February 2008 – The Manhattanization of Venice

By Jim Smith
The tallest building ever proposed in Venice is on the drawing boards and planning committee agendas. At 31 stories, the building will tower over anything for miles around. It will be a landmark for approaching airliners and ships at sea. It will be reviled by motorists struck in gridlocked traffic on Lincoln Blvd.
The official “Project Description” gives an idea of just how big it is:

The proposed project is the development of a mixed-use residential development consisting of up to 158 condominium units and approximately 3,178 square feet of ground-floor retail space, along with 408 parking spaces, related improvements and landscaping. The project consists of a podium structure, containing the ground-floor retail uses as well as internal parking, from which rises a narrow residential tower reaching up to a maximum of 366 feet in height. Thirteen percent of the condominium units will be affordable to persons of families of very low income. 

A Venice Neighborhood Council informational meeting on the tower attracted more than 50 locals on Jan. 23. Nearly all were opposed. A spokesperson for the yet-unknown developers said the project will rely on the city awarding them more density than would normally be allowed. Buildings are allowed three square feet of floor space for every buildable square foot on the lot. This project would need at least 4.5 square feet. The developers are also banking on a density bonus from the recently passed bill, SB 1818, which provides for bonuses if a certain amount of affordable housing is included. Even with this bonus, they’d have a hard time reaching 31 stories. At least one Venice activist believes it may be the old “scare and switch” routine where something outrageous is proposed, the community rallies to the barricades, and the developers “retreat” to a more modest building that they had planned for all along.

Even so, this project may renew calls – like Lori LeBoy’s plea at the meeting – for a building moratorium. More than a year ago, petitions for a moratorium were gathered, but organizers ran into a brick wall with the pro-development L.A. City Council (except for Bill Rosendahl).

As a symbol of the “let’s build it because we can” mentality, the building will house the wealthy and a couple of low-income families – that is, if low-income families can afford to buy a condo, no matter how cheap it is. The law requires at least 10 percent of units to be “affordable” in the coastal zone. There is no data as to how long the units would remain affordable.

The new Tower will join – and dwarf – the existing three 17-story luxury condo buildings next door. The Channel Gateways project of the 1990s spawned these out-of-place creatures despite community opposition. Some community organizations, including the Venice Town Council and the Venice Community Housing Corporation threatened a lawsuit, but reached a settlement for some low-incoming apartments in the building on Lincoln Blvd., an affordable housing trust fund, a fund to mitigate negative impacts on the Oxford Triangle (the nearest Venice neighborhood), and the establishment of a Native American museum. 

The Venice community has long fought hi-rise building schemes along the beach, and more recently, at Lincoln Place. No developer, until now, has had the audacity to suggest a 31-story tower in an ecologically-sensitive coastal area that is also a liquefaction zone.

The location of the tower, south of the “Marina” Ralphs may lead people to believe the building would be in Marina del Rey. It is in Venice. Many of us have a cloudy idea of exact where Venice is located (geography not being suited to the American temperament). The rule of thumb is this: the Marina is in the county, Venice is in the city. This distinction is lost on many, particularly on newer residents. 

The reasons for the confusion are multi-fold. In addition to the problem of being geographically challenged, the city of L.A. seems unwilling to erect street signs informing travelers when they enter Venice. The U.S. Post Office further confused matters when they divided Venice into two zip codes and lumped south Venice in with the Marina as 90292. Small wonder that many in the south-of-Washington Venice neighborhoods of the Oxford Triangle and the Peninsula wrongly believe they live in the Marina. 

Finally, there is the snob appeal of the Marina. In spite of the rampant gentrification of Venice, it still doesn’t have the cachet of a Marina del Rey address. Hence the abundance of Marina signs on Venice businesses.

The Incredible Shrinking Venice

In the good ole days when Venice was its own city, and Los Angeles was still below the eastern horizon, Venice was much larger. Everything from at least Centinela west and north of the Westchester bluffs was considered part of Venice. What is now Mar Vista was farm land owned by Venice farmers, many of whom were Japanese. The Maxella shopping center was a dairy farm and bottling plant. Playa del Rey below the bluffs was the south end of Venice. It still uses the Venice street numbering system. When the Marina boat harbor was dug, this tail of Venice was severed and cast adrift.

When the Venice neighborhood council’s boundaries were laid out a few years ago, the job was in the hands of newcomers who had only a foggy idea of what was Venice and what was not. Up until that time, the main source of industrial jobs for Venetians was on Glyndon Avenue, below Washington, at Revell Plastics and about a dozen other manufacturers. This area was not included in the neighborhood council’s borders, and some time later came under the sway of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, which is much more development friendly than is Venice. A trip down Glyndon today will reveal the eradication of the job-producing manufacturers and the erection of big apartment and condo buildings which add thousands of auto trips to our streets.

It was during the creation of the boundaries and bylaws of the Grass Roots Venice Neighborhood Council in 2001 that a minority of participants tried to include Playa Vista in the Venice boundaries. Had they been successful, the fight against this small city being built on wetlands and a Native American cemetery would likely have been more forceful. On the other hand, it would have opened the door to meddling in the Venice Neighborhood Council by Playa Vista, Inc., as undoubtably will the residents of the 31-stories, if in fact, it gets built.

But now Venice seems to be shrinking to north of Washington and possibly, west of Lincoln. The previous owner of Lincoln Place – just east of Lincoln – erected signs advertising the place as being in West Los Angeles in hopes of higher rental prices. Lincoln Blvd., like Washington Blvd., sports its share of Marina signs on businesses. And with many of those who inhabit Ocean Front Walk thinking they live or work in someplace called “Venice Beach,” just where is Venice? 

A few years from now will Venice fade from memory as 20 and 30 story hi-rises crowd the coast? In that case, why not call it the Marina or West L.A.? Years from now will naive foreign tourists come here looking for the haunts of the Beats, Jim Morrison and the dream of Venice but will only find more of Los Angeles? Or will they find a city that honors its past and promotes its uniqueness, but most of all, comes together when it counts to say no to developers who would destroy Venice to build Manhattan?

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