The Project Approval Process is the Wild West

Hardly a day passes when a new approved project filled with exemptions, exceptions and questionable mass and scale issues doesn’t pop up. Who cares? Is anyone watching? The answer is no. No one is really watching. If anything happens around here to rein in the scofflaws it is because of an accidental observation or fed up reaction to it from some resident. And that happens only when an alarm bell is ringing really loud.

The damage that has been done to Venice because of simple ennui and ‘benign neglect’ by the ‘deciders’ is way beyond what any of you realize. Only when you start adding up the approvals and inconsistencies from Planning and Zoning Administration over the past seven years or so does the magnitude of the damage done to this small town become powerful and meaningful to Venice’s quality of life. Much of the parking deficit and increasing gridlock problems are self-inflicted, caused by careless decisions from various departments. They need a mandate to do no harm. None of the deciders are concerned if decisions they make might be harmful in the future. If they can mark that box in an application with an X they are good to go.

The bottom line: Planning does not plan. There is no charter from its highest level to plan. Enforcement does not enforce. Enforcement rarely happens no matter how egregious the offense might be. Only when residents make ‘big noise’ with the higher-ups does a problem even get anyone’s attention. This problem is at every level in the city. When you can’t get anyone’s attention, your temperature boils and you worry that if a real big problem happens around this place we are going to be in real trouble — this town is run like some kind of Banana Republic. Anything goes.

If we did not have an active and attentive council office things would be much much worse. But why should residents have to turn to the council office to get ‘saved.’ They shouldn’t. Why should residents have to be the sheriff around here to try to effect a system that works — fairly and thoughtfully?

When you look more deeply into the approval process it reveals many ‘discretionary’ approvals and ‘interpretations’ allowing for reduced parking, no parking at all, restaurant expanded service areas without required parking and worse. Never are these discretionary decisions made with concern if it is good for the community. The latest revelation was that Planning actually made ‘discretionary’ decisions on a project under the purview of the California Coastal Commission. They have no authority to do that. But they did it. The Planning Department has become the actual ‘enemy within.’ This needs to be reined in and fast and a new mission put forth which will look at projects requiring discretion with eyes focused on what is good for neighborhoods and what will be good for the longer term.

If projects actually were planned within the scope of the current Venice Specific Plan many arguments would never develop between developers and residents. When the plan is silent on a particular issue, Planning should be directed to make their ‘discretionary’ decisions in concert with the spirit and intent of the Venice Specific Plan. The VSP is the superior ‘decider’ in Venice and it should be respected not thwarted by using creative loopholes.

The VSP is a plan that needs updating for sure. Changing conditions in Venice these last 10 years demand its update. But, for the moment, it is the operative document. Applying the city code to Venice issues as an override to the VSP is wrong and illegal.

Is there anyone at the top of the Planning and Zoning Administration departments who will step out — take a little risk of shaking things up — and take a hard look at the mess their decisions have created here in Venice? We’re hoping. What else can we do?

What is Venice?

We’re pretty old. Yes, we are old, unique, bohemian, creative and one-of-a-kind. Small cadres of residents have found themselves “manning the barricades.” They are, in their small way, holding back the barbarians at the gate. The new barbarians are a small group of architects and their consultants determined to change this place into their vision and that vision is focused on $$$. They burrow through the Code looking for that weak link to bust this or that rule or precedent and ingratiate themselves with our local Planners and DOT decision-makers while they work hard to do the same with our council office.

Our new barbarians are here mining our riches because they wanted our vibe but what they are doing now is sucking the blood right out of this small town. They don’t care what impact the project they are pushing has on the town’s residents, even their own neighbors, its congested streets and its very, very limited infrastructure. They are going for it. One guy is even attempting to change zoning laws which now restrict how close restaurants and bars can be to residential properties. He says times have changed. Reaping their big commissions, getting a piece of the action is the game of the day. And they are playing for keeps.

There have been glimmers of understanding coming from Bonin’s office. His team seems to have a sense that they really have a jewel here in Venice and they have stuck their necks out a bit to try and protect it from the avaricious. This is not an easy task with every developer pounding on the door of their office to lobby, lobby, lobby. Residents nag the team on a daily basis. Residents know that their little voices must become big noise to have any chance of reining in the developers and their lackeys who say they love Venice. The growing big noise is consulting with lawyers, reading the code and growing in increasing numbers. They are sick and tired of decisions coming out of Planning and the DOT which have absolutely no foundation in reality or the slightest understanding of our real world. They gather “reports” and make their decisions and push those papers off their desk. We’re not even sure they know where Venice is!

