By Greta Cobar
The pace and scale of the current over-development in Venice is unprecedented. Most such construction projects are in violation of the California Coastal Act, the Venice Specific Plan, and our right to due process.
Over the last two years 82 construction projects in Venice were approved by the city of Los Angeles and the California Coastal Commission under de minimis wavers, which by definition are trivial, or too small to be concerned with. The Venice Specific Plan states that if a single family residence demolition is granted under such a waiver, the new construction must be less than ten percent larger than the demolition – but more often than not the new construction has huge size differences, far above the ten percent increase.
Just days before the February 13 Coastal Commission meeting in Pismo Beach a piece of paper buried in a cactus plant was noticed at Rose and Hampton announcing Google’s proposed development of the building at 320 Hampton. The city of L.A. had approved it under a de minimis waiver, and it was slated for approval by the Coastal Commission on February 13.
“The public has a right to participate in decisions regarding coastal planning or development, and the widest opportunity should be provided for this participation,” according to the Coastal Act, Sec. 30006. By not informing the community and not holding a public meeting regarding its proposed development, Google’s project is in violation of the Coastal Act and in violation of the public’s right to due process.
In spite of the unnoticeable notice in the wrong location, the vehement Venice community caught on to Google’s manipulative request, and community activist Ivonne Guzman traveled 170 miles to the February 13 Coastal Commission meeting in Pismo Beach. A 19-page document listing the 82 mis-labeled de minimis waivers granted over the previous two years was presented, accompanied by letters asking the Commission to deny the February waiver requests for Venice and cease granting waivers to the City of L.A. for Venice.
Google’s proposed new development wasn’t even on the agenda of the February 13 Coastal Commission meeting, and they were going to simply include it in the Director’s Report as a de minimis waiver, not even as a consent calendar item. It was removed before the meeting even started.
Construction that destroys the historical, unique community character of the Venice Coastal Zone is in direct violation of Coastal Act Sec. 30624.7. One of the many such examples is the proposed demolition of the 1922 California craftsman bungalow on 848 Milwood and its replacement with a much larger, taller and uglier building. It was slated for approval at the February 13 meeting in the same batch as the Google development, but similarly was postponed just before the meeting.
“This (Google) project was approved without the discretionary review, community input, or analysis of the cumulative effects of the building’s expansion,” according to a February 11 letter sent to the Coastal Commission by Linda Lucks, Venice Neighborhood Council (VNC) President. In that same letter she notes that the proposed expansion is a 19 percent increase to the dwelling, and therefore it does not qualify for a de minimis waiver, which is valid for a ten percent increase or less.
“To permit a 19 percent expansion in square footage for this parcel without a Coastal Development Permit is a violation of the Coastal Act,” according to Lucks’s letter to the the Coastal Commission.
“No public hearings have been held by the City on this major expansion project by the property lessee, Google, Venice’s largest employer. A parking deficit of over 150 spaces will substantially impact public coastal access to Venice Beach, three blocks from the project,” according to a February 11 letter sent to the Coastal Commission by Ken Alpern, Chair of the Transportation Advisory Committee of the Council District 11 Neighborhood Empowerment Congress.
In response to the overwhelming rate of over-development, community members formed the Venice Coalition to Preserve Unique Community Character (C-PUCC) with the intent to “oppose the demolition and destruction of the unique community of Venice, including protecting low income people and housing, protecting green space and animal habitat, protecting historic/small scale buildings.”
The first meeting of the C-PUCC took place on February 22 at the First Baptist Church, and about 50 concerned residents participated. The overwhelming message in the room was the public’s upheaval about their exclusion from the decision-making process regarding development, due to lack of public meetings and lack of proper notifications regarding the proposed developments.
Historically, residents in the area surrounding a proposed new development were notified in writing and in advance, so that they were able to voice their concerns. Currently the individual notification process of the neighbors surrounding a proposed development is not taking place. Instead, the developer or owner is trusted to post a letter-size paper notice somewhere on the property ten days prior to the monthly Coastal Commission meeting, which meets at a different place in the state each month. If the neighbors are lucky enough to see the notice, there is no information given as to what to do. Out of the 82 de minimus waivers approved over the last two years, there was only one objection letter. Now you know why – because nobody knew about them.
“We need to get rid of the VSO, the Venice Sign-Off,” said Sue Kaplan. Although the Venice Specific Plan does not allow the waivers or the types of developments that have been built as result of those waivers, the city of L.A. signs off on most applications under the VSO, or Venice Sign-Off, which was instituted in 2001 and is not appealable.
