kitchens today. So, Kitano began as a dishwasher and worked hard to move up through the ranks and ended up being trained by a French saucier. His mentor spoke no English and Kitano spoke no French, but he learned the impeccable technique that is required to make the five French mother sauces: béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise and tomato. This classical sauce making technique would later earn Kitano many awards in competition cooking.

Kitano shows off some of his favorite dishes.

Kitano then moved to Pennsylvania because his family was opening a restaurant there and he knew he could help. When things didn’t work out as planned, he wanted to get back to his Southern California roots. Originally from Culver City, he was looking for some place close to home and ended up in Westchester. Unfortunately, after so many ups and downs in the restaurant world he felt like his “culinary flame died out.” He stopped cooking for a time and went to work for his father. 

After a few years, he began volunteering to make meals at the Venice Free Methodist Church for their large events. He learned what it took to cook for big groups of people, and he was finally allowed the freedom to try out new recipes and experiment with his idea of fusion cuisine. He quickly discovered that people loved his food, and his culinary flame started to re-ignite.

Kitano took pleasure in cooking for friends and family, and his food was getting rave reviews, but then 2020 hit and so did COVID. With no gatherings to try out new recipes or competitions to enter, he used quarantine to learn everything he could about grilling. Through YouTube videos and lots of trial and error, he is now a self-taught pit master and expert on smoking meats. Char-Griller took notice and now he is sponsored by the company, which sends him their newest grills and smokers to try out. Sparked by his newfound skills, he launched Hapa Meals in February of this year. The catering company is based out of his home and customers can place orders online and pick up their meals curbside. The future of Hapa Meals includes brewery tours, as well as other pop-up events.

Over the years, Kitano has enjoyed entering competitions and as early as 2015, began winning blue ribbons for his cooking in numerous categories at events. In 2015, his bean dip took first place at the Orange County Fair, and he has won ribbons at the Orange County and Los Angeles County Fairs for dishes like deep fried Spam musubi and kimchi.

He added to his ribbon collection this year when he won first place, as well as the whole sauce division for his Korean-inspired BBQ sauce at the 2021 Orange County Fair. His culinary genius was on full display during the creation of this recipe. He was whipping up his regular sauce and added spicy Korean bean paste by accident instead of another ingredient. He tried it and discovered that it was a tasty mistake. He added other Korean ingredients and his blue-ribbon winning sauce was born. He enjoys entering competitions because he feels it is validation for him and his cooking. 

“I feel like, if the judges like it, people will like it too,” said Kitano.

His French sauce training has come into play in another one of his passions: Italian food. His alfredo sauce won the 2018 Sauce Off at the Westchester YMCA. He even beat out a few local, well-known hometown food heroes. He is proud to mention that his sauce won by a landslide. Italian food is one of his favorite types of cuisine to pair with other flavors.

 “Italian food can be fused with anything. It is a good foundation for all other types of cooking,” he explains.

This month, he will compete in the Westchester Elks Chili Cook-Off competition for the first time, and is hard at work crafting his recipe.

Kitano lives in the Osage area of Westchester with his wife and two daughters. The family enjoys entering family cook-offs, as well. His daughter is following in her dad’s footsteps and won second place at the 2018 L.A. County Fair in the Spam recipe contest.

In addition to cooking, Kitano is an avid runner and continues to volunteer at the Venice Free Methodist Church.

Kitano is a quiet and humble person, and when asked he says that he has no aspirations to appear on a cooking competition TV show, like the one that originally inspired him to want to be a chef.

 “I don’t want to be in front of people,” said Kitano. “I prefer my food to speak for itself.”

Visit hapameals.com or view his Instagram @hapa_meals to view his current menu and future pop-up events.

By Lydia Smith. Photos by Neil O’Loughlin.

WAM brings the block party to Emerson Avenue for a day of live music and fun

For Westchester Arts & Music Block Party founder John Sharpe, WAM is all about fun, family, and connection, and he can’t wait to see everyone on September 18th for the sixth annual event.

“Feeling connected and knowing your neighbors beyond the drive-by wave is huge,” said Sharpe. “WAM provides that opportunity to get to know people and creates that community connection for me. Every year, WAM gets better and better, and we tap into something that has the potential to be even greater.”

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2021 Best Of List!

We love our community and enjoy celebrating its people, places and events each month in the pages of the Westchester/Playa HomeTown News!

Our Best Of Readers’ Poll is our super-sized way to highlight all the best things about living and working in Westchester, Playa del Rey, Playa Vista and Marina del Rey. With so many excellent restaurants, businesses and organizations in the area, we love giving you—our readers—an annual opportunity to vote for your favorites. You are the real experts, and you’ve been helping us honor these outstanding individuals year after year! Thank you for being a part of recognizing those who make our community a special place to live, work and visit.

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Second Annual Pet Photo Contest

Do you have the cutest critter in the community? We’re hosting our Second Annual Photo Contest focusing on local pets!

Show off your photo skills and capture a picture of your pet doing what it does best: being adorable, funny or lounging! Submit your photos to us by September 15th for a chance to be featured in our October edition and win a gift basket courtesy of Wallis Annenberg PetSpace!

How cute are these pets from Annenberg PetSpace?


Through September 15: Submit your high resolution .jpg photos to us via email at westchesterhometown@yahoo.com. Please use the subject line “Pet Photo Contest.” Include your name, address, telephone number and pet’s name. If there’s anything else you’d like to share about your pet, please feel free to share with us! If you post the photo on social media, please tag us @thehometownnews on IG and @thehtn on Facebook.

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