The bottom line is that Venice is small. Small is why it is such an extraordinary community of one helluva mixed-up population. It’s that kind of community which glows in its smallness, its oddness, it downright eccentric ways. That’s why we never became a Brentwood or Santa Monica despite all the money that has poured into this place these last 10 years. Venice always welcomed all comers and relished its smallness. It believed those built-in limiting factors would protect them naturally from the big at any cost people who are now ripping it apart.

Residents of Venice making all the noise at the moment, are alone in the battle to preserve the essence of Venice: intimate and small.

One-of-a-kind.

Really

Let’s not mince words, it’s over.

We are fabulous. GQ said so. We look good on the outside.

The impending and imminent exit of Hal’s, Casa Linda, the old Angela shoe repair and the glorious eccentric Bountiful, closes out the era of a street actually used by locals. A street where we once belonged. Abbot Kinney becomes even more fabulous every passing day — too fabulous surely for anyone here more than five years. We figure it won’t be much longer before people don’t even recall that it was once our street — a place for the regulars —  ordinary not-so-fabulous people who thought it was their street and fit into it like it was the proverbial old glove. It had a sense of place. That’s a very rare experience in L.A. and perhaps it exists nowhere else. Heck, today people think “The Grove” has a sense of place.

Hold your memories close, they are more important than ever as our town morphs into all that we disdain. You know, all those reasons you don’t live in Brentwood. It soon will be hard to remember how good and comfortable that old glove fit.

The Venice Tsunami – ‘Silicon Beach’

It wasn’t that long ago when our local politicians were slapping themselves on the back and taking bows before an adoring crowd of Google-ites and Venice residents.
They were extolling a brilliant future and never-ending opportunities that the big shots from Silicon Valley will be laying at the feet of the grateful. Visions of sugar plums sparkled in the eyes of local landlords and property owners. Real estate agents could feel the coming commission boomtown.

Water began lapping at our shores. Quietly, landlords began evicting long-term tenants. Many of the evictees were local artists renting old grungy studio spaces. These artists are the foundation of what is Venice and most certainly they are the heart of what we are – or what we think we are.

Speculators began to build condos. Owners began to figure out what they could build on their old industrial building properties. Property owners saw pretty quickly that the motherlode of profits from increasing rental income and top record-breaking sales prices was soon to be theirs for the taking. Venice new arrivals will all need homes, and housing is already in very short supply. The new arrivals will be happy to pay the inflating prices just to call Venice home. There are so many developments underway it feels like a big destructive wave has washed over our streets.

Venice has become even more fabulous. Nearly every guide book now includes Venice’s Abbot Kinney as a ‘must see.’ The current retail shops on Abbot Kinney and even those on Lincoln (if you can believe it) will fill the increasing demand for super high-end shopping and office space. One shop after another has left to be replaced by a corporate-run operation. Money is no object. Making a profit is secondary. If you are anyone in retail, you need to be ‘cool’ and need a presence on Abbot Kinney to validate your fabulousness.

Landlords are drooling at the gold rush. They can’t raise their rents fast enough. They have taken on the airs of emperors doling out their precious spaces to the worthy who pay up. Arrogance rules our day now. Landlords practically auction off their newly vacant spaces, treat applicants like they were supplicants and and look only for the highest credit-worthy bidder.

So where else do we see the water lapping at our shores? Right here in our residential neighborhoods, which really are loaded with charming unique homes and units.

House after house, unit after unit are being taken over by the predators of the short-term rental industry and turned into day rental quasi hotel rooms. Headed by Silicon Valley’s Airbnb and its operatives, this new industry is intimidating long-term tenants out of their homes and selling the big money vision that Airbnb promotes to landlords and property owners. Professional lobbyists invade our government offices pushing their vision of a ‘sharing economy.’ Yes, you are right. You thought less than 30 day rentals were illegal in Los Angeles – but who is looking? Who cares about destabilizing entire neighborhoods? The city council is ‘studying’ this. Will they vote for regulations which put neighborhoods first?

Lastly, we come to the devastation of the rental stock for small business owners in Venice. Many ‘creative’ commercial spaces are being torn down in favor of condo lofts or leased to one of the ‘big boy’ well-funded start-ups. Little production companies, and individually owned and run local business services are on the road to eviction to be replaced by corporate entities willing to pay anything. The biggest hit Venice will take to our small commercial rental stock will be if the persistent rumor is true that Silicon Beach’s newest love-child actually takes over our only ‘business park’ at 606-654 Venice Boulevard at Abbot Kinney. The rows of individual offices housing many local services who have served the community for years and years will be evicted so Silicon Beach’s Wall Street funded billion dollar Snapchat can create a campus on the huge parcel. If the deal does not go through, you can be sure that another huge operation will get in line for this property now known to be ‘in play.’ Why would the landlord choose to maintain his current multi-tenant operation with all the hassle that having many tenants bring to property management when your goldmine can be leased to one golden well-funded Wall Street tenant-baby? This is the new reality in the world of leasing property in Venice.

