The setting summer sun still sits high in the sky with its harsh light filtered through a milky haze. A row of vendors line the beach side of the parking lot at 601 Ocean Front Walk at Sunset Ave., Venice. Their temporary structures draped in a mish-mash of tourist must-haves that sway in the late afternoon breeze.
One of these vendors, Frank, has been selling souvenirs and accessories since 2002.
“It’s not going to be good if they build something here,” he says of the parking lot where he and other vendors line up along the boardwalk.
However, times are changing, and developers in Venice are riding the wave. It’s a wave that might just wipe out smaller businesses like Frank’s.
The current plan for the parking lot at 601 Ocean Front Walk is a 28,000 square foot high-tech office space. If it goes ahead the building will be a first for the boardwalk.
Long-term, part-time Venice resident John Stein worries that this kind of development will set a precedent along Ocean Front Walk.
“You’re going to have office development up and down the boardwalk and the whole boardwalk’s going to be transformed,” Stein says. “It’ll become a business park. That’s just not what this city needs. The City needs this safety valve for the whole city to come here and enjoy the beach.”
While the property has been a parking lot for as long as many can remember, back in the 80’s approval was given to build a food court.
Twenty-year Venice resident and architect for the proposed development Glen Irani says there is currently an active permit for a similarly scaled building on this site with a restaurant and retail use.
“The owner would have built [that option] unless I had advised them otherwise,” Irani says. “It’s an economically viable option, but certainly not the highest and best use nor the most neighborhood friendly use. Such a use would entail numerous deliveries every day, food trash odors, homeless lurking for food trash, constant vehicular traffic, and possibly a bar or two with loitering drunkards after-hours as most every bar does have.”
Add to all this another tick against the idea for a food court, is that it seems the current climate is dictating a very different direction for the project.
Venice has inadvertently become the center of a tech boom with companies like Google and online media company Vice making Venice their home, as well as numerous tech startups, including Snapchat. This tech boom has fueled a property boom with both residential and commercial property prices soaring.
As the successful startup has grown, Snapchat has continued to eat up office space in Venice, on Market Street, and Venice Blvd.
On June 1 Venice staple Nikki’s closed its doors for the last time. The space will become Snapchat’s employee cafeteria. The silicon beach darling even has office space at the back of the Gingerbread Cottage, the building right next to the parking lot at 601 Ocean Front Walk.
There’s a rumor a large tech startup is slated to move into the proposed new office space on the boardwalk. While nothing has been confirmed, considering how spread out Snapchat is, currently one could be forgiven for speculation.
“It’s not an untimely project,” Irani says. “So it will happen and there’s no reason why it can’t from a code prospective and a legal prospective. The ground work has been laid out over many, many years.”
Irani was present at a community meeting held in the lounge room of Stein’s home on Sunset Ave., Venice in late May.
“I just came here to hear what everyone was concerned about,” Irani says. “I think as any good architect would do I want to take into account what everybody thinks.”
The meeting ran for hours. The discussion was passionate and a petition was sent around collecting the names of those concerned as to what the development would mean for the beach community. Some people asking if there was even a place for such a large office complex along the beach front.
Long term Venice resident Ivonne Guzman said, “We have something special here. We need to make sure we protect and conserve the beauty we have here.”
Again and again, the issue of insufficient parking and traffic congestion along Speedway was raised as a major concern.
“A lot of the old buildings nearby here have no parking; they were built before parking was required, a lot of them use this lot as another safety valve,” Stein says. “This is where residents’ visitors can park, deliveries use this lot. With this lot gone it’s just going to gum up the entire section of the boardwalk from Rose to Navy, and that’s half of the boardwalk.”
Venice local Ehron Sidel lives on Speedway across from the future development site.
“What’s going to happen is the parking situation is going to be a nightmare for everybody in the community,” Sidel says.
While concerned about traffic congestion Sidel is not completely against the project.
“We’re looking at the proposal as an opportunity to make the project right, as opposed to opposing it,” Sidel says. “We just want it to be legal and to be within the guidelines of the community. They’re also looking to make sure that it’s adequately developed so that parking isn’t an issue and traffic congestion isn’t an issue. Right now there’s maybe 50 parking spots and they’re looking to add 400 people to the neighborhood, which is a really big multiplier.”
As to whether the proposed two levels of subterranean parking is even possible along the beachfront, Irani says it is “totally viable and done all the time at high water land.”
“Thornton Lofts just two doors south has underground parking,” Irani says. “Numerous very old buildings in Venice have basements from the days when basements were common. The entire City of New York is built on enormous subterranean garages well into the high water table. There’s nothing new or dangerous about it.”
