Carl Lambert is the present owner of the building at 417 Ocean Front Walk in Venice. In October of 2018, Lambert was denied a variance for a change-of-use from a 32-unit apartment house to an apartment hotel with two dwelling units and thirty guest rooms. Associate Zoning Administrator David Weintraub denied Lambert’s request in spite of Lambert’s argument that the building used to be a hotel.
On March 20, 2019, Lambert appeared at a hearing before the West Los Angeles Planning Commission to appeal the Zoning Administrator’s decision. Present on the Commission were Vice President Lisa Waltz Morocco, Commissioner Esther Margulies, and Commissioner Adele Yellin. Commissioner Heather Rozman was absent, as was President Michael Newhouse who had recused himself from this hearing.
Lambert spoke and re-asserted his claim that the building had historic use as a hotel. Mr. Weintraub countered by citing provisions of the Zoning Code, the Land Use Plan, and the Coastal Act which clearly showed that 417 Ocean Front Walk is an apartment building. Vice President Lisa Waltz Morocco asked Mr. Weintraub about the zoning history for the building. Mr. Weintraub said that the City Council had decided that this property and adjacent blocks were residential properties. He also stated that the certificate of occupancy calls it an apartment building.
Elizabeth Peterson of Elizabeth Peterson Group, Inc. said that the building had been used on-and-off as a hotel and should therefore be returned to hotel use.
Steve Kaufmann believed that visitor-serving uses should have priority over residential uses, and that Short Term Rentals are a high priority along the coast. He felt that this would protect special communities.
Nancy Singular, of the Executive Committee of the Venice Chamber of Commerce said that we need hotels and that Carl Lambert has given so much to our community.
Mattias Bunge spoke on behalf of his father, Jose Bunge, owner of the Fig Tree Cafe. He said that we need tourism and we need hotels.
Brennan Lindner talked about how great Carl Lambert is.
Edizen Stowell repeated the sentiment that we need hotels.
Alex Stowell believed that everybody would benefit from hotels and that tourists “add life and color to Venice”. From this statement, we can conclude that Alex Stowell feels that, without the tourists, Venice would starve for lack of life and color.
Lara Leitner, counsel for Venice Suites (Lambert’s company) took issue with a part of the Zoning Administrator’s findings. She thought that the bit about the illegal conversion to a hotel should be removed.
Don Berene, the architect said that the zoning for Ocean Front Walk was capricious. He mistakenly believed that the entire Boardwalk is commercial.
Kelli Lane, a consultant for non-profit organizations said that Lambert supports non-profits. She said that she couldn’t do it without Carl.
Thomas Nitty, a representative for Lambert argued that renting for thirty days or less was not prohibited in 1928.
Jason Tong lamented that his family’s properties had been hit hard when the area was re-zoned.
Sam Trude said that the Boardwalk should just be a commercial zone, and Judy Marcarsh believed that the Boardwalk is a commercial zone.
Venice Neighborhood Councilmember Jim Murez spoke. He mainly groused about problems with the Land Use Plan. Interestingly, Murez was the only pro-Lambert VNC member to show up at this hearing. Usually, other members turn out to support Carl Lambert in his efforts to convert this apartment building into a hotel. Vice President George Francisco and former member Will Hawkins used to lend a hand. Melissa Diner and Robert Thibodeau were once on Lambert’s side. Remember, Carl Lambert was instrumental in getting most of the current VNC board elected. Why was Murez the only one left? Have Lambert’s cohorts abandoned him in his time of need? Have they jumped ship before it crashes into the rocks? Maybe.
There were many people who spoke at the hearing who agreed with the Zoning Administrator’s decision to deny Lambert the variance. Jed Pauker, a conscientious former member of the Land Use and Planning Committee of the VNC talked about Lambert running an illegal hotel for profit. He reminded everyone that the L.A. City Attorney’s lawsuit against Lambert is ongoing.
Susanne Browne of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles said that the building had existed as a rental property and that, under the Mello Act, it couldn’t be converted to commercial use.