We could get lucky. With Google buying a giant parcel in Playa Vista and Snapchat rumored to have done the same thing, some of the pressure on Venice, its rental stock and its infrastructure might get some relief.

What will Venice be when Silicon Valley is done with it? Can a small beach town influence its future against the will of Silicon Valley and its Silicon Beach progeny?
Who knows?

Now,Venice is a sound stage for the Silicon Valley/Silicon Beach money machine. It just keeps the lights on. We are a town of studio grips running the equipment with no say in what our future and our neighborhoods will become.

We are a community out of balance.

We have no dike to hold back the sea. We are the dike and like the Dutch boy, all of our thumbs are holding back the water.

The Neighborhood 2    Anti-neighborhood Developers 0

The decision was unanimous: 5 – 0 at the Planning Commissioner’s meeting last week.

One of the commissioners had the audacity to look at the city planner and ask “why did you approve this?”

The project is so bad that it received their unanimous vote to support the appeal against the Planning department and Zoning Administrator’s decisions. The 259 Hampton application approval to expand an illegally operating restaurant, approve the sale of alcohol, and permit no parking whatsoever was bad. The Commission saw why a neighborhood was willing to spend six hours at their meeting and their vote showed it.

The ZA and the Planning department ‘deciders’ again chose to ‘interpret’ silence in the Venice Land Use Plan as intent, to favor a bad project. They are blind to the negative effects it would have on its neighbors. The hue and cry from the neighbors and many other Venice residents has fallen on their deaf ears. They continue to go down the same road and approve projects where all the cars are parked virtually. If Planning or Zoning had made site visits and observed actual conditions in this parking deficient and congested neighborhood, and put the residents in first position ahead of the owner applicant and transient tourists, their conscience would have prevented them from approving 259 Hampton.

The neighborhood again came together in big numbers and said enough is enough. They testified before the commission with two sound engineer residents who totally and expertly refuted the “no noise” claims of the applicant.

The ZA and Planning departments need to be reminded that Venice’s noise, traffic congestion and lack of parking should be all that any of them need to consider and start saying NO to applicants. We hope they will now pay attention to what the actual realities are in our neighborhoods and stop looking for ways to game the system, mark the box with ‘X’ and move the application off their desks. They are responsible for the problems caused because of their thoughtless. Approvals are given without a scintilla of regard for the collateral damage those decisions would cause.

It takes tremendous effort and energy to fight bad development decisions already made. The last two ‘victories,’ with multi-department opposition to 320 Sunset and the successful appeal of 259 Hampton should wake up the ‘deciders’ that business as usual is over in Venice. They now must put neighborhoods first.

Activists working to protect Venice’s unique neighborhoods grow in numbers every day. Venice residents are living with the noise, near gridlock on many streets and overall general congestion caused by bad city decisions. No effort is now too much. Residents realize that the only way to get the city to work for Venice is to demand it.

 

The Neighborhood 1     The Gjelina Group 0

A near-total turnover of the Venice Neighborhood Council and LUPC Committee members last Spring, has actually changed the focus of the ‘deciders’ to what’s good for Venice and its unique neighborhoods. And, most important, it is that our community representatives are now really paying attention and listening to what residents tell them they want for their community. The arrogance is gone. No longer are the residents told to “eat your spinach and be quiet.”

Last week’s public Zoning Administrator meeting on the application for the Gjelina Group to change their bakery operation at 320 Sunset into a full restaurant and bar with outside patio, brought out a crowd who came prepared to tell their stories to the ZA. Resident after resident described the negative impact the bakery already has had on their unique neighborhood and how it would devastate this quiet community.

The ZA came prepared with a deep understanding of the project. The Gjelina Group came unprepared to answer most of the questions nor did they come with the necessary new parking plan. For that reason alone, the ZA took the project off the table for further consideration. But that was really just the beginning of a very bad morning for the Gjelina Group.

