Affordable housing construction plan encounters early and concentrated pushback

By Gary Walker

Public beach parking in the Venice Boulevard median, slated for
140 apartments
Photo by Shilah Montiel

A plan to build affordable housing on the Venice Boulevard median between Pacific and Dell avenues is already facing organized local resistance, even though an official proposal has yet to reach City Hall.

Voicing concerns about increased density, questioning the location’s suitability for multifamily housing and even expressing skepticism about the motivation for developing the parcel, project opponents say officials should look elsewhere for solutions to the city’s housing affordability crisis.

“The development is totally unnecessary,” said Daryl Barnett, a frequent critic of city policy initiatives who lives east of Abbot Kinney Boulevard in the Presidents Row neighborhood of Venice. “There are other options that are a lot cheaper and don’t rip the heart and soul out of Venice.”

The Venice median parcel, currently a 2.5-acre public parking lot with 188 spaces about 500 feet from the beach, is one of three locations in Venice that city planners and L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin are eyeing for affordable housing construction. The rationale is to bring more middle- and low-income housing to rapidly gentrifying Venice, including housing for the homeless.

Venice Community Housing Corp., nonprofit builders of affordable housing in the area for nearly 30 years, have partnered with the Hollywood Housing Community Corporation in an exclusive negotiating agreement with the city for potential redevelopment of the Venice median.

Specifics of the proposal remain in flux as VCHC staff converse with neighborhood stakeholders, but as of this writing they’re contemplating two mixed-use buildings containing 140 apartments, 10,500 square foot of community-serving retail and community arts spaces, and enough parking spaces to preserve the current level of beach parking as well as accommodate residents.

What’s currently on the drawing board would create 32 studio apartments, 38 one-bedroom apartments, 32 two-bedroom apartments, 34 live-in art studios and four units for onsite management and maintenance employees, Venice Community Housing Corp. Executive Director Becky Dennison said.

Half the new units would go to formerly homeless tenants.

A preliminary rendering by architect Eric Owen Moss that Dennison distributed at a recent community meeting shows a pair of rectangular multi-story structures with interior parking structures.

“When we submit our package to city planning in September, there will be a lot more information” — including a cost estimate for the project, Dennison said. “We have deep roots and history, and we have trust in the community. We’re hoping to capture the flavor and history of Venice.”


‘The Nail in the Coffin’

Developing the Venice median would be VCHC’s largest construction effort to date; of the 15 apartment buildings the nonprofit has built in Venice, Mar Vista and Del Rey, the biggest holds 32 units.

Barnett is skeptical that VCHC is up to the task — “This is way above their heads,” she said — but others leading the opposition charge are more cynical about the city’s rationale for building affordable housing in Venice.

Venice Vision, a grassroots community group formed last year to “better understand Councilman Bonin’s personal vision for Venice,” does not believe
that Bonin is acting solely to mitigate homelessness.

“This is a building of mass scale that is being pushed into our community under the guise of helping people, and what it really is [about] is a development and a rezoning issue. It’s about making money for developers and about what politicians find more monetarily beneficial to them,” said Venice Vision organizer Zelda Lambrecht.

“They are planning something that is not in character and scale with the community and will not solve our community’s homelessness issues,” she said. “It has an underlying intention of being helpful, but it’s really a bad development.”

Barnett is distrustful of almost any development that Bonin supports.

“Mike Bonin has already let Venice Beach turn into a homeless encampment, and now he wants to compound it by building this monstrosity,” she said. “It’s like putting the nail in the coffin of [Venice founder] Abbot Kinney’s dream.”

Venice Vision and its allies argue there are thousands of vacant or underutilized buildings throughout Los Angeles that the city could rehab and retrofit to house the homeless before going to the expense of creating new developments on city-owned land.

Dennison doubts there are all that many city-owned buildings available for residential use. As for privately owned vacant parcels, she too has pushed city leaders to consider purchasing them — but it’s not as easy as it seems, she said.

“They’re not always for sale or sometimes — often — they need to meet certain city, health and housing standards in order to be used for housing,” Dennison said. “And I’ve never seen any evidence of thousands of unoccupied buildings in Los Angeles.”

Clarence “C.C.”  Carter, formerly a Venice Neighborhood Council member, still thinks the city should first consider buying and rehabilitating existing structures, even if some are privately owned and would require asbestos removal and other work to get them up to code.

“The amount of money to do something like that is a lot less than building a new one from the ground up,” Carter said. “It would seem that taking a building and retrofitting it would also take less time than building a new one. And if so many people are asking about it, what’s the real reason they’re not doing it?”

Lambrecht noted that Bonin’s office has not publicly released the series of questions that developers must answer when they bid on developments, which include requests for quotes and requests for proposals.

Dennison acknowledged that VCHC has yet to release such documents, largely due to community polarization surrounding the twin topics of homelessness and development in Venice.

“We didn’t want any misinformation getting out on social media and the internet before we submitted everything to city planning, but they will be public after we submit them. We plan to be very transparent,” Dennison said.


An ‘Overwhelming’ Need

A map being distributed by Venice Vision shows a cluster of planned or potential affordable housing developments in Venice, but only one in the rest of Council District 11.

Lambrecht and Carter believe Venice is willing to shoulder some of the load of providing housing for the homeless, but feel other communities must also do their part.

Dennison said those who believe affordable housing has been concentrated in Venice are mistaken.

“Out of the 6,000 affordable housing units that the city has built in the last 15 years, only 42 of them are in Venice,” she said.

And while homelessness continues to rise citywide and in Venice, the neighborhood’s overall housing stock is shrinking. This year’s county homeless count found 1,191 homeless people in Venice, up from about 1,000 in 2016. Last month, the Wall Street Journal published results of a study that found Venice lost about 700 units of housing from 2000 to 2015 as housing prices soared nearly 250%, with few apartments being built as developers consolidated lots to build larger single-family homes.

The notion that city officials should sell public land rather than put affordable housing on it doesn’t make much sense to Dennison.

“We believe in providing housing in Venice, and the use of public land is the best way to provide housing in a historically diverse community,” she said. “When we have the opportunity to build more, we have to go for it. The need is so overwhelming.”