Those present at the C-PUCC meeting also felt that the Venice Neighborhood Council is not listening to the community – especially in regards to approving the hotel proposed for Abbot Kinney Blvd. Participants agreed that the VNC should re-consider the vote. The main concerns regarding the hotel were its proximity to Westminster Elementary School.
“The hotel developers are giving money to the children now attending Westminster school – that’s why the parents and the principal are not opposing it – but once these students graduate, the next ones won’t get a dime and there’s nothing they can do to change what’s already there,” said Lydia Ponce, community activist and parent volunteer at Venice High School.
The VNC can re-consider a vote and re-take it in the event that a Board member changes his or her position, and decides to vote No instead of Yes. Those VNC Board members who voted Yes (Jake Kaufman, Matt Kline, Tom Elliott, Marisa Solomon, Sevan Gerard, Scot Kramarich, Erin Sullivan-Ward, Max Sloan, Cynthia Rogers) on the hotel are urged to re-consider their decision and re-vote No in order to reflect the overwhelming wishes of the community.
“We have something worth preserving,” Ivonne Guzman, community activist and Reach for the Top Director, said at the C-PUCC meeting.
“Venice is the only place on the coast where black and brown people can live. Waivers are given as if there is little or no impact – but there is a huge, cumulative impact. Our unique community character is threatened, and what are we going to end up with? LUPC (Land Use and Planning Committee) is systematically approving everything, and VNC is rubber-stamping LUPC’s decisions. We need to stop approving everything, and focus on long-term planning instead,” Guzman said in a phone conversation with the Beachhead.
“Ainsworth acts like he’s making money off these developments,” said Peggy Lee Kennedy, community activist and Food Not Bombs volunteer in a phone conversation with the Beachhead.
Jack Ainsworth is the staff Deputy Director of the California Coastal Commission, and although he only makes recommendations to the voting Board members, his advice is taken at face value when public participation is lacking. For example, when the city of L.A. wanted to establish Overnight Parking Districts (OPDs) in Venice, Ainsworth advised the Board members to approve the motion. And they most likely would have, had we not shown up in Long Beach on June 13 in mass numbers and verbally opposed the proposal during seven hours of public testimony with three minutes allowed per person.
“Public pressure works,” Kennedy told the Beachhead.
The next Coastal Commission meeting takes place March 12 in Long Beach, and Venetians are urged to attend and voice their concerns during the opening public comment section.
Following the Coastal Commission’s February 13 decision to table Google’s request for a de minimis waiver for its development at 320 Hampton, Google decided to hold the public meeting that should have taken place before the city of L.A. approved the waiver and before it was presented to the Coastal Commission.
Google’s public meeting took place on March 1 at their Binocular building on Main St. with about 75 people in the room. Jim Murrez of LUPC facilitated the meeting, at times not allowing certain individuals to finish talking, at times steering the subject of conversation, overall controlling the meeting. For example, he shut down Mark Lipman when he said that “we are prepared to organize with the community to oppose you and your project.”
Thomas Williams, Site Director, was Googles’s spokesperson, and was accompanied on stage by Denise Zacky Popoch, Senior Project Manager for Gensler, the firm that is scheduled to complete the remodel at 320 Hampton.
The overall theme of the meeting was that the public’s questions were not answered, and concerned residents were time and time again met with: “that is not my area of expertise, you would have to ask someone else about that.”
Nobody in the audience seemed to be a supporter of Google’s expansion in Venice, with gentrification being the common concern. Faced with all the opposition and the endless list of complaints, Murez stated: “This construction permit will not change the world.” Williams said: “I didn’t realize how complicated Venice was.”
When asked why Google provides everything for their employees, from a haircut to all meals in-house, not encouraging them to support local businesses, Williams said: “We’ve been going out sometimes, on Rose and Abbot Kinney.” Ya, and look what happened to those two streets!
When asked about the growth prospects for the company, Williams said: “I would be unhappy if in five years Google will have more than 1500 employees in Venice.” When asked what the Google employees actually do in their Venice cubicles, Williams vaguely answered that they have a chrome team that helps build the chrome glasses, a search knowledge team and a group that works on youtube.
Over-development is the single most threatening factor to our life-as-we-know-it here in Venice. With most projects being in violation of the Venice Specific Plan, the California Coastal Act and our right to due process, we can stop them by becoming involved, speaking up and attending meetings. You can get in touch with the C-PUCC by emailing [email protected].
By Greta Cobar