By Joe Piasecki and Gary Walker
The Venice spirit is to live and let live — just don’t go around trying to change the neighborhood.
It’s an attitude that makes almost any kind of development a tough sell, even for a local builder promoting preservation as part of the mission.
Enter filmmaker Dan Abrams, who hopes to build a three-story boutique hotel interwoven with existing buildings along Abbot Kinney Boulevard, a project that would encompass much of the block bounded by Abbot Kinney, Westminster Avenue, Electric Avenue and Broadway Street.
Despite its name, the bulk of the 85-room Abbot Kinney Hotel would occupy what’s currently a parking lot facing Electric. Renderings show new construction facing the famous boulevard in an area between Venice Place and the Second Community Baptist Church as well as between the church and the corner of Westminster. A portion of the hotel would be also visible behind Joe’s restaurant on the Broadway side, but drawings show the rest of it hidden behind existing buildings that would remain — including the church, Joe’s, Primitivo Wine Bistro and Venice Place.
Abrams, who has lived in Venice and kept an office above Primitivo for 10 years, says he bought the building and most of the block (excluding the church and one small building) six years ago in order to preserve its unique character, including a publicly accessible interior courtyard known as Dr. Jerry’s Garden. The hotel footprint would replace Willie Jane with a slightly larger restaurant but would expand the garden courtyard and leave it open to exploration by passersby.
“This is a very special place. I care deeply about it,” Abrams said of the block. “Developers I spoke to early on talked about [demolishing] the entire property. That’s what normally would be done and part of the reason I didn’t want somebody else to get their hands on it.”
The hotel would be Abrams’ first attempt at developing commercial real estate. The movie producer and entrepreneur declined to state how much he has invested in the property but said the amount was steep enough to require development, as leases from existing businesses don’t pencil out against the purchase price.
“When the hotel idea came around, it was exciting to me because I feel like a hotel can connect with the community in ways other types of development can’t. If you build office space or high-end apartments or condos, the property is sort of closed off from the community.”
Critics, however, see the proposed Abbot Kinney Hotel as a Goliath in need of its David.
Traffic and parking fears
Daryl Barnett, who manages an apartment complex directly across Electric Avenue, said she did not have strong feelings about Abrams’ proposal.
“We’re trying to work with him because having something [built] there is inevitable,” Barnett said.
But others are doing whatever they can to stop it.
“This thing is enormous. This is like having a mini-mall stuck in the middle of Abbot Kinney,” said Venice resident Marta Evry, a film and television editor who has decried the project extensively on local blogs and organized residents against it.
Evry, who lives about a mile away, has claimed the hotel will “be a disaster for our community” — increasing traffic congestion from taxis and delivery trucks, exacerbating parking scarcity, setting precedents for building size and height that would allow other developers to run amok, and helping fuel gentrification that’s already steamrolling existing tenants.
Gail Rogers, a retired teacher who lives just a few blocks west of Abbot Kinney, said commercial expansion of the boulevard comes at too hefty a price.
“When commercial development goes too far, destroying the quality of residential life and driving members and independent small shop owners of this eclectic, creative community out of Venice, all that will be left will be an over-developed, congested and gridlocked street,” Rogers said.
Abrams counters that he too is uncomfortable with explosive growth and laments the incursion of national chain stores. “But this is not a chain — it’s an independent boutique hotel,” he said.
Despite a recent reboot of the project that eliminated plans for a fourth story, “the hotel complex still takes up the entire block between Broadway and Westminster, with a partial carve-out for two parcels the developers don’t own. There’s nothing else on Abbot Kinney that even comes close to it in terms of mass and scale,” writes Evry on her blog, Venice for Change.
David Hertz, a Venice-based architect heading up plans for Abrams’ hotel, said he’s empathetic to those who fear losing Venice’s character — except for Evry, who he claims “continues to spin a lot of myth around the project and incite people’s fears about massive development and gridlock.”
Hertz said the hotel’s mass would be significantly smaller than what’s allowed under current zoning code, increase the availability of parking with an automated underground lot and have a negligible impact on traffic.
