Building planned for Mar Vista would tower over its neighbors, but affordable housing for artists could sweeten the deal

By Gary Walker

An early conceptual rendering depicts the 85-foot residential and retail building planned for Venice Boulevard Rendering by GMPA Architects courtesy of Crimson Holdings

An early conceptual rendering depicts the 85-foot residential and retail building planned for Venice Boulevard
Rendering by GMPA Architects courtesy of Crimson Holdings

Some community leaders say a seven-story residential and retail building planned for the southeast corner of Venice Boulevard and Wasatch Avenue is just too tall — and its 77 housing units too dense — to be a good fit for Mar Vista, where single- and two-story structures are the norm.

The developer behind these plans, however, has found an unexpected ally: local artists.

The Mar Vista art scene has flourished over the past several years, with new public art and community arts events contributing to a strong post-recession comeback by independent shops and businesses.

But as rent prices go up — the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Mar Vista hit $2,900 last month, according to data scientist Andrew Woo — artists are feeling the squeeze.

After learning of plans for the building, Mar Vista ArtWalk organizer Lenore French contacted developer Crimson Holdings Real Estate Investment and Development to pitch the idea of including affordable housing for artists.

Crimson Holdings Managing Partner Pamela Day, an ArtWalk donor, embraced the idea, earning French’s enthusiastic endorsement with the promise of setting aside roughly 10% of the building’s housing space as affordable housing for artists.

French then put out the call for artists to support Day’s project at 12444 Venice Blvd., citing 2008 legislation by then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco) that may allow the developer to establish a preference for artists when filling affordable units.

“I believe that I’m the first developer on the Westside to use this obscure law to offer artists affordable housing. I want people to know that we’re saying Mar Vista is for artists,” said Day, adding that she’d also like to set aside five affordable units for artists in another project nearby.

The seven-story, 85-foot building planned for Venice and Wasatch is within the mile-long stretch of Venice Boulevard slated for pedestrian-friendly enhancements under the city’s Great Streets plan.

Replacing the two-story strip mall that currently houses the DeCarlo Pizza and Siam Chan restaurants as well as other businesses, the new structure would include 75 vehicle parking and 89 bicycle parking spaces at and below ground level as well as 2,100 square feet of ground-floor retail. Day said there’d be five stories of housing and another story of retail over what she called a “podium.”

At a Mar Vista Community Council Land Use and Planning meeting last month, Day emphasized her commitment to affordable housing as she revealed design plans before an audience of about 90 people.

“I work with artists, and one thing that I know is there is not enough affordable housing for them. One of the things that we’ve sought is to have more affordable housing to keep them in the community. We’re seeing time and time again — and we’re seeing now in Venice — how artists are being evicted,” French told the crowd.

D.J. Neff, a Mar Vista muralist who founded the Mar Vista Art Department studio and retail space, said he’d like to see the building go up across the street from his business.

“We are the first ones to leave [due to higher rents], but we bring beauty to the neighborhood,” added local painter Mitchelito Orquiola.

Day said her project is qualified “by right,” a term meaning that the project conforms to local zoning to the degree that only construction permits are needed — not extended city review.

But according to City Councilman Mike Bonin’s office, Day is using a density bonus that allows her to build a taller project and therefore will trigger further review by the city’s Planning Department.

The Mar Vista Community Council is slated to consider supporting or opposing the project at its Aug. 9 meeting.

Reaction to the development was mixed, and the primary objection seemed to be its height.

One of its most vocal opponents is Ken Alpern, a long-time member of the community council.

“The fact is this project could have been smaller. The presentation that was given was so filled with half-truth and falsehoods that it’s hard not to be upset,” Alpern said.

Ray Gunther, a 28-year resident, said the building’s height would transform Venice Boulevard into resembling other Westside thoroughfares that are lined with high rises and suggested that the building could set a dangerous precedent.

“This thing is way too big. It’s monstrous, hideous, it’s unconscionable. This is what’s coming to Mar Vista. It’s going to become the next Wilshire Boulevard. And to those of you who are happy with it, all I can say is be careful what you wish for,” Gunther said.

Concerned about traffic, resident Leanne Chaney was initially opposed to the project but became less skeptical after Day and others spoke about how ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft are deemphasizing the need for automobile ownership.

“Urban life is changing and we’re going to have to deal with these issues [of cars and traffic]. I have to learn how to integrate these new changes into my life, as we all do,” she said.

Bonin has asked the Planning Department to request a public hearing due in part to the project’s height.

In order to maximize “pedestrian orientation” for the Great Streets initiative, he believes all projects on the boulevard should have underground parking.

“This will dramatically change the character of Venice Boulevard, which is undergoing a rebirth due to the mayor’s Great Streets initiative,” Bonin said.