Development/Gentrification

The Carl Lambert Problem

by Jon Wolff

One year ago, it was announced that property owner Carl Lambert was being sued by Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer for illegally converting a rent-stabilized apartment building in Venice into a hotel. At the time of this writing, the lawsuit is viewable online for anyone who wants to read it at: michaelkohlhaas.org. Just go to www.michaelkohlhaas.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/2016_06_17_city_of_LA_v_carl_lambert_and_venice_suites.pdf . The Complaint lists the violations: Public Nuisance in Violation of Civil Code Section 3479 and the following sections; Unfair Competition Law (Business and Professions Code Section 17200 and the following sections); False Advertising Practices (Business and Professions Code Section 17500 and the following sections). Also, the Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 11.00 defines the nature of the violations as well as the penalties for the violations. But on June 8, 2017, the Land Use and Planning Committee of the Venice Neighborhood Council met to discuss whether or not to recommend that the VNC approve Lambert’s conversion.

The meeting was open to the public and was held in the meeting room of the Oakwood Recreation Center in the heart of the Oakwood Community in Venice. Present on the Committee were members Ramsey Daham, Daffodil Tyminski, Mehrnoosh Mojallali, Michael Jensen, and Tim Bonefeld, with Matthew Royce as Chairman.

The case for review was for 417 Ocean Front Walk in Venice and was described as a change of use from an existing 32 unit apartment building to an apartment-hotel comprised of 2 long term dwelling units and 30 guest rooms. Remember, the City Attorney’s lawsuit says that Lambert has been operating the apartment building as an illegal hotel since 2009.

Many Venice People took turns speaking against the case. The head of the Venice Community Housing Corporation spoke. She said that the conversion resulted in the removal of affordable housing and that the Rent Stabilization Ordinance prohibits this. One woman pointed out that there was no discussion of the legal standing for the variance as pertains to the Historic Building Code. One man said that the petitions showed that the majority of people in Venice are against the conversion and that LUPC’s approval of it would be in conflict with the VNC’s mission. Another said that this request for approval “feels like a result in search of a justification.” The Director of People Organized for Westside Renewal, a tenants rights group, reminded the Committee that the Mello Act forbids commercial use of residential property in the Coastal Zone. One woman gave the figure of 106 units already removed stealthily from Venice and that it would be morally wrong for LUPC to rubber stamp this project. Another said that others like Lambert are waiting to ride in on his coattails. And another implored the Committee to respect the Community and not treat it as a cash cow. One man said that he has lived in Venice for 45 years and that he used to manage the building at 417 Ocean Front Walk. He said that, regarding profit-making, “Rich people have the disease but poor people suffer the symptoms.” One woman talked about the need for rent-stabilized housing and that we would only have to open our eyes to see the people living on the streets. Another cited the California Coastal Commission to say that we’re simply running out of rental units. One man warned of the project setting a precedent. He called the Venice Chamber of Commerce and the Venice Neighborhood Council just a big machine to keep tourists spending money. A woman born and raised in Venice asked why such projects couldn’t be located in Santa Monica considering the fact that Santa Monica is geographically much larger than Venice. A man who has lived in one of Lambert’s buildings for 15 years said, “It sucks to live in a hotel.” He said that long term tenants are being kicked out and that tourists are always coming in and out of the building that he calls home. One woman simply addressed her question to Lambert himself. She said, “How much money do you need?!” Another stated directly that the Land Use and Planning Committee and the Venice Neighborhood Council shouldn’t make decisions on buildings operating illegally. And another reminded the Committee that the City Attorney has, in fact, filed charges against Carl Lambert for operating an illegal hotel.

There were a few at the meeting who spoke in favor of Lambert. One said that Lambert has Venice’s best interests at heart. Another said that Lambert has helped homeless people by putting them in trailers. James Murez, a member of the VNC, said that it would be a wonderful idea to have a hotel. Another VNC member, Will Hawkins said that Carl is a good man and, anyway, if the converted units were put back on the market they would be too expensive. He saw the conversion of an apartment building into a hotel as a better option than having it used by Airbnb. (Of course, the same logic would mean that it would be good to have the Boston Strangler for a roommate because he would protect you from ax murderers.) None of Lambert’s supporters had anything to say about the fact that he is being sued by the L.A. City Attorney for operating an illegal hotel.

Lambert spoke. He talked about community outreach and how he never evicted anybody. He said that there are others who are doing worse. He said that he’s received a lot of letters of support from vendors. And he said, “It’s good land use.”