Compared to restaurant or retail customer volumes, hotel guests — who would be offered free bicycle rentals to get around — come and go at off-peak traffic hours, Hertz said. Where popular Abbot Kinney restaurants and shops serve hundreds of visitors each day, Hertz said the hotel will have far fewer daily arrivals.
A traffic study by the Los Angeles Dept. of Transportation bears Hertz out, concluding that “the proposed project will not have any significant traffic impacts.” It predicts the hotel would generate roughly 650 new daily trips in the area, but only about 60 of those in peak traffic hours.
Hertz does concede that the hotel’s proposed 32-foot, 11-inch height does exceed a 30-foot height limit for flat-roof structures, but he’s also quick to point out that nearby buildings reach as high as 35 feet — which would be allowed for the hotel if its roofline were stepped back.
A report before Venice Neighborhood Council members flags the building’s height as a concern but endorses the project as meeting other zoning requirements.
The proposed design “is compatible in scale and character with the existing neighborhood,” according to a draft report on the project filed this week by council Land Use and Planning Committee member John Reed.
The zoning code would permit a density of up to 113 guest rooms where Abrams seeks 85, and the hotel’s 163 parking spaces would well exceed mandatory minimums, according to Reed’s report.
But Evry questions how effective those spaces will be and is skeptical of Abrams’ promise to include employee spaces so that hotel workers don’t park on the street. “They could also allow Martians to land and claim our women, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to actually happen,” she writes.
The ghost of the Ray Hotel
Details aside, others aren’t sold on the idea that a hotel would do much good for the area.
Ira Koslow, who is a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council and married to Rogers, said he’s received a lot of feedback that the hotel’s height and aesthetics would have a negative impact on the boulevard.
“It’s going to ruin Abbot Kinney,” Koslow said. “Everything on Abbot Kinney has its own look; they’re all different. This hotel doesn’t fit.”
Koslow believes there’s no need for another hotel in Venice, but Abrams and Hertz say the area is starved for hotel rooms, as evidenced by the proliferation of short-term vacation rentals in Venice.
“The irony is people will stay in Santa Monica, leave their tax dollars there, and drive to Abbot Kinney to go to a restaurant,” said Hertz.
According to Reed’s report, city planning documents designate hotel rooms as a “preferred use” for the coastal-adjacent area Abrams hopes to develop.
But the last time someone tried to build a hotel on Abbot Kinney, the proposal was a spectacular flop.
In 2007, developers sought to build a five-story project, called The Ray Hotel, just down the street at 901 Abbot Kinney Blvd. The plan met tremendous resistance from the community and was ultimately rejected by city planning officials.
But those plans have almost nothing in common with Abrams’ proposal, he and Hertz said.
The 48,000 square-foot Ray Hotel would have been incredibly dense for the lot, whereas Abrams’ hotel is smaller than the zoning code would allow for its much larger lot.
The Ray’s 88 parking spaces weren’t enough to accommodate its 57 rooms and accompanying retail locations, while Abrams’ hotel has more than the legally required amount of spaces.
But what ultimately killed the project was its height — 55 feet, despite the 30-foot limit — and the developer’s apparent refusal to budge even an inch.
“I’m not surprised that there are people with concerns [about the proposed Abbot Kinney Hotel], and I love that locals care enough to have a say about what happens in the neighborhood. We’ve tried hard to address people’s concerns,” including lopping off the fourth story and changing the position of parking and loading areas, Abrams said.
“This is a passion project,” he said. “I want it to be successful, but it’s more important that it is seen as making a valuable contribution to the community.”
Some feel Abrams and his team have a bit further to go.
“They seem to be going about things the right way, and that’s what we want,” said Sarah Dennison, an architect on the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee.
Dennison is concerned that the part of the project facing Electric Avenue is too “monolithic” and said she hopes for a more creative design.
Come decision time, she said, the council must rely on not only zoning requirements but also community feedback and personal discretion to make the right call.
And, she said, “right now there is a general sense that this project is just too big.”