Advocates who would like to see Venice maintain its small-town feel without the glut of large retail chains are hopeful that a plan by the Los Angeles Department of City Planning to consider an ordinance regulating the design of stores along major thoroughfares could be a first step toward seeing their hopes realized.

During the next several months, members of the Department of City Planning will begin soliciting input from residents and business owners in order to put into place a set of design conditions that new merchants on Abbot Kinney Boulevard and Ocean Front Walk in Venice would be required to adhere to.

“Right now, we are looking at what tools we can develop for land use recommendations for Abbot Kinney and Ocean Front Walk,” said Betty Weisman, principal planner for the Department of City Planning.

Members of Weisman’s agency will compile suggestions from Venice residents and merchants through a series of community forums in order to get an idea of what the community would like to see in terms of design standards for the eclectic coastal community, where many residents have expressed a desire to keep major areas clear of national chain stores.

Venice Unchained, a grassroots organization that mobilized three years ago to fight what members believe is the beginning of a surge of large chain stores on Abbot Kinney and Ocean Front Walk, had implored city officials to consider a municipal statute that would prevent the proliferation of retail outlets, restaurants and stores that have set up shop in nearby Marina del Rey and Santa Monica.

At a recent Venice town hall meeting attended by Gail Goldberg, the head of the Department of City Planning, the topic of crafting an ordinance that would outlaw what many refer to as formula retail stores was discussed.

“It’s our understanding that [city officials] don’t think that a ban would stand up legally,” Mike Newhouse, the president of the Venice Neighborhood Council, told The Argonaut. “By creating specific design standards, that could render it impractical for formula retail stores to come to Ocean Front Walk or Abbott Kinney.”

Linda Lucks, the newly elected vice president of the Venice Neighborhood Council, applauded the Department of City Planning’s decision.

“I think that it’s a great idea,” said Lucks, a longtime Venice resident.

“It’s a small step in the right direction,” added Melissa Henderson of Venice Unchained.

Lucks thinks that specific design guidelines can have an additional beneficial effect for Venice.

“This could prevent one of my fears, which is that buildings will get bigger and bigger,” she said, referring to a plan to construct a 65-foot hotel on Abbot Kinney. “I’m glad that the planning department is being very proactive on this.”

While Henderson feels that implementing design standards is helpful, she and members of her organization do not want city officials to lose sight of what the group has been pushing for — an outright ban on large chain outlets.

“We would really like to encourage the planning department to look at keeping formula retail businesses off of Abbot Kinney and Ocean Front Walk,” she said. “I think that once the city begins to hold its focus groups, they will see that that’s what the community wants.”

Nearly 20 U.S. cities have laws that prohibit these types of stores in specific areas, and a municipal law passed by the Coronado City Council banning formula retail stores has been upheld by a state appellate court. Coronado city leaders to date have been successful in fending off a legal challenge by several local business owners.

California cities that have similar laws include Arcata, Carmel, Calistoga, Pacific Grove, San Juan Bautista, Sausalito, Solvang and San Francisco.

The only large city in the nation with such a law, San Francisco takes a neighborhood-specific approach. This law states that whenever a formula retail business applies to open, residents in the surrounding neighborhood must be notified. They then have the option of requesting a public hearing and subjecting the applicant to additional scrutiny.

The San Francisco ordinance also allows for varying degrees of regulation in each neighborhood. In some parts of the city, chain stores are banned outright.

Venice Unchained has collected over 5,000 signatures in support of its cause, and it also has the support of some local businesses.

“I definitely would not want to see a Starbucks, a McDonald’s or a Burger King on Abbot Kinney, because it takes away from the authenticity of this street,” said Rafael Varela, who owns Circuit Works on Abbot Kinney. “There’s no other street on the West Coast like it. It has that SoHo vibe, bohemian vibe, and I really love it.”

Merchants that Venice Unchained considers to be formula retail stores include Pinkberry, which opened on Abbot Kinney Boulevard earlier this year, Subway on Pacific Avenue, and the Coffee Bean on Windward Avenue.

Newhouse said that the Venice Neighborhood Council has consistently supported Venice Unchained in its efforts to stop more large chain stores from moving into Venice, but the council has not taken a position yet on the implementation of design specifications for new businesses.

“We’ll have a better understanding of it when it comes before us,” said Newhouse, who added that he anticipates that the topic will be presented to the council early next year.

Weisman said that it would be between six and nine months before the Department of City Planning concludes its outreach and considers drafting an ordinance.

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