Can We Keep Venice Livable? YES WE CAN! AND YES WE HAVE!

By Jim Smith

Venetians have a well-earned reputation for actively opposing things in their community that they do not like. During the past 40 years, the Beachhead has reported on struggle after struggle against obscene developments and efforts to make Venice more like Los Angeles. Not all of these struggles have been victorious, but many have. Many of the victories came with our city council “representative” taking the opposite side. Lately, box-like buildings have sprouted up on nearly every street in Venice, each seeming to try to outdo the other in sheer ugliness. But it could have been much worse for Venice if there were no mass protests against the worst of these. Those fighting today against permit parking and to save Lincoln Place can take heed from the lessons of the past.


The Master Plan – 1969

In the late 60s, Venetians looked across the Santa Monica border and saw most of the community of Ocean Park destroyed by urban renewal. Gone were beautiful victorian homes and streets full of local businesses. In their place rose high-rise apartment buildings that were divorced from the surrounding community. Meanwhile, city fathers in downtown Los Angeles looked on in glee. Already, in the early 60s, about 25 percent of all buildings on the Ocean Front had been pulled down by L.A. building code enforcement, including the architectural masterpiece, the St. Mark’s Hotel at Windward. Mayor Sam Yorty said, “Let’s bulldoze it,” referring to the rest of Venice. In this atmosphere, the Venice Master Plan was born, and with it, an opposition that protects Venice still. 

The L.A. Planning Commission wanted to build parking lots along the beach from Venice Blvd. to Navy, and add a couple more on the sand at Brooks and Westminster. East of the parking lots would be high-rise apartments. Pacific Avenue was to be doubled in width. Oakwood would be reduced in density to prevent low-income apartment buildings. West Washington (now Abbot Kinney Blvd.) was considered “a blighting influence on the adjoining neighborhoods.” The north end would be high rises and the rest would become a commercial manufacturing zone. Wait, there’s more! The Marina freeway (also called the Richard Nixon for a short while) would bisect Venice. The most likely route would be down the Red Car right-of-way on Electric Avenue. North of Venice it would take to the sea on a causeway before reemerging on dry land in Malibu.

The Venice community, under the umbrella of the Free Venice Organizing Committee, created a community-wide coalition and fought the Master Plan with busloads of protesters at L.A. City Hall, thousands of petitions and constant mobilizations in the community. The plan that ultimately passed the L.A. City Council was much diluted and was dead on arrival. It was politically impossible to implement. A revised community plan was adopted a few years later without any of the destructive elements.


A freeway bisecting Venice

Although it was deleted from the Master Plan, the freeway is still a long-held dream of city planners in their downtown fortresses. A revised plan, the “Marina Bypass” surfaced in 1983 that would have dumped freeway traffic on Washington Blvd., near Abbot Kinney. Many saw it as a piecemeal approach to the same old plan to run a freeway across Venice. The community again rose in opposition and it was shelved. In 2001, another plan to extend the Marina freeway across Lincoln and turn Admiralty Way into a eight-lane expressway, ending at Ocean and Washington was the subject of a “scoping” meeting. Venetians again demanded the right to discuss it, and officials hurriedly left the room. It resurfaced again brief in 2006. Still, in some dark recess of the L.A. Dept. of Transportation, a room, a filing cabinet, a drafting table and furtive planners work behind a blank and locked door waiting for an opportune time to bring forth their dark designs.


The Canal Assessment District

Concurrent with the Master Plan was a scheme to turn the Venice canals into yacht harbors for the rich. Once again, Venetians headed off to city hall and circulated petitions. A community center was constructed out of an abandoned house at 468 Howland Canal. A people’s park was build on vacant city land at Sherman and Dell. Silk screen posters were created by Bill Olive (who also designed the current Beachhead masthead), and sold to raise money for the park fund. In a 1969 interview with this writer, John Haag said the community used delaying tactics to run up the cost of the project. He also cited a rumor that letters where sent to prospective contractors stating that their equipment would be sabotaged if they took the project. In the end, no bids were submitted to the city, and the project died. To celebrate their survival the canal community organized annual Canal Festivals for several years, beginning Sept. 13, 1969.


A huge development at Main and Rose

In the 1970s Venice activists gained the support of a friendly government entity, the California Coastal Commission. Now it was possible to appeal to after receiving an automatic no from the city of L.A. We also had a unifying organization in the Venice Town Council. In 1978 a huge development was proposed for the vacant land along Main Street, from Rose Ave. to Navy, by Frank Gehry and others. More than 60 Venetians traveled, at the urging of the Town Council, to the Coastal Commission hearing where the development was turned down. Later, Developer Harlan Lee’s “Venice Renaissance” proposed building was successfully scaled down and affordable units were increased from five to 23, thanks to pressure from the Beachhead’s Moe Stravnezer and others. 

A victory? Well, it could have been worse.


