Alarmed at what they believe could be the beginning of the end of their community’s most prized and unique characteristic — its laid-back, iconoclastic way of life — a Venice-based nonprofit organization is calling for the Los Angeles city government to assist them in prohibiting more large-scale retail stores from setting up shop in its high-traffic areas.

Members of Venice Unchained, a group of local residents who have led the charge to maintain the coastal enclave’s eclectic, hip ambience, joined approximately 40 concerned residents at Westminster Elementary School Wednesday, February 20th, to engage in a discussion centered on what options are at their disposal to attain that goal.

Members of the Los Angeles Department of City Planning took questions and comments from an engaged audience that came to voice its collective concerns and displeasure regarding what they call formula retail — or large chain — stores establishing beachheads on Ocean Front Walk and Abbot Kinney Boulevard, two areas known for their collection of trendy boutiques, artisans and colorful performers.

Over the past few years, stores like the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Subway and more recently Pinkberry have opened franchises along or near the two important commercial corridors in Venice, prompting Venice Unchained to call for a complete ban on all national retail chains.

“We want [formula retail businesses] to keep their tentacles out of our community,” asserted Dawn Hollier, one of the co-founders of Venice Unchained. “We need to have a zone that says, ‘This is for the people, and this is for the spirit of Venice, and it’s worth saving’.”

The Department of City Planning is responding to a motion adopted last year by the Los Angeles City Council directing its Planning and Land Use Committee to work with City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s office to craft a formula retail ordinance.

The motion asks the planning department to develop guidelines that regulate the placement and design of formula retail establishments.

Jim Smith, one of several Venice residents who spoke at the meeting, floated the idea of creating an ordinance that would ban formula retail chains like McDonald’s and KMart west of Lincoln Boulevard on all major streets, not just in the two suggested areas.

“What [the current proposal] would do is force chain stores to go to streets adjoining Abbot Kinney and Ocean Front Walk, but it won’t keep formula retail stores out of Venice as is the intent of most people here,” Smith said.

Like many at the meeting, Oscar Hermosillo felt that there was a sense of urgency to develop design standards as soon as possible. Hermosillo, who owns Venice Beach Wines on Rose Avenue, told the audience that he was aware of two chain stores that were already scouting possible locations in Venice.

“There are people that I know about who are looking at two spots up and down the street right now, so that may be something that we might want to consider jumping on pretty quick,” he recommended.

Melissa Bechtel, who co-founded Venice Unchained with Hollier, feels that the city government can use existing ordinances elsewhere in the state that prohibit formula retail stores as a template for the creation of a similar law in Venice.

“We can model [our own standards] after other successful ordinances or come up with our own,” she suggested.

Bechtel also commented on the sense of urgency that she felt those who attended the meeting displayed.

“I think people are feeling afraid because they see that their neighborhood is changing,” she said.

Mirra Beharry, who moved to Venice last year from New York, cautioned the residents that formula retail stores can quickly accumulate in a neighborhood.

“I lived in Manhattan,” she said. “I saw it happen there, and it’s disgusting.”

Christine Mahfouz, who is the city’s community planner for Venice, told the audience that her department would take their comments and concerns seriously and work with them to develop “a holistic approach to solving any issues that we may have.

“Not to say that we aren’t worried about solving the issues, but [at this meeting] we want to hear what are the problems, if there are any problems, or even better, what parts of Ocean Front Walk and Abbot Kinney do you feel are worthy of preservation,” Mahfouz added. “We don’t want to just put a Band-Aid on the problem.”

Bechtel proposed exploring tax incentives for local business owners who comply with design standards so they are not harmed by new design codes.

“Landowners are a part of Venice, and I would hope that they would understand that [a formula retail ordinance] is for the health of the community in an economic way as well as a way of preserving our unique character,” she said.

Discussion of a moratorium on national chain stores in the interim was raised by a few audience members, due to the fact that Kevin Keller of the Department of City Planning announced that a design ordinance could take between six and nine months to implement.

Keller responded that Delgadillo’s office would have to approve a moratorium.

Like the other members of her organization, Bechtel would prefer to see an outright ban on formula retail instead of a design ordinance that might limit which stores could be established in Venice.

“I don’t know if a design ordinance would be sufficient,” she said.

Bechtel, the proprietor of Little Moon Yoga in Mar Vista, commended the planning employees who hosted the meeting.

“I think that they were very receptive to feedback from the community,” she told The Argonaut after the meeting ended. “I think that the steps that they’ve taken were adequate steps.”

Both the Venice Chamber of Commerce and the Venice Neighborhood Council support the notion of prohibiting large chains on the major streets.

Challis Macpherson, the Venice Neighborhood Council Planning and Land Use Committee chair, thinks that a ban should extend beyond Abbot Kinney and Ocean Front Walk.

“I agree that it should be all throughout Venice,” said Macpherson in an interview the day after the meeting.

As the meeting came to an end, Mahfouz informed the audience that her department would schedule another community meeting soon and would be soliciting the opinions of local business owners regarding the possible design ordinance.