Abbot Kinney Boulevard, one of the trendiest locales in Venice, is an eclectic mix of cafÈs, boutiques, novelty stores and restaurants. To many residents and business owners, it is a place “like nowhere else.”
And a group of determined neighborhood community activists is taking action to keep it that way.
Venice Unchained, a grassroots nonprofit organization founded two years ago by Dawn Hollier and Melissa Bechtel, is waging a battle to keep what are known as “formula retail stores” off Abbot Kinney and Ocean Front Walk, two of the coastal city’s most popular venues.
The organization is working with Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose 11th District encompasses Venice, to design an ordinance that will prevent large chain stores like Pizza Hut and Starbucks from setting up shop along its most frequented avenues.
“[Venice] is definitely an original and unique neighborhood,” said Hollier, a film editor and 17-year Venice resident in a recent interview. “If formula stores were to come in, it would become like so many other Main Streets around America.”
The group feels that large retail stores would irreparably alter the creative vibe that has been synonymous with Venice since the days of the beat poets, and that, according to Bechtel, is what lies at the heart of the fight to preserve that richness.
“For me, it’s a feeling of creativity, energy and excitement,” she said. Bechtel, a yoga instructor in Mar Vista and an eight-year resident of Venice, worked for the clothing retailer The Gap for five years, and she believes that her experience working for a national chain store gives her special insight in distinguishing the difference that a formula retail store can have on a particular neighborhood as opposed to a smaller, neighborhood-oriented establishment.
“It’s a very scripted environment that takes the autonomy, creativity and self-expression away from service and how you communicate with the customer,” she believes. “In order to feel connected to your community, you really do need to have independent business owners be able to run their businesses in a way that they can express themselves through their service, merchandise, design and all of those things.”
The move to ban formula retail outlets is not without precedent. Nearly 20 U.S cities have similar laws that prohibit these types of stores in specific areas, and the municipal law passed by the Coronado City Council regarding formula retail stores has been upheld by a state appellate court, fending off a legal challenge by several local business owners.
California cities that have similar laws include Arcata, Carmel, Calistoga, Pacific Grove, San Juan Bautista, Sausalito, Solvang and San Francisco.
Venice Unchained has garnered solid community support for its cause from several sectors of the eclectic beach town, including from the Venice Chamber of Commerce. Its past president, Robert Feist, is a big proponent of keeping heavily-pedestrian venues like Abbot Kinney Boulevard and Ocean Front Walk free of businesses like Wal-Mart and Starbucks.
“Our board voted overwhelmingly to support the proposed ordinance when Dawn brought it to us two years ago,” said Feist, who owns a recording studio in Venice. “There is tremendous local support for what they are doing.”
The Venice Neighborhood Council is also supporting the group’s desire to keep the large chains out.
“As a 25-year resident of Venice, I wholly support Venice Unchained’s position,” said Phil Raider, the Neighborhood Council’s secretary.
There are a few formula retail businesses that have already established a beachhead in Venice. On the corner of Pacific and Windward Avenues, a block from Ocean Front Walk, there is a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. The appearance of the yogurt store Pinkberry on Abbot Kinney across from the popular coffee shop Abbot’s Habit has caused the local activists to double their efforts to stop any more formula stores from landing on the boulevard.
“We have an artistic flair here, and I just feel that it’s so important to keep that integrity, the funkiness of Venice,” said Melissa Henderson, of Venice Unchained. “We don’t want to become another Santa Monica or Marina del Rey.
“I feel like we’re being squeezed,” she added.
The proposed ordinance could take at least a year to be enacted, which is a discouraging prospect for Hollier and her band of activists.
“We could have another dozen chain stores on Abbot Kinney alone in a year,” the group’s co-founder lamented.
“To put in a citywide ordinance could take at least a year,” Rosendahl conceded. “Both the city attorney and our planning staff have been in contact with my office, and we are planning to have a meeting with Venice Unchained in September to discuss a new strategy.”
Henderson, an Austin, Texas native who came to Venice a little more than a year ago, believes that crafting an ordinance similar to one in San Francisco would best serve Abbot Kinney Boulevard and Ocean Front Walk.
The only large city in the nation with such a law, San Francisco takes a neighborhood-specific approach. The law states that whenever a formula retail business applies to open, residents in the surrounding neighborhood must be notified. They then have the option of requesting a public hearing and subjecting the applicant to additional scrutiny.
The ordinance also allows for varying degrees of regulation in each neighborhood. In some parts of the city, chain stores are banned outright.
Merchants on Abbot Kinney largely agree with Venice Unchained’s cause.
“I agree with it in principle,” said Christina Keith, owner of Pancia Maternity Baby Boutique.
“But I sometimes feel that Abbot Kinney might benefit from having a few stores that have a few locations, but are not considered chain stores.”
“These stores can ground the street and pull in a customer base that’s already established,” she suggested.
The boutique owner thinks that a store like Fred Segal, a fashion and beauty boutique, could work on Abbot Kinney.
“Something that is high-end, but has its own identity and is a little more eclectic.”
“I definitely would not want to see a Starbucks, a McDonald’s or a Burger King on Abbot Kinney, because it takes away from the authenticity of this street,” said Rafael Varela, who owns Circuit Works. “There’s no other street on the West Coast like it. It has that SoHo vibe, bohemian vibe, and I really love it.”
The group has well over 3,500 signatures in support of its cause.
“I think that speaks volumes to how much the community supports what we’re doing,” said Bechtel. “It’s a very passionate subject, and people are really excited about maintaining the character of Abbot Kinney. We’ve had a wonderful outpouring of support. It shows that people really care.”
The group remains committed to maintaining what its members love about their neighborhood, and optimistic that the legal battle will be won, as it has in other cities.
“I feel really positive that we’re going to get something passed that will make everybody happy,” Henderson said.