The LUPC members also had something to say. Ramsey Daham, an architect, echoing Will Hawkins’ theory, said that we need hotels to combat Airbnb. He asked Lambert if some of the units in the building could be set aside as affordable units. But no audible response was heard from Lambert. Mehrnoosh Mojallali talked about changes in Venice and how this is a good place for a hotel. Daffodill Tyminski was also for the conversion. She said that this sort of thing has happened before and that it’s not the first time. Michael Jensen told the people in the meeting that Venice is supposed to be a community, implying that we should all be nice about Lambert’s conversion. He was cut short by strong vocal disagreement from the audience. And while all this was going on, a lawsuit from the City Attorney was still pending against Carl Lambert for operating an illegal hotel.

The Land Use and Planning Committee voted to recommend approval of the project with Michael Jensen voting “No” and two abstentions from Mehrnoosh Mojallali and Matthew Royce. So, on it went to the VNC.

The Venice Neighborhood Council held its regular monthly meeting on June 20, 2017 in the Westminster Avenue Elementary School auditorium. The meeting was open to the public. Item 12A on the agenda concerned the approval or denial of Lambert’s change of use of 417 Ocean Front Walk to a hotel, now recommended by LUPC.

Again, the Community of Venice showed up and spoke overwhelmingly against the project. One woman said that if the L.A. City leaders are taking steps to preserve housing, then don’t stop them. Also, she mentioned conflicts of interest on the VNC itself. A woman from the L.A. Tenants’ Union asked the VNC if they were “with us or against us.” One man called the conversion a “contagious business model.” One woman simply declared that this was about “precedent, precedent, precedent.” One man told the VNC that they ought not to consider LUPC’s recommendation because LUPC hadn’t received all the required community input. One woman reminded the VNC about a motion before the L.A. City Council to regulate Short Term Rentals and how they shouldn’t give permission to someone who is a serial violator. Another said that we need housing, not hotels. And another said that Lambert’s tenants did not leave happily and that this was permanently detrimental to the Community. One man declared that Venice is more than the Chamber of Commerce. Another brought up the lawsuit and wondered if LUPC had even read it. A woman talked of the increase in homelessness and the greater need for RSO housing. Another told the VNC not to reward illegal behavior. And another stated, once again, that THE CITY ATTORNEY IS SUING THE APPLICANT.

Lambert’s sympathizers spoke to the Council. One talked about change. Another said that he lived in one of Lambert’s buildings and that Lambert fixed it up. But here, no mention of the lawsuit.
The members of the Venice Neighborhood Council spoke. Robert Thibodeau asked if there was a Feasibility Study. Lambert said that it was not necessary. Will Hawkins repeated his idea that Venice needs more hotels. Melissa Diner talked about Lambert being a scapegoat. Council President Ira Koslow said that the building should be an apartment or a hotel according to the fluctuations of the economy. Nothing about the lawsuit.

The two Council members who actually care about the Community also spoke. Ilana Marosi cited 128 letters and 238 signatures received by the VNC that were against the conversion. She pointed out that when Lambert bought the building it was a rent-stabilized building and therefore cost him less and thus obligated him to keep it rent-stabilized. Colleen Saro asked Lambert why he is going forward with all this when there’s a lawsuit pending. He only answered that someone encouraged him to do so.

The majority of the VNC members voted in favor of the Motion to recommend approval of the project. Clearly, the Community of Venice was represented by a body that chose the profits of a defendant in a City lawsuit over the Will of the People. Lambert left the meeting in a hurry. Most of those attending left shortly thereafter in disgust but not without resolve.

One ironic observation here: Throughout the course of this present struggle, the VNC and LUPC repeatedly called for order and decorum every time the People shouted out about the members’ lies and irresponsible actions. And the People complied. We all want to “play by the rules”. But when someone circumvents not just “the rules” but, in fact, the Law, what are we to make of the game itself? Especially when the game affects the lives of the residents of the buildings in Venice. Most of the residents whose lives were irreparably harmed by Lambert weren’t there in the meeting.

Lambert’s VNC collaborators didn’t have to face the fleshly human results of his profiteering. Perhaps “the rules” are only for us. Much like how an assailant, when assaulting his victim, tells the victim to stop squirming, keep still, don’t fight back.

But this is Venice. Venice has existed for decades by fighting back. Bigger assailants than Lambert have fallen when attempting to harm Venice. We can have faith that the Law is on our side. But regardless, Venice is unpredictable, innovative, motivated. If the People of Venice throw off “the rules”, will Lambert cry “foul”? We’ll see. It’s Summer. Let this be the season of trouble for Carl Lambert.

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