Summation of L.A. Historic Designation Effort for First Baptist Church of Venice

Elaine Penske trying to turn Black Church into her mansion

People always ask me “So whats going on with the church?” To me it’s not a simple question—there’s a lot of things going on with the church. Those who have kept up with us on social media will mostly likely remember the highlight of when we celebrated a battle victory in the beginning of October (2018). That victory was about us winning the initial hearing  which advanced us to the 2nd round of the Historic Designation Process (OHR) which awarded us a formal consideration of designating the First Baptist Church of Venice as a Cultural Monument.  However, the process which has three parts ended at the second OHR Hearing on December 6th, 2018 when the Cultural Heritage Commission declined the nomination. Let us be clear though that this loss was handed to us not by way of any deficiency in our presentation or by the historic caliber of the First Baptist Church of Venice. Rather, our effort on this front was lost due to underhanded political shenanigans. I don’t remember if there was a published account about the first OHR hearing but this summation will center on the 2nd OHR hearing while touching on the precursors.

For some scope, there are three parts to the Historic designation process: 1) acceptance of the application 2) an initial hearing to decide on whether to move forward with a  formal consideration, which initiates a subsequent site visit,  which in turn produces a Staff Report that is considered at 3) a second hearing which discusses the Staff Report and then decides to either a) approve the nomination which then refers it to City Council or b) decline the nomination with the Designation process ending there. As mentioned before, our effort ended at stage 3 of the process.

Initial hearing Recap: Our first OHR hearing was a good turnout. Of worthy note, Elaine Irwin (Penske) in her public comment expressed some frustration about her and Jay Penske’s mansion being delayed by our efforts. Their attorney Elisa Paster of Glaser Weil law firm came with the same lies, arguments, and approach she used at the West LA Planning Commission (WLAAPC) hearing back in August. However, I believe because their political puppets were not on notice for this initial OHR hearing (yet) this factored in to our win for that hearing. Our perception was that they were taken off guard by this OHR hearing we initiated, and it was evident they didn’t expect us to continue fighting after the August WLAAPC hearing.

Winning that initial hearing then lead to a site visit where they would tour the church and assess the property and architecture. The emphasis of our application focused on the cultural significance more so than the material architecture, which is what the site visit focuses on. While we knew the architecture wasn’t our strong point, we still wanted to leverage this portion of the process. We requested to be present at the site visit which took place on October 25th, but the “nice” Penske family denied our presence since apparently, they had that discretion. We wanted to ensure a fair account and point out and have on record noting of the missing building elements removed by the Penske’s and given to “bishop” Horace Allen. A few of those items being the stained-glass windows, the wooden crosses, and the plaque denoting the history of the church. The concern of course being that the removal of these items could have a negative bearing of the evaluation.  But in the end, even if we had been allowed to attend and receive a fair site assessment, it wouldn’t have made a difference considering the underhandedness that would become evident leading into the 2nd OHR hearing on December 6th.

The 10 Day Notice: Fast-forward to November 29th. By law and per the OHR staff’s own policy we are supposed to have a 10-day notice making us aware of the coming hearing. We did not get this. Only by way of a happenstance e-mail correspondence with an OHR staff member at noon on this day did we first become aware of the December 6th hearing date. This “notice” we stumbled on followed up with a notice letter received by one of our Save Venice members at 4pm that same November day — just one hour before the deadline to make a comprehensive submission in response to the staff report we had barely read and in anticipation of the hearing 6 days later! Submissions are accepted until the day of the hearing, albeit, what you can submit becomes extremely limited. Without going into descriptions of convoluted procedure, these submissions play a critical in what goes on record for the case and what the case file presents as prominent information. Juxtapose that to the Penske’s lawyer who submitted a report dated November 6, 2018 prior to the completion of the staff recommendation which we surmised was reviewed by OHR staff prior to any conclusion and recommendation regarding the eligibility of the FBCV.  Clearly, we were not granted the same timely opportunity.

There is too much detail regarding our objection to this unfair treatment to cover in this piece but suffice it to say we were vocal in protesting this treatment and calling for a postponement. This did not materialize for a couple reasons. One being the stubborn evasion by OHR manager Ken Bernstein who tried to place the blame on us and speak as if though we were asking for an accommodation when in fact, we were just demanding that they honor their own policy and procedure. The second reason being that the Historic Designation nomination process has an expiration date from the time of application acceptance  which would have ended December 18th. Even if they did postpone the hearing the chances that we could have a new hearing date within that expiration deadline was impossible— boy these tricksters are crafty!

The Staff Report:  Which you can read at this link at . At the point of this deliberate lack of notice by these tricksters we understood we were now in store for higher caliber shenanigans than before. The Staff Report was ridiculously flawed and laced with numerous contradictions, dismissive tones, and deceptive language. It’s one thing to present a respectable argument with solid facts, I can acknowledge being in the presence of a good argument and factual points. However, this “expert” staff report wreaked of Penske attorney Elisa Paster’s verbiage, tone, and blatantly flawed facts.

