Coastal Commission scolds City Hall for allowing the mansionization of Venice under the guise of renovation

By Gary Walker and Joe Piasecki

Alma Collins’ home of 50 years has been replaced with one four times as big Photo by Michael Kraxenberger

Alma Collins’ home of 50 years has been replaced with one four times as big
Photo by Michael Kraxenberger

Alma Collins paused in front of the house at 613 Santa Clara Ave., a place she had called home for 50 years.

It wasn’t home anymore. She sold it in 2014 — not because she wanted to leave Oakwood, but because Venice’s historically African-American neighborhood left her.

“I used to live with two [modest] single-family homes on each side of me. I came home from work one day and the homes were gone. In a day they were gone,” Collins said. What was quickly built in their place, she said, “took my air, took my sun, and that was the beginning of me deciding that I don’t want to live here anymore.”

Collins said she never received any notice, official or otherwise, that her neighbors’ homes would be demolished to create what are mansions by comparison. It’s a frequent complaint among local affordable housing activists.

Among the main catalysts of gentrification in Oakwood, they say, are “Venice Signoffs” — local slang for city development permits that effectively allow teardown and replacement of existing homes under the guise of remodels and additions.

Recent decisions by the California Coastal Commission, a state agency empowered to approve or deny new construction in coastal areas, bolster
that argument.

Addressing a series of appeals filed by residents, commissioners ruled in April that city planners should not have allowed nine separate home remodeling projects in Venice to go forward because demolition for new construction would have been a more accurate description of the work.

“Although the [coastal development] exemption determinations by the city described the development as remodeling and improvements to existing residential structures, the commission found that these projects clearly involved the substantial demolition and reconstruction of these residential structures,” reads a letter from California Coastal Commission Chair Steve Kinsey to Los Angeles City Planning Director Vincent Bertoni.

For example, the commission found that city officials exempted a home at 632 Brooks Ave. from demolition permit requirements by classifying the project as a first- and second-story addition, even though nothing of the original house remained other than portions of its foundation and wooden frame.

California Coastal Commissioner Greg Cox laid additional blame on city officials for failing to adopt local development guidelines for development near the coast.

“I’m really [angry] that we find ourselves in this situation because of a lack of effort by the city of Los Angeles to get a [Local Coastal Program] so that they could address these issues,” he said during the April meeting.

New home construction disguised as home remodeling is one reason a group of Venice is taking the city to court, alleging lax enforcement of zoning policy in violation of state and local laws.

In a lawsuit filed Feb. 25 in Los Angeles Superior Court, the Venice Coalition to Preserve Our Unique Community Character seeks an injunction against so-called Venice Signoffs.

“Defendants have issued and continue to issue [Venice signoffs] without providing surrounding property owners with notice of pending permit applications or the opportunity to challenge proposed developments. These projects include the demolition of existing structures, construction of new two- and three-story buildings and large, multiple-story additions,” the coalition’s complaint states.

Such fast-tracked redevelopment allows city officials to skirt public scrutiny while they accelerate the loss of moderately priced housing, said Todd Darling, one of those who appealed a home demolition before the Coastal Commission.

“They’ve used [Venice Signoffs] to get around affordable housing rules, and they have allowed tenants to be displaced,” Darling said.

Back on Santa Clara Avenue, it isn’t just the homes of Collins’ neighbors that have disappeared.

There is no longer any visible trace of the one-story, 1,177-square-foot home that Collins grew up in.

In its place, a two-story, 3,444-square-foot house with a bonus 539-square-foot garage/studio is in the final stages of construction.

Below a very large “for sale” sign, an 8.5”-by-11” city-issued construction notice is posted to a fence.

The work description reads “two-story ground floor addition to single-family dwelling with roof access penthouse.”