By Jon Wolff
Venice’s Juneteenth event was held in Oakwood Park on Saturday, June 16, 2018. An estimated 2000 Venetians turned out for this day of celebration in the heart of Venice.There was music and barbecue food.There were T-shirts and various fashionable clothing items for sale. There were hundreds of large photographs on display in
memoriam of beloved Venetians, old and young, who have passed on.And there was an extensive exhibit of pictures and documents that told the History of the church
across the street from Oakwood Park. This, of course, is the First Baptist Church of Venice on the corner of Westminster Avenue and 7th Avenue.
The First Baptist Church has been at the center of a controversy for some time.It’s been the subject of many articles in the Beachhead since November of last year. Besides the Beachhead coverage though, little media attention has been paid to the Legacy of this historic African-American house of worship in Venice. Until now.
News cameras and reporters were on the scene on Wednesday, June 20, to cover the West Los Angeles Planning Commission meeting in the Henry Medina Facility in West L.A.The Planning Commission met this evening to hear an appeal from the Venice Community to oppose the conversion of this historic Black church into an 11,760 square-foot single-family dwelling with a rooftop deck and attached four-car garage.
A protest rally was held before the meeting with signs and speeches against the violation of the sacred sites and History of the Black and Brown Communities of Venice. The meeting room was filled, with Venetians opposed to the project on one side, and the current owners and their collaborators on the other side.
Present on the Commission were President Esther Margulies, Vice President Michael Newhouse, and Commissioners Heather Rozman and Adele Yellin. Absent this evening was Commissioner Lisa Waltz Morocco. The proceedings began with Venice’s Lydia Ponce giving prayers and offerings in the tradition of the Indigenous Tongva People. She reminded all in attendance that
they were sitting on Tongva land.
The designated speakers spoke first. Venice Activist Laddie Williams clarified an error made by Juliet Oh from the City Planning Department about the number of lots involved in the proposed project. Juliet Oh had identified the property as three lots when, in fact, it consists of five lots, with two more across the street. This will be significant in the Commission’s decision as it pertains to the standards of Mass, Scale, and Character for the zone in which the building is located.A conversion of an historic church building into a single-family dwelling would not be the same as a 24-unit dwelling.She also spoke of the church’s role as a beacon of light in the Community.
Dr. Naomi Nightingale addressed the issue of the proposed conversion being defined as a “change of use”. She pointed out the trivializing intent of this term and how it ignores the History of the Black Community of Venice. She reminded everyone that the building is called the First Baptist Church of VENICE; built by senior architect Henry Williams; to serve the Community in the 1.5 mile area bounded by Lincoln Boulevard, Rose Avenue, California Avenue, and Main Street; and how this Black Community has been under attack for decades to make way for the infiltration of the wealthy who have no regard for History or Culture.She talked about the destruction of the contributions made by the African-American pioneers of Venice and how important it is to see that this church means more than just 11,000 square feet.
Speaking for the other side was lawyer Elisa Paster. She spoke disparagingly of the building itself, as if to say that the current owners will upgrade it from the state of neglect that they’ve caused since purchasing it. She mistakenly said that no application had been submitted to deem it an historic structure when, actually, that application is now being processed.
Then spoke Elaine Irwin, the ex-underwear model and current wife of the current owner Jay Penske. She talked about doing community outreach and receiving emails and letters of support from residents. She said that she had 100 signatures from the individuals that she had met. Of course, none of this “outreach” had reached to the Venetians in the meeting, or those in the Community, or those who had signed the 1000 signatures on the petitions opposing the conversion that were circulated at the Juneteenth event in Oakwood Park.
Many people in the room spoke out against the proposed conversion.Lydia Ponce talked about the lawsuit that is challenging the legitimacy of the sale of the church, and how one broker had handled both the sale and purchase of the church.
Margaret Malloy said that historic photos had already been submitted to the Office of Historic Resources. Also, she told of the pastor, Horace Allen, receiving rent money from low-income tenants in the church building. Under the Mello Act of 1982, this would restrict a conversion in the Coastal Zone and would require a replacement of affordable units in the building.
Beth Allyn let Ms. Penske (Irwin) know that she had never received or seen any notification anywhere in Venice about the proposed conversion. David Ewing called the project a “crime wrapped in a court case, complicated by a contested land sale, all wrapped up in a City Planning case, a CEQA case, a Coastal Development case, and a Mello case.” Soni Lloyd, a teacher at Venice High School, said that the teachers would be ready to fight this. Bertha Williams said that when the Penskes sent a man around the neighborhood to find support for the conversion, the man himself was unaware that the building was a church.
