Venice Neighborhood Council reboots approval process after ‘perceptions of impropriety’ emerge

By Gary Walker

Under most circumstances, a restaurant seeking to expand by converting a nearby office building into a sister location would have resulted in a routine permit hearing at the local level.

But this is Venice, and the restaurant is Abbot Kinney hotspot Gjelina — a hip, high-end eatery that some welcome as an asset in maintaining the boulevard’s GQ-anointed “Coolest block in America” status, but that others see as part of a wave of gentrification threatening the sustainability of local heritage and culture.

Gjelina is seeking permits to launch a bakery concept that would also serve alcohol at 320 Sunset Ave. and is already converting a former office duplex on Abbot Kinney Boulevard into a second Gjelina location.

Let the drama and political intrigue begin.

Citing “perceptions of impropriety” by neighborhood council Land Use and Planning Committee members during the approvals process, Venice Neighborhood Council President Linda Lucks took the unusual step of removing discussion of Gjelina’s Sunset Avenue permit applications from a May 7 council committee agenda.

“Due to a lot of complaints from both the applicant and the community, with the perceptions of impropriety by certain [committee] members and after conferring with city attorney’s office, the Dept. of Neighborhood Empowerment and some key board members, I determined that I had the authority to pull the item from the [committee agenda] and take it directly to the board,” Lucks said.

Lucks said Gjelina representatives and several residents had questioned the integrity of more than one of the committee members.

But whatever specific actions may have triggered those perceptions of impropriety, Lucks and the city attorney’s office aren’t saying.

Lucks announced during the meeting that she would appoint a former committee member — “someone who is not tainted by the perceptions of impropriety,” she said — to craft a new staff report, but during a May 20 meeting the council voted to create an ad hoc committee to gather materials on the proposed bakery.

The Land Use and Planning Committee member who was previously in charge of the Gjelina staff report, contractor and Venice Farmers Market founder Jim Murez, naturally took umbrage with Lucks’ decision.

“This is all being fabricated by her to create a bleak picture of the committee,” said Murez, who acknowledged that he knows the project’s architect. “For her to come in and say that she has the authority to take an item off of the agenda is untrue.”

Murez went on to say that he suspected the move had more to do with the then-approaching May 18 neighborhood council election than it did with the Gjelina project.

“I think [Lucks] is quite the politician. She’s trying to get Robin Rudisill elected [as chair of the land use and planning committee].”

As it would turn out, Rudisill defeated Murez for the committee leadership seat by a 646-490 margin.

Lucks, who openly endorsed Rudisill, denied that local politics influenced her decision.

“When things are so questionable and there are so many people from all sides questioning the process, I think it is in the best interests of the community is to remove it and send to the full board,” she said.

For his part, Gjelina owner Fran Camaj is staying clear of the political fray. He didn’t express a preference one way or the other about how the council handled the approvals process.

“Whatever is best for the community,” he said.

Venice remains divided on topics of growth and development, and the council’s Land Use and Planning Committee has drawn criticism by residents who are critical of many larger commercial and residential projects that they claim are pricing others out of the neighborhood.

Change-of-use petitions like the one being sought by Gjelina for its planned Sunset Avenue bakery are very common, but this one appears to have taken on the baggage associated with the wider gentrification debate.

This is also not the first time that Lucks and some members of the Land Use and Planning Committee have clashed over development issues over the past two years.

“There have always been controversial projects in Venice,” Lucks said. “This one, particularly because it came from all directions and there were a lot of strange things going on … it just seemed like the right thing to do to take it out of their hands.”