A mega-shopping center/office park near Washington and Lincoln

Jumping ahead to 1985, a huge development was proposed for the now-vacant Hughes Helicopter plant that is now the site of Costco. The original plan included two 17-story, two 15-story and one 12-story office buildings and miscellaneous buildings for restaurants and parking. After community pressure, the developer, Prudential Insurance Corp., changed the plan to a one million square foot shopping center to be called Marina Place. By now, the Venice Town Council (VTC), an independent body, was going strong. Debra Bowen, now state secretary of state, filed suit against the development on behalf of the VTC. After trying to bribe the VTC with $12 “mitigation” funds, which were rejected 68-2, Prudential eventually gave up. The next plan for the site was a union-friendly Price Co. The much scaled down project was not seriously opposed. However, Costco gobbled up Price Co. before the store was built. And the rest is traffic…


Another giant shopping center called Lincoln Center

In 2003, two six-story buildings were proposed for the area now occupied by Ralphs, Rite-Aid, Ross and other buildings. They would include a new supermarket on the second floor, as well as several floors of expensive apartments and a few “affordable” units. Although nearly everyone in the community opposed this castle in the center of Venice, many felt that it could not be stopped. Yet, planning meeting after meeting of irate Venetians slowed the momentum until it was finally put away at an L.A. Planning Commission meeting in 2004. This reversal took place in spite of an endorsement from the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Land Use Committee and from then Councilmember Cindy Miscikowski. The Beachhead ran a number of articles opposing the project. This was the largest victory against redevelopment in a number of years.


A gated community at the MTA lot

The Lincoln Center victory was followed by another seemingly impossible victory against a gated community planned for the MTA bus lot on Main and Sunset. A deal had been worked out by the MTA and a development group known as RAD to trade the Venice lot to RAD in exchange for another lot near Baldwin Hills. Venetians found out about the deal after it was done (although we later found out it was contingent on RAD being able to build on the Venice lot). Again, the community and the Beachhead sounded the alarm. Led by North Beach neighbors of the proposed project, people mobilized hundreds for various planning meetings. RAD attempted to make modest modifications, but the community was having none of it. Many complained that it would not fit the neighborhood, which is a series of walk streets, and that the lot could be put to better uses. It was pointed out that the MTA lot had formerly been the Red Car lot, and had been public or quasi-public for a hundred years. Bowing to public pressure, on March 9, 2006, the L.A. Planning Commission put so many restrictions on the project that RAD felt it was impossible to carry out its plans. The lot continues to be a bus maintenance lot.


A 50-foot-tall luxury hotel at Brooks and Abbot Kinney

Hot on the heels of the victory at the MTA lot, came the proposed luxury hotel project a few blocks away at Brooks Ave. and Abbot Kinney Blvd. This one had also been approved by the VNC Land Use Committee, on Dec. 7, 2005, before it became generally known to the community. But by Sept. 19, 2007, it was official dead when the West L.A. Planning Commission voted 5-0 against it. Persistence of community opposition paid off at last. The proposed Ray Hotel touted itself as being “too cool” to abide by the Venice Specific Plan requirement of a maximum height of 30 feet. The Ambrose Group project would have been “green” and would have preserved part of an old warehouse on the property. But most worried about the precedence of allowing a too tall building that catered to the rich on the edge of Oakwood and the Abbot Kinney commercial strip.


Light at the end of the Lincoln Place tunnel?

Perhaps the longest running battle in Venice history is over the future of Lincoln Place. The government-financed 900 garden apartments were built for returning GIs and their families after World War II. All went well until property values soared in the late 90s. The 38 acres seemed too good to be true for local speculator, Robert Bisno, who bought the complex from its original owners. He promptly began evicting tenants, destroying vegetation and bulldozing 200 units of the affordable housing. He brought in AIMCO (Apartment Investment and Management Company) as a partner. AIMCO, the biggest apartment owning corporation in the country bought out Bisno and began promoting its plan to eliminate the apartments and build high-rise condominiums. But they didn’t count on an aroused group of tenants and a community skilled in struggle. For years, Lincoln Place had been the home of retired garment workers and union activists who had passed on their skills to a younger generation. When Bisno and AIMCO came along, the Lincoln Place Tenants Association was ready for them. Joined by many Venice activists, they employed a combination of public activities and legal strategies. Even though all but a handful of disabled and senior tenants were evicted in early morning raids by marshals on Dec. 6, 2005, the struggle did not end. The remaining tenants, former tenants and the community redoubled their fight to preserve the remaining 700 units of affordable housing. Since then, a judge has ruled that the tenants were evicted illegally. Years of dedicated work may yet have a happy ending. It is a story that has been covered in the Beachhead more than any other single issue. And the story is continuing.

So what does it all mean? It means that seemingly invincible wealth, political power and lots of men in suits can be overcome by a community that is united and tenacious. This is especially true if that community – Venice – has a voice that will tell the facts and won’t be intimidated by power, police or prestige. This is the role the Beachhead continues to fulfill 40 years down the road.