David Busch pointed out that the intersection of Westminster Avenue and 7th Avenue has historic designation as E.L. Holmes Square.He invited the Penskes to come to the ongoing gatherings in front of the church on Sundays to pray with the People there.
Pamela Anderson, a seventh-generation Venetian, talked of her grandfather’s work in building Venice. She called attention to the fact that none of those sitting on the Penske’s side of the room were black.
Judy Branfman, the documentary video producer, described how the City of L.A. indiscriminately awards fast rubber-stamp approvals, called Venice Sign Offs, for these conversions. And she asked Commission Vice President Michael Newhouse to recuse himself from this hearing because of his extensive relationships with developers.
Holly Mosher said that a conversion of this size would exceed the standards of Mass, Scale, and Character for the area.She told the Commission that if they approve the conversion, they would take it with them forever as a shameful act.
Mairym Llorens of the L.A. Tenants Union spoke of how working people are being pushed out of Venice. She boldly told the Penskes that it is a sickness to want to go into a Community and care more about your own dreams to have a huge mansion than about a neighborhood.
Dawn Hicks from Venice Community Housing wondered how this church would not be an historic landmark and be considered just a building. She talked about institutional displacement and the taking away of a part of African-American History.
Edward Ferrer said that the title was in dispute and that the broker didn’t do his due diligence. Sheperd Stern called the 11,000 square-foot project too ostentatious for even Bel Air. He said that the Venice Neighborhood Council (VNC) who approved it are all white, and how the architect for the project (Robert Thibodeau) is a member of the VNC, which is a violation of the Brown Act.
A man identifying himself as The People of California called the Venice Neighborhood Council the “Vichy” Neighborhood Council, in reference to the French government that collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
Mike Bravo saw all this as just a matter of “Money versus a sacred historic site”. He defined Gentrification, not as a force of nature, but as a system of patterns and practices that include Jim Crow laws and gang injunctions. And he spoke of the resilience of the Venice Community whose ancestors had built Venice. Ingrid Miller reminded everyone that she and the other tenants from the Lincoln Place Apartments were helped by the People of the Oakwood Community when the tenants struggled to keep their homes. She said that she would now do the same in return.
Robin Rudisill spoke of the “adverse cumulative impact” that a project of this size would have on the area. She said that the Coastal Act exists to protect against such projects. She recommended that the Commission defer their decision until the lawsuit over the sale is settled. Mary Jack talked about the hypocrisy of governments regarding housing and how millionaires don’t need more housing options.
A frequent speaker at city meetings, known as Wayne from Encino, brought his hand puppet to the meeting. The puppet did the speaking.It asked why anyone would need an 11,600 square-foot house.It called for the money changers to be thrown out of the church. And it accused Commission Vice President Michael Newhouse of supporting the project for his own gain. This performance won applause and laughter from the Venetians opposed to the project.
Venice Elder Jataun Valentine spoke.She told the Commission that a vote in favor of the conversion is a vote against Black History. The Reverend Oscar Rhone recalled Pastor Holmes’ original vision for the First Baptist Church.
Larry Williams told of his grandfather who had lived 104 years and had brought in Pastor Holmes at the beginning. He suggested that everyone look into the allegations
surrounding the sale of the church.
Ivy Beach pointed out how the Penskes’ side of the room was all white and called the church “a landmark threatened by racism”.
Community organizer Adolfo Alzuphar talked about L.A.’s reputation for not preserving historic buildings.
Asia Carr said that this “change of use” would spit in the face of 100 years of the Black Community.
Sabrina Venskus, an environmental land use attorney, said that the Director of Planning had erred in exempting this project from the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) . She explained how the project conflicts with the Land Use Plan by being out of Mass, Scale, and Character.
Dr. Judith Goldman asked the Commission if they had supported the historic designation that was granted to Temple Mishkon Tephilo, a Jewish house of worship in
Sue Kaplan implored the Commission to not make a premature decision but to wait until a settlement is reached in the lawsuit regarding the sale of the church.
Those who supported the Penskes’ proposed conversion of this historic Black Church into a single-family dwelling also spoke.
Jim Murez, a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council, denied that the project would set a precedent in the area.
Will Hawkins, Chair of the VNC’s Homeless Committee, did not think that the project would be out of Mass, Scale, and Character with the neighborhood.