Irani says people’s objection to a structure on that asphalt parking lot is completely off point.
“The new project provides all the space that this parking lot does for neighboring uses in addition to all the parking required for the uses on site,” Irani says. “That hole in the Ocean Front Walk commercial ‘edge’ is nothing but an underutilized eyesore. New tenants and building facilities management will take good care of the surrounding area, secure the boardwalk in that area, partake in the forming Venice Boardwalk Business improvement district when it materializes – and I expect that it will. Buildings of this caliber with tenants of commensurate caliber provide money and jobs to the economy, stewardship for the neighborhood and are generally very good for the neighborhood.”
Yet, not everyone in Venice is supporting such rapid change and with that the evolution of Venice appears to be a delicate juggling act.
The Land Use and Planning Committee (LUPC) have drafted and at their meeting on Tuesday, June 2, approved a motion that recommends a Venice Coastal Zone Interim Control Ordinance.
The ICO’s background states that over the past 10 years, since the inception of the Venice Coastal Zone Specific Plan, the city ordinance approved in 2004, the pace of development in Venice has greatly accelerated. The motion says that the cumulative impact of development in Venice has had, and continues to have a significant adverse effect on the character of Venice.
The motion also states that the “…rapid and most times careless gentrification of the Venice neighborhoods in terms of their character and density, and especially in terms of loss of affordable units is causing a rapid, permanent and significant adverse change in the social, racial and economic diversity of the Venice neighborhoods.”
LUPC Chair Robin Rudisill says one of the things that has to be looked at is the cumulative impact.
“You essentially have to imagine the entire boardwalk with completed projects of the same type as this proposed development and ask whether that would be acceptable?” Rudisill says.
“Personally I think it’s a beautiful building but the decision can’t just be based on opinion. We have to look at our guiding principals and policies and map out the future of this area. The Coastal Act is meant to preserve and protect Venice as a special coastal community.”
Irani says the fact is that any project can look pretty bleak when unnecessary delays occur.
“These days, the Planning Department has been so backed up that I can only imagine the economic damage they’re causing this already struggling city,” Irani says. “Add to that the delays caused by obstructionists and appeals and you have an enormous amount of money spent on entitlements and holding costs rather than the tangible benefits of a better building.
“Architects are just stuck right smack in the middle of all this vortex and all we want to do is funnel as much energy and money into the building. Our only interest is to do a good project that works for the client, the community and the users. On a project like this, where there is no deep pocket pension fund or REIT floating the project, rather there’s a group of real, well-meaning, honest people with real families and real cash flow issues working hard on many things to bring this project to fruition and to do something good for their futures without taking unnecessary risks. So getting the project done with minimal delays is important for everyone.”
However, regardless of differing opinions within the community, could the bolting horse that is the Venice boom take care of itself?
Snapchat is just one of many tech startups rumored to be heading for an IPO this year.
Fox Business reported that the market for IPO’s in 2014 was the best since 2000, this being the year before the Dotcom collapse.
With property and tech so interconnected in Venice are developments, like the proposed office for Ocean Front Walk, sustainable in the long run?
“My believe is yes, absolutely Venice can sustain these developments and prices mostly because of who is investing and locating their businesses here, hence Silicon Beach,” says James Allan, an agent at Coldwell Banker and 20-year Venice local.
Irani says the scale and character of Venice is defined by the diversity of all the architecture, whether it’s old or new.
“This project just happens to be on a big lot, it will be a big project for Venice,” Irani says. “Whether this is developed by the current owner or a future owner. Whether it’s designed by a local architect, or a foreign architect and I guess the City supports the scale of the project because they allow it. The issue I think for the general public and certainly for Venice residents is, who do they want building the project and who do they want designing the project? If they don’t want me designing the project then I won’t, but who do they want to do that? Speak up and know that if I don’t, somebody else will.”
Stein says the Venice Specific Plan sort of says no offices are allowed but it leaves loopholes so the developers are trying to squeeze through their projects.
“This will be a test case, so is the City and the Coastal Commission going to enforce it?” Stein says. “Because it really is not good for coastal access. Offices are all around town, they don’t have to be on Venice Beach. Venice Beach is too precious to turn into an office park. Just because they have the money. It doesn’t go to the highest bidder, there are other things involved.”
Whatever the outcome the parking lot at 601 Ocean Front Walk appears destined to become the center of what could very well be a deciding factor in the direction of the future of Venice.