After all of the residents who wanted to speak were done, the captain and a sergeant from Pacific Division LAPD, spoke strongly against approval of the project because of on-going neighborhood problems and the current saturation of alcohol licenses in Venice. Venice has more ABC licenses per population than any other place in the city. They suggested they would re-visit approval for an alcohol license in 6 months to a year. Next, a representative from Building and Safety spoke and reiterated that the current bakery permit does not permit any seating whatsoever on the property. All the milk crates and benches must to be removed and absolutely no eating permitted in the parking lot. He further questioned whether its current actual use is really a bakery as a “bakery” is defined in the building code. Finally, he questioned the double use of parking credits and noted that the legal use of the “parking lot” Gjelina leased in order to obtain a restaurant/bar permit is actually vacant land and not parking lot.

Finally, a representative from our council member Mike Bonin’s office, Chris Robertson, read Bonin’s strong clear opposition letter to the project into the record.  Further, she stated that the council office is reviewing the use of ‘grandfathering’ to avoid providing for the current parking requirements for new and change-of-use projects. In addition to the grandfather issue, the council office is also focusing on the use of ‘in lieu’ fees to purchase parking spaces to satisfy parking requirements. These virtual parking spaces and parking credits for phantom spaces are at the foundation of Venice’s extreme parking deficit and its inability to get ahead of the problem.

This may be the first time when residents have come together, persistently voiced their concerns to their representatives, and the system actually worked for them. All the residents who banded together to make this happen should be congratulated. It was a near-herculean task to reverse an outcome that was believed inevitable and they did it. Now, hyper vigilance is the order of the day.

The Gjelina Group is unlikely to accept the will of the neighborhood. They are used to getting their way and getting around Building and Safety rules. They should be expected to bring out their high-power expensive land consultants who will be chartered to get their restaurant/bar operating — no matter what the legal obstacles are or what the neighborhood wants.

 

320 Sunset Avenue

Gjelina’s application received a stunning rebuke from the Zoning Administrator. The Zoning Administrator found so many insufficiencies with the “Change of Use” application, it was placed on a complete hold.

The loud and large outcry from Venice residents in opposition to Gjelina’s latest adventure was actually heard by the City. Criticisms of the project are now receiving real scrutiny. FINALLY! The community is clear in its opposition to another late night Fran Camaj restaurant and bar operation slapped right up against their residences. The intrusion of alcohol into a neighborhood without any other businesses serving alcohol — and serving alcohol until 2am — amplifies the total saturation of ABC licenses in Venice and people are fed up. Camaj’s well-earned reputation as a bad neighbor didn’t help his application. His intentions to only operate a “bakery” in the Sunset space raised neighborhood suspicions when his bakery permit morphed into a full-fledged restaurant and bar — the residents be damned! — is clearly the applicant’s attitude.

The Black BeastThe “Black Beast,” 1305 Abbot Kinney

And now we come to the “Black Beast” nearing completion at 1305 Abbot Kinney. This is Camaj’s latest adventure. Shortly the “noodle” restaurant will be ready for patrons and the pending liquor license application will go active. Another ABC approval for a bar operation in Venice is on the table. Another restaurant without sufficient parking is coming to the street. Once residents realize that this building will house Gjelina #3, the reputation of the devastation from the parking intrusion, and loud late night noise from Gjelina just a couple of blocks south, will scare the beejesus out of them. Get ready for the hurricane-in-waiting on this one… it’s been lurking out in the Pacific and is close to blowing ashore.

Venice, a Neighborhood of Strangers

Imagine buying a home on one of Venice’s streets only to find out that you really have no true neighbors — that your neighborhood is not a real neighborhood. What you thought were properties housing your new neighbors are actually buildings occupied by transient renters. Imagine in the mornings seeing maids with carts moving up and down the street… just like you see in the hallways of any legitimate hotel. Will it be safe to let your kids play outside with nothing but strangers surrounding your home and roaming your streets 24/7?

About 2000 units of Venice’s housing stock have been captured as short-term rentals by Airbnb, VBRO, Flipkey, Globe and others, for inclusion in their available rooms to rent-by-the-day operations. These units are no longer available for rent unless you want to rent a room by the day. On the short two blocks of Dudley, there are already 12 entire buildings which have been taken over as short-term rentals. This is not a situation where a homeowner is renting out their home while they go on vacation — it is a mass takeover of our rental unit stock with transient one night renters and as weekend party houses for reunion meetings and the like. The public relations for the syndicators is that this is the new “sharing economy,” but none can tell you just what is being shared. The best we can figure is that all the sharing is between the investors and the operators of Airbnb and the rest of them.

This is a stealth takeover of our housing stock by investors and owners eager to participate in this new gold rush. Short-term rental operators and syndicators will do more to destroy our community than any bad development ever could.