Matthew Royce, VNC member and architect, claimed that the Penskes had done outreach to find support for their project.When asked by Commission President Esther
Margulies how he knew that their outreach effort had had reached anyone, he mumbled that they had had many meetings.
George Francisco, Vice President of the VNC, called the Penskes “assets to the community”. He labeled the People of Venice as being liars and too emotional.
Charles Gorten said that he would rather have a single-family dwelling on the site than a… a… a…Here, he stumbled for words when he realized that he was about to
Vivian Lee saw no need for this historic church building and declared that the people can have church with any walls.
Antoinette Reynolds unwittingly mentioned transitional housing for the low income people who had lived on the church property. This admission would certainly raise the issue of Mello Act compliance for the project and its requirement to replace affordable housing.
Tim Grey commended Jay Penske for starting a work program for volunteers. But no one asked Mr. Grey why a billionaire should need volunteers.
Nelson Anderson approved of growth and development.
Carl Walter believed that the Penskes will revitalize the building.
Raul Nuñez thought that the project would improve the quality of life in the area.
Rose Spanlock said that the project would honor Venice.
Cesar Rodarte called the Penskes wonderful people.
Sofia Hastings called the Penskes creative and respectful.
Louise Falconer said the Penskes are a loving family.
Eric Schiff said the Penskes love Venice.
Karin Anderson called the Penskes great people.
Gabriella Fasch called the Penskes kind people.
Lauren Krasny supported the project.
Hud Mellencamp, Elaine Irwin’s adult son, also supported the project.
And Lauren Gullian just felt the emotions in the room that night.
Also present at the meeting was Lambert Giessinger, with the Office of Historic Resources. He confirmed that he is working closely with the Venetians who are seeking
historic status for the First Baptist Church. He explained that he is waiting for the application to be finished.When it is finished, all permits for the building’s conversion will be frozen until the process is completed.Then the matter will be sent to the L.A. City Council.
Commissioner Heather Rozman called the proposed project an anomaly unlike any other, in terms of Mass, Scale, and Character.She declared that she would not
approve the project.
Commission Vice President Michael Newhouse, a real estate lawyer and former VNC President, pretended to have sympathy with the People of the Community. He called the loss of this historic African-American house of worship a tragedy and a shame, but said that nothing could be done about it. He did not believe that the project would be out of Mass, Scale, and Character.He intends to vote against the appeal and allow the Penskes to build their single-family dwelling on this sacred site. Commissioner Adele Yellin agreed with Mr. Newhouse for now.
Commission President Esther Margulies commented on the recent concerted effort to recognize the Black Community in Venice.She felt that the cultural issue should be factored in to the decision.She agreed with Commissioner Rozman on the question of Mass, Scale, and Character. She made clear that this is not a standard case and that this building has always served as a church. She forecast that, if the project were to be approved, there would be no guarantee that the building would stay up.The Penskes
might decide to move out later and the next owner might demolish it completely.Ms. Margulies mentioned another church building in Mar Vista that was bought by a religious community and kept “as is”.
With the Planning Commission having only four commissioners seated for this appeal hearing, a tie vote was reached.Ms. Margulies and Ms. Rozman were for the appeal; Mr. Newhouse and Ms. Yellin wanted to deny the appeal.The tie resulted in the decision being postponed until the next meeting scheduled for August 15.By that time, Commissioner Lisa Waltz Morocco will be the tie breaker. Or perhaps Commissioner Yellin will see the landmark significance that her vote will have and choose to save the First Baptist Church of Venice.
Upon hearing the decision to postpone the vote, the Venetians on the side of saving the church erupted with applause and singing.The delay gave new hope to the People of the Community.Not surprisingly, the Penskes and their cohorts, including their pet VNC members, were not happy with the outcome.They sat with stone faces resenting Venice’s Victory.
Now there is work to be done. The Community is coming together more than ever.A press conference was held in front of the historic church on Westminster and 7th on Sunday, June 24 to gather more signatures and spread the news to the watching world.
Will History in Venice be saved?Only if good people work for it.
As the ancestors of the Black Community of Venice built the First Baptist Church of Venice, the People of today will work to save it.You too can lend a hand.
You can sign the petition to save the church at https://vog.news/fbcv-petition
You can stay informed at www.savevenice.me . You can attend the next Planning Commission hearing on August 15, 2018 to stand with the Venice Community
This is Venice History.
And you’re in it.