It was design and funding disputes that put the Venice canals restoration on hold for years.
Finally, in the 1980s, it appeared that the dream of decades would finally become a reality — but not without its controversies and hurdles.
In 1982, Maxine and Murray Leral had to persuade the people in the City of Los Angeles engineering office that, yes, they were indeed serious about circulating a petition to redo the sidewalks and canal banks.
After talking to two people in the office and hearing them say, “That’s been tried many times. Do you really want to do this?” Maxine recalls that the most senior person in the office said, “Well, you know this is such a controversial thing. We have to check first.”
Ultimately, then-Los Angeles City Councilman Pat Russell wanted 75 percent of the residents to sign the petition.
Now who was going to pay for this restoration? After trying for years to get the canals cleaned up, an assessment district was established.
Property owners paid approximately 80 percent, or more than $2.7 million, of the costs, spread over ten years.
They were assessed the cost of redoing the sidewalks, realigning the banks and providing public areas.
The city agreed to pay for the restoration of the bridges, the wetland vegetation, handicapped access, the small historic section on Grand Canal near Venice Boulevard and the canal dredging.
“It was fascinating to me,” says Mark Galanty, “this concept that you could have an assessment and get something restored like this that was such a great historical part of the community.”
Although many people were opposed to paying the assessment, Mark remembers the assessment officer who had been in his job for many years commenting that, “of all the assessments that I’ve seen, it was the best assessment per dollar for the value.”
The assessment was just one of the many compromises to get the project done.
Work was halted when state and environmental agencies classified the canals as protected wetlands.
It was decided that a restoration would pose a threat to area wildlife, including an endangered bird known as the California least tern.
Nothing was going to stop the restoration this time and another compromise was made.
“We had to make sure that we didn’t do any heavy work during the nesting season, which is from April to September,” says Luis Ganaja, project manager from the Department of Public Works. “We also had to maintain at least half of the water in the canals to be available for the birds.”
In the 1970s, the City had proposed a “Vertical Wall Plan” for the banks. It was accepted by most residents, but Ruth Galanter, who was elected to replace Pat Russell in the City Council, rejected it for environmental reasons.
Then Ruth requested that the California State Coastal Conservancy research and recommend an alternative plan.
The resulting “Armorflex Plan” featured a 23 degree slope, with material laid in large sheets, and it involved more property encroachment because the sidewalk was closer to the property line.
The canal community majority didn’t approve of it and was offered the opportunity to devise their own plan.
Andy Shores saw Loffelstein in a magazine and brought the idea to the association board. In 1991, it became the final selection of the residents.
The “Loffel Block Plan” featured a 55-degree slope, individual interlocking materials and less property encroachment with the sidewalk closer to the canal bank.
In addition, test sites showed that the Loffel Block was better to protect, preserve and enhance the wetland vegetation that was a major concern and, in general, the community felt it was more aesthetically pleasing.
The Loffel manufacturer was asked to do something they had never done before — cut a hole in the bottom of each concrete block to allow the plant roots to grow deeper.
“The Loffel grew, the Amorflex did not,” says Mark. “There were a lot of theories — that we sabotaged it. The city did a soil test to determine there was no poison. That’s how heated this thing was.”
Another heated aspect of the restoration occurred in 1993.
The Venice Canals are known all over the world. Part of what helped put the canals on the map was a “duck plague” that received sensationalized international media attention.
Hysteria ran rampant when, after a group of ducks was diagnosed with duck virus enteritis, the California Department of Fish and Game decreed eradication of all of the ducks in order to prevent spread of the disease.
The draining of the canals for this purpose and the protest process itself, including a temporary injunction, delayed the restoration.
It was a very emotional time for lovers of the ducks, who were such an important part of the canals and, in many cases, treated as pets.
Even before the virus outbreak, the ducks tended to cause problems and delays, but only because they acted like ducks would act. They ate the new landscaping in the absence of their natural habitat.
“We put netting around the vegetation until water was put back in the canals,” Luis says.
The construction site was fenced off but that didn’t prevent the ducks from flying over the top.
“We had to get a biologist as part of the contract to herd them away from the site,” he adds. “Every time they came, we had to do that. It was time-consuming.” The projected time for the restoration was 18 months. The actual time turned out to be 24 months. Nature also played its part in the delay.
Winter brought heavy rains that year. It was hard to excavate the decayed soil at the bottom of the canals and made even harder after a downpour.
“We had to wait at least two weeks for the soil to dry,” says Luis.
Then there was the time that a tractor got stuck in the mud or “stuck in the muck” as Maxine would say. A crane had to pull it out.
Another problem turned out to be the soil itself. No one wanted it.
“No disposal area wanted the material because it contained salt,” says Luis. It finally went to Pier 300 at the Harbor Department.
There were other stumbling blocks but, in the end, compromise and perseverance won out.
“The community is very grateful to the people in the city [government] who did all the work on our behalf,” says Henry Colman. “You have to know that there were still people who were very much against redoing the canals and they would not sign the petition.
“There weren’t many of them, but they are now, of course, enjoying the benefits of everything that happened.”
Grace Godlin is one.
“I thought it would destroy the character of the canals and lead to gentrification,” she says. “I think it has had that consequence. However, even I can recognize the benefits that some aspects of the restoration have brought.”