One brief example being where these “experts” dismissed some of the missing building elements stating that they did not know when and what happened to them when it is common knowledge that the Penske’s removed them and shipped them to Horace Allen. In fact they have even gone on record more than once stating that they took them down and helped give them to Allen. This type of deficiency, deception, and suggestive language is what filled the staff report. Our defensive strategy had to incorporate debunking this staff report and shining some light on its disingenuous nature. Not so much to prove to the commission who we would be addressing, but because while remaining positive, we already knew strings were being pulled. Rather, our hopes were to get our information and facts on public record. An extra challenge of course because of the submission deadline shenanigans mentioned earlier.

December 6th Hearing: This 2nd OHR Hearing had less attendance by FBCV supporters than the first one. The first hearing  had about 10-12 people and this one 5. Perhaps attributed to the fact that we did not promote it as much as the first hearing and admittingly, we were a little off center because we were expecting more time to prepare. Additionally, some of our team was sick, out of town for the holidays, and we had just lost our instrumental friend and Save Venice warrior Pamela Krantz to cancer a few days before the hearing. The Penske side had about 10 supporters: Elaine Irwinattorney Elisa Paster of Glaser Weil, some rookie attorney apprentice, and your usual dedicated anti-Black /anti-equity Venice Neighborhood Council members George FranciscoJim Murez, and Matthew Royce but with Robert Thibodeau and Wil Hawkins surprisingly missing from this white supremacy investment opportunity. Horace Allen’s convicted sexual predator son and a couple of others from Allen’s Westchester church were also there brought in and speaking on behalf of the Penskes.

Richard Barron, the Commission president was exceptionally rude throughout the hearing. He gave an unusually lengthy intro statement about being polite and civil. We knew he was trying to insinuate a negative image on our group but myself and the others just looked at each other and rolled our eyes. We were first up to give our presentation but alas, we had to wing it because, again, submission shenanigans. Three of us presented. Unable to present my whole argument I touched on a few points of my hurried but strong rebuttal. It was enough to get some light on record showing that their “professional” staff report was flawed and suspect.  You can read my quick rebuttal here: . Again, not as comprehensive as I would have liked but more than enough to show that their staff report doesn’t hold water.

During our presentation Barron felt entitled to make comments very reminiscent of the script Bonin, Will Hawkins, and others have utilized. Sentiments to likes of “the church is gone, you can’t bring it back” and other things of that unnecessary paternalistic and lecturing nature. I politely corrected him once even though he seriously needed to get intellectually chin checked. However, as Black & Brown folks know we are already going up against stereotypes and must have extreme patience and refrain from commenting when facing such treatment especially in such legally sensitive moments. These are stereotypes that Barron was banking on in his intro and trying to juice up so as to paint us as hateful, purely emotional, and  devoid of logic. This is also the racist narrative that has been central to the Penskes and their overpriced attorney Elisa Paster’s strategy.

Commission President Barron picked on us throughout the meeting trying to embarrass us. After we made our presentation I whispered in my elder’s ear and he abruptly stopped the hearing and in rude tone said, “If you want to talk take your conversation outside!” Again, totally unwarranted and trying to build on the insinuations he planted in his intro of the meeting.

During voting commentary Gail Kennard, an African-American woman who presented herself at the first OHR meeting as someone who understands dynamics of systemic racism and marginalization of Black history, doubled-down in denial of the historical designation for the FBCV. She even made it a point to acknowledge and contradict sentiment of my contesting argument and declare that she “stands by” the staff report. I’m glad she showed herself like that because anyone in Venice with half ass knowledge of Venice history would know the staff report she stands by was highly flawed. Even more telling was that our sole vote in support of historic designation was from commissioner Barry Milofsky who 1) was not at the initial OHR hearing and 2) as an older White man he clearly saw the historic significance of the FBCV as he made very clear in his commentary before casting his supportive vote for the FBCV. Juxtapose that to Kennard who should be more privy to understanding nuanced racial equity dynamics yet according to her vote and words at the hearing she came off blind to, what was for Milofsky, very easy to see.

Even ignoring our 33,000 signatures the 3-1 vote which led to the denial and end to the Los Angeles Historic designation process president Barron, with Kennard chiming in in agreement, went on a paternalistic lecture before closing our hearing. In their recitation of philosophy quotes and gentrification apologism they suggested we were “holding on to hate,” angry, and other inappropriate and false insinuations. As we started to disperse my fellow Save Venice associate exclaimed “We don’t hate, we don’t live in hate.” Barron then quickly weaponized the police and ordered the police to escort her out the building. Again, building on his constant false premises throughout the hearing insinuating that we were uncivil and out of line.

It was hard to bear witness and endure yet another blatant perpetuation of racism and political power shenanigans. And while some of us were upset and very hurt, in my heart I felt strong. We feel strong. It takes a billionaire brat and his/her army of political whores, overrated attorneys, lies, and tricks to try to hold us back. But thing is, we’re only getting smarter, wiser, and more determined. This OHR attempt was but only one of many legal avenues that we’re pursuing and we’re going to take this as far as we need to.

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