Housing vs. Offices: A Battle on the Beach
A building planned for the Venice Boardwalk has the right look and feel, but city officials have concerns about its use
By Gary Walker
The architect and developers planning an ambitious mixed-use development to replace a parking lot on the Venice Boardwalk at Sunset Avenue are contemplating their next move after city officials ruled against the project last month.
The West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission halted the development process on Sept. 9 by upholding an appeal by Neighbors for a Sustainable Venice Beach, a group of Venice residents and business owners seeking to downscale or stop the project.
Renderings of the proposal for 601 Ocean Front Walk — a sleek design by prominent Venice architect Glen Irani, who has built several showcase homes in Venice — show glass walls taking full advantage of a sweeping Pacific Ocean View and wrapping around the Sunset Avenue side.
The structure would include 28,792 square feet of office space, 5,254 square feet of retail space and two levels of subterranean parking, but — and this was the main rub for commissioners — only one residential unit of just 800 square feet.
The part of the boardwalk where the developer wants to build is zoned for commercial and mixed-use development, City Planner Kevin Jones said in a prior interview, but commissioners wrestled with that definition and the implications of California Coastal Act protections.
Commissioner Thomas Donovan paraphrased former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous declaration regarding the definition of porno-graphy when he gave his opinion on
“Mixed-use isn’t defined here, but I know it when I see it. And I don’t see it here,” Donovan said.
Commissioner Joseph Halper concurred. He said having just one small apartment within a mostly commercial structure would violate the Coastal Act, which favors residential uses near the beach.
“One unit does not make a mixed-use development,” Halper said. “I’m troubled by the fact that there is massive commercial space going in here, because what we do here can be used as precedent.”
Commissioner Lisa Waltz Morocco called the prospect of allowing a single unit to define mixed-use “a very clear line in the sand” for setting a precedent.
The commission commended the quality of Irani’s design, with Commissioner Marian Merritt calling it “beautiful.” But that was not enough to sell them on the building.
Irani said his clients, a limited liability corporation that owns the property, is considering a variety of options as they await the commission’s written ruling.
Asked if those options included a lawsuit, Irani said “that course of action is being contemplated. We’re considering all available options, naturally.”
Neighbors for Sustainable Development on Venice Beach appealed the project after a city zoning administrator greenlighted it in May.
The number of parking spaces for the building, traffic on nearby Speedway and the setbacks on the project were three of the topics that the commission wrestled with, but not the main thrust of the appeal.
Development opponent John Stein said the neighborhood group’s appeal was not grounded in some of the typical complaints against new development and echoed the commission’s concerns about opening the floodgates to boardwalk commercial development.
“Our opposition stems not from gentrification, homelessness or aesthetics. This is not an argument opposed to architecture or gentrification. It’s about Speedway [a narrow roadway less than a block from Ocean Front Walk] congestion and cumulative impacts. This would set a precedent,” Stein said.
The group collected more than 500 signatures on a petition against the development — and “that was in just one weekend,” Stein said.
Irani said he was gratified that the commission liked his design but thinks Stein and his supporters are short-sighted in their opposition.
“Unfortunately, the opposition is dead set against a project of this scale, which is truly unfortunate since someone is going to put a project of this scale there one day soon. If not my client, then someone else who purchases the land if my client decides to take that route,” Irani said.
Mark Mack, a local architect who spoke in favor of the development, said having more office and retail space is crucial for Venice to continue to attract high-tech businesses.
“If Silicon Beach is to become a reality, we need more creative office space. A city is not built for a decade — it’s built for many decades,” Mack told the commission.
Venice resident Paul Davis said he walks by the property several times a week and would like to see a building that really makes the boardwalk stand out.
“We’re a global walking destination and people come to see us from all over the world. I think if a building of this sort can happen here, it would be a boon to the community and to the people who would use it,” Davis said.
Irani thinks whatever avenue his clients decide to pursue, they will ultimately succeed.
“I hope the project proceeds, as I do believe I’ve designed the best and most balanced project for that site, the neighbors and beach visitors while remaining commercially viable. It’s unfortunate that a few people cannot agree on that and feel compelled to defeat our efforts,” Irani said.
“In the end, everyone on my team believes we will prevail. There’s been no loss of will, I assure you.”