Plans for former Westminster Senior Center pencil out, but Venice neighbors are suing to stop it

By Gary Walker

Nearly a year after city officials greenlighted plans to convert the former Westminster Senior Citizen Center into a facility where homeless people can store their belongings, the public building adjacent to Venice’s dog park remains vacant and the target of a lawsuit.

L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin proposed the storage concept in early 2016 as a way to reduce the prevalence of homeless encampments in Venice by encouraging more homeless people to utilize overnight shelters, which many currently avoid because shelters do not allow the homeless to secure more than a few possessions.

The former senior center on Pacific Avenue would hold 124 plastic 60-gallon storage containers and be supervised by three employees of the Santa Monica social services nonprofit Chrysalis Inc., according to an analysis by Interim City Administrative Officer Richard Llewellyn.

“The primary purpose is to provide the homeless population with a secure place to store their belongings, allowing them greater freedom and mobility to access services and housing,” states the report, filed in May.

Llewellyn’s analysis estimates the price tag for rehabilitating the structure at $750,000, with an additional $58,000 to start up the program and an annual operating cost of $392,000 after that.

Workers already spent months repairing the once-dilapidated building’s exterior and interior after the L.A. Board of Recreation and Park Commissioners approved the storage plan on Aug. 16 of last year.

Meanwhile, the storage plan did not receive the support of the Venice Neighborhood Council and remains under the shadow of a lawsuit by nearby residents Heidi Roberts and Katrina Glusac, who sued under the umbrella of a nonprofit they formed called Venice Kids Count.

Venice Kids Count seek an injunction to halt the storage plan, which “would negatively impact and cause severe harm to the surrounding community, including the children who attend Westminster Avenue Elementary School and Ecole Clair Fontaine Preschool,” their lawsuit alleges. The suit also claims a building permit issued for the senior center “falsely claims that there would be no change in use” for the structure.

“My clients are asking the city to follow its own zoning codes and the proper entitlements process,” said real estate attorney Kristina Kropp, who represents the group.

In September 2016, the Venice Neighborhood Council voted 16-0 to endorse a competing plan for storing homeless people’s belongings: a mobile storage plan that would place containers in buses rather than the former senior center.

That vote had a lot to do with strenuous opposition voiced by residents who live near the senior center.

“As an elected official, you try to take into consideration how your constituents feel regarding an issue,” said Venice Neighborhood Council Vice President George Francisco, who voted in favor of mobile storage and against using the former senior center for storage. “Different people have different constituencies and different personal understandings of issues that frame their opinions and perspectives.”

Llewellyn’s analysis also considered the mobile storage option and found it to be much more expensive than utilizing the senior center.

Using 10 buses, each containing 12 storage bins, would have an annual estimated operating cost of more than $3 million (about $300,000 per bus per year), with one driver and one assistant assigned to each bus.

The mobile storage plan would cost taxpayers about $25,037 per bin per year, compared to $3,163 per bin utilizing the former senior center.

Los Angeles County Homeless Services Authority officials prefer the senior center.

“From a program design standpoint, mobile storage puts the burden on the [homeless] client and requires the client to be responsible for the bus schedule and the route,” said LAHSA project manager Christin Doyle. “The site-based model has been adopted well by other communities, because they know and trust Chrysalis and can get services onsite.”

Other options considered by city officials include a shuttle that would transport LAHSA clients to the senior center instead of them walking to the building, but providing that shuttle service would cost an additional $580,000 per year.