Judy Branfman, the Documentary Filmmaker reminded everyone that this building had been an apartment building protected by rent control.
Bill Przylucki, Executive Director for the non-profit organization POWER (People Organized for Westside Renewal) spoke about how the “highest use” of properties is not conversion from longtime residential buildings into hotels.
John Given, with Keep Neighborhoods First affirmed that there was no basis to overturn the Zoning Administrator’s findings.
Dr. Judy Goldman, with Keep Neighborhoods First warned that un-permitted conversions would set a tragic precedent, and that Venice would become “a neighborhood without neighbors”.
Becky Dennison, Director of Venice Community Housing made it clear that we don’t trade rent-stabilized housing for Short Term Rentals.
Venice homeowner David Ewing declared that “Carl Lambert is a one man housing crisis.”
Robin Rudisill, former Chair of the VNC’s Land Use and Planning Committee called the Zoning Administrator’s decision “rock solid”. She reminded the Commission that the previous VNC board had denied Lambert’s proposal.
Joseph Jimenez, a Venice Local since the 1970s said that he used to work for Lambert. He said that this building isn’t the only one that Lambert is seeking to convert. He told of how people had already lost ninety homes, and he implored the city to stand up for these people.
Venice Local Beth Allyn pointed out the enormity of the loss of thirty homes in this building. She wondered what might happen to the building where she lives.
Vreni Merriam said that this proposal pitted visitors against residents.
Michael Jost said that his community in Venice is disappearing. He said that we didn’t need more tourists; there are already plenty of them.
Charlie Carnow from the Hospitality Workers Union spoke of the problem of Ellis Act evictions in Venice.
Margaret Molloy presented a slide show of the apartment buildings that Carl Lambert has converted into hotels. She called him a serial violator of rent-stabilized buildings and warned of the cumulative impact of such violations.
Carl Lambert attempted to respond to some of the comments made at the hearing. He said that he loves old buildings. He said that other people are operating Short Term Rentals. He felt that a hotel should still count as residential use. And he believed that he had vested rights for his proposal.
Associate Zoning Administrator David Weintraub corrected Lambert by explaining that, if he really had these vested rights, he wouldn’t have needed to apply for a variance. He re-affirmed that the property was not zoned for hotel use, the area is designated for medium-density residential use, and the permit history for the building always described it as an apartment house.
Commissioner Esther Margulies questioned Juliet Oh from City Planning about whether a conversion from an apartment house to a hotel was a change from residential use to commercial use. Ms. Oh felt that it counted as residential use. Ms. Margulies reminded Ms. Oh that only two out of thirty-two units would remain residential. Ms. Oh said that it would still be considered residential use. Ms. Margulies asked, “How?’ Ms. Oh answered that they would still be dwelling units, but just not long term dwelling units. Ms. Margulies called it “a mix”. Ms. Oh insisted that it would still contain residential use. Ms. Margulies expressed amazement at Ms. Oh’s logic and urged the Commission to do what’s best.
Commissioner Adele Yellin remarked that Lambert’s proposal goes against everything the city has been doing to maintain affordable housing for people working in the community. Commissioner Margulies agreed that it is counter to the city’s efforts. She saw no findings to allow Lambert a variance. Commission Vice President Lisa Waltz Morocco said that, after hearing from the appellant and the Zoning Administrator, she was convinced that the Zoning Administrator’s findings were sound. And she noted that Lambert had already granted himself a sort of variance anyway.
The Commissioners voted unanimously to deny Lambert’s appeal. He lost. Carl Lambert lost. He lost after years of the City Attorney’s lawsuits. He lost after years of making a profit on a conversion from an apartment house to a hotel. He lost after causing displacement and inflicting much heartache. But he lost. For now.
Lambert will probably keep trying to bring great harm to Venice. Like a villain in a comic book, he dies, only to come back a few issues later. It will take constant vigilance to guard against the Carl Lamberts of our time. And the People of Venice will win again. Venice always wins.