Citing sea level rise, local planning leaders request environmental impact report for contentious Venice Median project

By Gary Walker

The mixed-use housing facility would include residences for the homeless, artists and low-income tenants near the Venice Canals

As homeless encampments continue to emerge on Westside streets, especially in Venice, affordable housing advocates say the last thing that city officials should do is halt or delay approval of projects designed to provide both temporary and permanent supportive housing for Los Angeles’ nearly 41,300 unhoused residents, up 16% from 2019.

“Even with the significant gains made in placing people into housing with services, it is not keeping pace with Angelenos falling into homelessness. We need to solve for both,” said Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Commissioner Jacqueline Waggoner earlier this summer after the release of this year’s homeless count numbers.That has not stopped resistance from some neighborhood groups that oppose housing for the homeless in their communities. In addition to arguing against the community impacts of these projects due to their size, density and scale, in Venice opponents are also invoking a 1970 state law that often features prominently in large scale developments.

The Land Use and Planning Committee of the Venice Neighborhood Council is asking city leaders to require the developers of the planned Reese Davidson Community project on Venice Boulevard between Dell and Pacific avenues to conduct an environmental impact analysis in conjunction with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) of 1970 due to the possibilities of sea level rise and other associated hazards associated with climate change.

The 140-unit, 104,140 square foot project would, if approved, provide 68 apartments for homeless residents, 34 for low-income residents and 34 for artists. The site will also provide four units for onsite, trained social services employees. Currently zoned as open space, the project will require a zoning change to neighborhood-commercial.

While the project has garnered support in the beachside community, it has also been the target of legal actions and drawn fierce opposition.

The mixed-use housing, retail and restaurant plan would take up two parking lots of 2.63 acres on what is colloquially known as the Venice Median on Venice Boulevard. The two residential buildings are slated to stand 35 feet tall but a freestanding tower on the project’s northwest side will require a city variance, as it is planned to be 67 feet tall.

Due to a state law passed by the California Assembly in September 2019 — Assembly Bill 1197 — city planning officials may exempt projects from CEQA guidelines that include bridge or temporary housing and permanent supportive housing.

Because of Reese Davidson’s proximity to the ocean, committee member Shephard Stern argued that the developers, the nonprofit organization Venice Community Housing, should be required to conduct an environmental analysis before the city issues any approvals.

“Venice is under the threat of sea level rise. A project this size should have a complete environmental impact report,” Stern asserted.

The committee’s unanimous vote will now go before the full Venice Neighborhood Council for approval, which consists of many members of Fight Back, Venice!, a neighborhood group in staunch opposition to Reese Davidson and other temporary and permanent supportive housing solutions in Venice.

Venice Community Housing Executive Director Becky Dennison told the committee at its Oct. 6 Zoom meeting that her organization had commissioned a sea level rise study but was told by city officials that the project qualified for exemption under AB 1197.

Linda Lucks, the community outreach coordinator for Venice Community Housing, said she was surprised to hear the committee was so focused on sea level rise. “During all of my years on the neighborhood council and since I left I don’t recall hearing about any concerns about sea level rise, especially how it should impact a ruling on a project,” noted Lucks, a former Venice Neighborhood Council president.

Last year, two courts rejected arguments challenging the city’s use of AB 1197 in cases involving Venice developments.

On Dec. 5, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant denied the assertion by Fight Back, Venice! that the state law was unconstitutional in the group’s lawsuit against Reese Davidson and granted the city’s motion to dismiss the case. On Dec. 13, the Venice Stakeholders Association, another group opposed to building housing for the homeless, saw its petition to halt the highly controversial 154-bed bridge housing facility Pacific Sunset denied by Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff. The association unsuccessfully alleged that Pacific Sunset should not be exempt from environmental analysis retroactively because it was approved before AB 1197 became law.

Venice resident Nick Antonicello took issue with other elements of Reese Davidson. “This is a pre-Covid-19 proposal that needs to be reevaluated. It’s the wrong location for a project that is essentially at the gateway to Venice,” said Antonicello, who is against the project.

“There was a time when what Venetians wanted [regarding development] was taken a lot more seriously,” continued Antonicello, who believes that Venice should secede from Los Angeles. “In many ways it seems like the planning process is rigged.”

In addition to the open space, recreational and artistic components, Lucks feels the project’s architecture is an attractive feature. “It will be an iconic building and will fit in well with the architecture of the [nearby] Venice Canals,” she said.

For Stern, the Land Use and Planning Committee member, environmental analysis for Reese Davidson is crucial. “When you throw CEQA out the window, you throw Venice under the bus,” Stern warned.

The Dept. of City Planning is slated to hold a virtual Zoom hearing on the project at 10 a.m. on Oct. 22 at https://planning-lacity-org.zoom.us/j/99148601188. The meeting code is 991 4860 1188 and the passcode is 412246. Anyone interested in learning more about Reese Davidson or scheduling a Zoom meeting can contact Lina Lucks at llucks@vchcorp.org.

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