Los Angeles has an ordinance on the books which prohibits any rental of less than 30 days. It is not being enforced. The city is choosing not to enforce it because of the lobbying influence by Peers.org. The lobbyists for Airbnb, and others, are working city-by-city to get these short-term rental restrictions removed. The reason cities have short term rental restrictions is to maintain its housing stock and keep neighborhoods stable and safe.

The lack of enforcement of the short-term rental law will de-stabilize our neighborhoods and destroy our community’s cohesiveness forever. This is a big deal. We should all be worried. Keepneighborhoodsfirst.com is the “headquarters” to learn more about this very, very important issue. They need your support — check it out.

Welcome to Our World

Does anyone not understand why so many of the original members of the Venice Neighborhood Council (VNC) and it’s important Land Use Committee (LUPC) were
either not re-elected or voted out? They were replaced with residents who are fed up with the attitude of business as usual. May 18th was a resoundingly loud and clear expression of the community’s discontent. The community wanted off its current path of exemptions, exceptions, and destruction that the prior VNC and LUPC were on. The massive no vote was a loud cry to take back our neighborhoods and put them into the caring hands of those who want to preserve Venice.

A skeleton now remains of 1353 Abbot Kinney. The first near-total destruction on Abbot Kinney of one of the street’s original brick buildings has been accomplished. A ghost of its former self remains. How sad for Venice.

Despite many people sounding loud alarm bells nothing stopped Mr.Shabani’s demo team. They turned one of our key brick buildings with its amazing leaded glass clerestory windows, original wood detailed facade and perfectly scaled shop windows into something common. Dear reader, if you would like to see what a thoughtful quality restoration looks like, take a look at the the work being done right now at 1103 Abbot Kinney, the Junk Food Clothing Co.

A LUPC member actually wrote Councilman Bonin’s office defending this massacre as merely a “repair” of the facade. Is there any wonder why Venice residents demanded
the VNC regime change?

We hope that the Venice Historical Society will strongly focus on protecting the rest of Abbot Kinney’s historic brick buildings now that one of the first brick buildings on the street has been destroyed. Who better to protect the heritage of our community than the Venice Historical Society?

As we move forward, optimism has replaced a sense of doom. We now hope that a project which damages our community and contradicts our Venice Specific Plan’s intent, will not be approved by the VNC or the city. Venice residents expect all future project approvals to be based strictly on what our local land use plan intended for our community. It won’t be easy to reverse course with Planning or with VNC’s criteria for approving projects. The broad interpretation of our Venice Specific Plan used by city Planning and our VNC must cease.

The people have spoken. Now it’s time for VNC and city planning to listen.

Entitlement for The Venice Tree House

LA City Code Enforcement has slammed the hammer down hard on the Venice owner of of a sweet kid’s tree house citing an endless string of ‘violations.’ This is not one of those ‘forts’ we built as kids that we put together with any scrap piece of wood we could find to hammer a nail into. No, this is one of those exquisite little thoughtful structures made of bamboo which has been happily in use by the neighborhood kids all these years without any problems whatsoever.

Here in Venice, consultants pour thru property history records searching for ‘entitlements’ allowing ‘grandfathering’ clauses to be cited as justification for parking requirements.

‘Grandfathering’ rules in Venice. Right now, Local 1205 has a hearing scheduled to obtain an ABC license and expand to sidewalk seating plus add rear patio seating despite not having one parking space for all the seats they already have. The consultants have found some parking ‘out’ which ‘grandfathers’ the total lack of parking.

And there’s more — The building now undergoing big expansion next to the new Pork Belly just ‘legalized’ 3 parking spaces thereby filling an additional parking requirement when these parking spaces have actually been in parking use for 40 years! The old records never reflected these parking spaces so now this owner can ‘create’ parking officially and meet a parking requirement. And then there is Gjelina who has expanded and expanded without adding one parking space through the use of ‘grandfathering’ with the help of their restaurant consultant sleuths. Gjelina takes up so much parking in the Electric Avenue neighborhood that residents are on a perpetual parking hunt. The old World Gym is now doubling the size of the property plus adding a restaurant. It will do this with half the parking which would be required if old parking rules were not ‘grandfathered’ and that new freebie obtained for parking ‘credits’ for bike racks if their plans get approval from the city.

Who is going to pour through the records and find an old rule which will ‘entitle’ the
owner of the tree house to keep her kid’s play house? Let’s hope she gets help from
Councilman Bonin. Surely one of his legal eagles will find that holy grail of tree house
entitlement.

We hope they will.