By John Stein
An office building for general and internet technology uses has been proposed for 601 Ocean Front Walk (OFW) at Sunset Avenue. It would have 22,738sf of office space on second and third floors, 5254sf of retail across the front at OFW ground level with parking behind, and two more levels of subterranean parking. It would have an 800sf live/work apartment at the back of the second floor, which by the developer’s statement, allows him to qualify the project as “mixed use residential/commercial” and gain a 50% development intensity bonus. Project architect Glen Irani of Venice tells us the apartment would be used for a night watchman. In the end, 82% of the total leasable space would be for office and office security uses, 18% for retail. Essentially, it’s an office building.
While there are many objectionable details to this project (the elegant design, to my mind, not among them), what I want to focus on are office uses taking over OFW and how this building would gridlock the surrounding neighborhood. First the gridlock.
It may be difficult for outsiders to recognize but this lot holds a keystone position at the center of a quarter-mile, 6-block long section of OFW between Rose and Brooks Avenues and is the last remaining undeveloped lot in the area. The pressure this proposed project would exert on the system of 20ft wide alleys behind it would extend throughout the neighborhood. It would swamp local parking, clog the alleys when one truck can’t get past another one unloading, and hold the entire community in its grip. The subject property now serves as a parking lot and relieves the severe parking deficit for blocks around. It is where people park when they visit Walk Street residents, where delivery and construction vehicles can find temporary parking, where nearby institutions can lease parking required for their operations, and where beachgoers park. It is the neighborhood’s safety valve.
This project could turn that 6-block length of OFW into an access nightmare of traffic and congestion for residents and visitors alike, and incidentally for office occupants as well. This project provides just 91 parking spaces for an anticipated 404 occupants and most will not find parking for blocks around. Those that do will displace others. The project supplies extra bicycle parking and presumably would organize shuttle busses for its employees, as does Google nearby, but the immediate local parking crunch would only be exacerbated by this project. All sorts of nearby large structures built before WWII depend on being able to park cars here. The Ellison Apartments, 615 OFW adjacent to the South, Thornton Towers, Phoenix House, Figtree Restaurant, Su Casa at Venice Beach, Cadillac Hotel, Venice Beach Suites, none of which have parking of their own and some of which establishments depend for their business licenses on existing contractual arrangements for parking on this lot, all would feel the strangling squeeze. Additional lesser residential structures dotted without parking among the Walk Streets and having 2 or 3 stories of small apartments, all count on the safety valve of this parking lot. Much is at stake here.
Extending out from this section of OFW, the 13-block section between Rose and Windward Avenues is the heart of Venice Beach, with its direct proximity to the sand and views of the ocean not blocked by athletic courts or parking lots. This is where Los Angelinos and visitors from afar come by bus and by car to commune with the beach and the ocean, enjoy the free-wheeling carnival atmosphere, feel the fresh ocean breezes, sense the absence of cars, and be at home in their souls.
If this project were allowed to go forward, its precedent would encourage high tech office redevelopment all along OFW because high tech pays higher rents than other uses and because most of the OFW lots are similarly zoned. Office uses do already exist along OFW in similarly designated Community Commercial lots, but this proposed project would be the first to be developed under the Venice Local Coastal Program Land Use Plan, commonly referred to as the “Venice Specific Plan”, enacted in 2001. With this project as precedent, the rest of OFW would likely soon become a high-tech office campus. The cumulative effect on traffic and parking would be horrific. (While the section of OFW immediately surrounding the project has 20ft wide Walk Street feeder alleys, 15ft wide feeder alleys are common elsewhere.) The beach vibe would metamorphose into that of an office park. Venice Beach would cease to exist as we know it. It is a sad and frightening prospect, but this project could bust the neighborhood at its seams, destroy it, and take the entire OFW and Venice Beach with it.
The Specific Plan states: “The Community Commercial designation is intended to provide focal points for local shopping, civic and social activities and for visitor-
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serving commercial uses”. It goes on to state: “The integration and mixing of uses will increase opportunities for employees to live near jobs and residents to live near shopping,” thereby decreasing automobile trips and traffic. The wording appears to exclude general office uses, as not providing a focal point for local shopping, civic and social activities or visitor-serving commercial uses, and displacing retail uses that would allow residents to live near shopping. The developer argues the opposite, that by including office uses in a residential neighborhood the project increases opportunities for employees to live near jobs (although not for residents to live near shopping), and thereby reduces commuting and traffic.
But as another consequence of high-tech office uses proliferating in Venice, decently paid high-tech employees are competing in the local rental housing market and driving out long-time and poorer residents. We all (mostly) use high-tech. We love it. But Venice dies if the local rental housing stock gets scooped up and taken off the market by the new influx of high-tech employees. Rents have soared and the up-and-coming artists and musicians who give Venice its life and who always struggle are being forced out. Without them the Venice Spirit as we know it dries up. Venice becomes a boringly predictable, quite wealthy community like every other urban beach community from the Mexican to Oregon border, and ordinary folk, those without money, lose their place in the sole beach community that welcomes them with both arms. Venice Beach ceases to be the place we all know and love, i.e. that place which is NOT like everywhere else.
The consequences of allowing high-tech office development all along OFW would be tragic. Decision-makers in the Planning Department and at the Coastal Commission might not be aware just how tragic, and may need to be educated and enlightened, because people who don’t live here might just not be able to see the full extent of what is happening and foresee where it leads. But the Coastal Commission has as its mandate to protect and encourage public access along the beach. Traffic gridlock and a parking squeeze undermine that mandate. So would general office uses taking up Community Commercial lots “intended to provide focal points for local shopping, civic and social activities and for visitor-serving commercial uses” on OFW. High tech offices employ security guards to keep the public out, while local shopping, civic and social activities and visitor-serving commercial uses invite people in. High tech office uses on OFW do not promote public access, and in fact they seriously undermine it.
Things that happen on Venice Beach often become magnified into big news that travels far. The high-tech office incursion is already national news, but were this allowed to become a complete take-over, it would only come from blindness or short-sightedness, and the whole world would be watching. For the sake of Venice and the wider world, Venice residents need to make the picture crystal clear to all who will listen and look.
Write, call, or e-mail City Planning, the Venice Neighborhood Council and the Coastal Commission, as follows:
Refer to Case ZA-2015-102, 601 Ocean Front Walk, Venice.
Lynda Smith, Project Point Person
Los Angeles City Planning Dept
Robin Rudisill, Chairperson, LUPC
Venice Neighborhood Council
Above: Parking lot, site of proposed development, 601 OFW
Photo: Greta Cobar
Above: Snapchat leased out the two buildings at 619 and 701 OFW and illegally transformed them into business offices, which are not permitted on OFW. Curtains hide the cubicles and numerous computers inside what was built to be residences. Security guys (pictured) have a 24-hour presence.
Photo: Greta Cobar