Affordable housing project in Venice faces community opposition ahead of LA City Planning Commission presentation

By Kellie Chudzinski

The Venice Community Housing-backed Lincoln Apartments project proposes the construction of 39 units — some set aside for youth facing housing insecurity — at the site of Safe Place for Youth’s offices on Lincoln Boulevard and Garfield Avenue

Venice residents gathered last May in the St. Mark parish hall for the first public discussion on what would become the Lincoln Apartments project.

Now, a year later, the church community and nearby locals are at odds with the project backers as Venice Community Housing (VCH) prepares for the final approval presentation before the Los Angeles City Planning Commission (CPC) at 8 a.m. Thursday, May 28.

Those opposed to the project claim it puts the 300 kindergarten through eighth grade students attending St. Mark School at risk.

VCH, partner Safe Place for Youth (SPY), and local supporters, on the other hand, say the development is needed, as the homeless population in Venice nears 1,200, and insist changes have been made to the development’s plans to accommodate concerns.

Created as a partnership by VCH and SPY, the complex would provide 39 apartment units of affordable housing, with 20 apartments set aside for those experiencing chronic homelessness and 19 for youth coming from the foster care or juvenile detention systems facing housing insecurity.

Set to be created at the current location of SPY’s offices on Lincoln Boulevard, next to St. Mark Church, the neighborhood is now divided over the project.

“It just feels incredibly disappointing and frustrating — for many years, we’ve basically been providing a Band-Aid… and now we have an opportunity to offer a real and concrete solution — that this is opposed,” said SPY founder and Executive Director Alison Hurst. “More people, especially young people, are falling into homelessness everyday. And what we need is a solution. And we all need to be part of that solution.”

Many parents who spoke to The Argonaut raised concerns over SPY’s extended hours and seven-day a week availability that will be offered at the new complex, below the apartment units, after previous instances of violence outside of the organization’s offices. SPY, which has been at the site since 2015, currently offers limited hours three days a week.

“In my opinion, the management hasn’t taken adequate steps to upgrade the security to a level where they would be protecting the children of St. Mark from their adults,” said parent Eric Donaldson.

Hurst said that in the six years SPY has been at the location the worst incident involved a man wielding a chain, something which put the school on lockdown and came to be commonly cited by parents against the project as a sign of common violence.

“For the most part,” Hurst said, “the thousands of youth that have walked in our doors have come in and received resources and have been connected to employment and connected to housing and connected to counseling and have gone on to thrive.”

Parent Charley Allen was equally concerned about potential dangerous situations relating to SPY clients and apartment residents. Speaking as a licensed psychotherapist, “My ultimate concern is the exposure of these young children to traumatic experiences,” he said.

Concern for the children of the school ultimately topped the list of all problems with the project. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Superintendent of Catholic Schools sent a letter in opposition to the project to the LA CPC.

“The Lincoln Apartments supportive housing project presents very real dangers to our Catholic school and church community, in particular to our elementary school children and young parishioners,” read the letter shared with The Argonaut.

Over 850 emails were also sent in opposition to the project to the LA CPC by locals, according to Fight Back Venice, a site organizing against the Lincoln Apartments.

It’s been assumed many of the letters were written by parents from St. Mark. But, said Sophia Guel-Valenzuala, a parent of children attending St. Mark and nearby Coeur d’Alene Elementary, “It is not the perspective of all 300 families,” to be opposed.

Father Albert van der Woerd of St. Mark parish, and Teresa Harrington, principal of the church’s school, sent out a joint email to parents on May 8, providing reasons for why the school no longer supported the project and encouraged parents to author letters against the project if they felt inclined to do so.

Said Michael Fitz, a former St. Mark school parent, board member and church parishioner of 15 years, “I was very surprised that we were, as a church, against this…. I feel like I have to be in support and be a voice for the voiceless.” Fitz, who is also a SPY volunteer, said he decided to vocalize his support for the “safety of the kids who don’t have a voice, the members of SPY.”

In the letter, van der Woerd and Harrington raised concerns about the project, including its rooftop deck and potential sightlines to the playground, the shared alley and funding for the project. VCH Executive Director Becky Dennison and supporters say those are issues that have been addressed.

According to Dennison, “the misinformation in there [the van der Woerd and Harrington letter] is pretty blatant.”

No Place Like Home, also known as Proposition 2, fueled concern among parents. The ballot measure, passed in 2018, created $2 billion in bonds to create housing for those with serious mental illness who are homeless, chronically homeless, or at-risk of being chronically homeless.

Dennison disagreed that those who qualified for No Place Like Home funding were guaranteed to bring violence.

“The facts don’t show that,” she said. “But also, it’s a fair housing violation. People with disabilities obviously have a right to live in neighborhoods.”

The project was denied by the Venice Neighborhood Council May 21, and its Land Use and Planning Committee on May 14.

The current proposal for Lincoln Apartments features a non-smoking rooftop deck, a change Dennison said that was made when the community voiced concern. To provide privacy to the schoolyard, a privacy wall and mechanical equipment, as well as the addition of tall tress, are planned to limit the space and sight lines.

“Measurements were done on the patio and every single line was taken care of there,” Dennison said, adding gates are also planned for the alley, which leads Garfield, to protect children in cross traffic.

Dennison said that while VCH remains willing to accommodate concerns, “There’s two big things that we will not agree to,” including no longer building the project and to not use No Place Like Home Funds.

Some parents listed suggestions and long lists of potential issues and concerns with the project. For others, it’s location rendered it dead in the water.

“This development should not be located right next to, and share walking paths with, an elementary school,” said St. Mark Church Parish Councilmember and school parent Geoffrey Forgione.

“Supportive housing with no sober living requirement is not a compatible use next to elementary school children,” Fogione said.

Though others disagreed. “We as a community need to find a solution and not push someone somewhere else,” added Guel-Valenzuela, who is also a VCH board member.

As for Dennison, she believes VCH can and will still work with the community to win support for the project. She said the property “will also have children and create community.” And, she said: “Will be a really positive thing for the neighborhood.”

Visit planning.lacity.org/about/commissions-boards-hearings to learn more about Thursday’s meeting. Call 1 (669) 900-6833 to offer public comment or (213) 621-2489 to listen in. The meeting ID is 965 8745 5027.

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