Opinion Piece: Venice Mass, Character, and Scale

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By Mark Ryavec

An Ad-Hoc Committee of the Venice Neighborhood Council has proposed a 50 percent reduction in the square footage that will be allowed in homes built in the future. The “Mass, Character and Scale” committee has proposed this reduction in an over-reaction to the development mania we’ve witnessed in Venice in the last few years and in a genuine desire to preserve our architectural legacy. While I admire the time and diligence they devoted to their task, their proposals go way too far.

Let me put their work in context.

In the early 90s, in response a similar building boom, the City Council passed an Interim Control Ordinance (ICO) to slow down development in Venice while it prepared what later became the Venice Local Coastal Specific Plan, which controls all development here.

However, despite the limits of the ICO, many residents watched with dismay as iconic bungalows still got bulldozed and shipped off to landfills. So, in 1993 a small group that included Historical Society president Betsy Goldman, architect Michael King and myself developed and presented to the council office an Historical Preservation Incentive Program which would have granted relief from certain building codes if 75 percent of the façade and 60 percent of a pre-1940 structure was pre- served during a remodel or addition. The program would have allowed the retention of non-compliant front, side and rear-yard set- backs, parking in rear side-yard setbacks and slight increases in height. The goal was to make remodeling and adding onto historic structures at least as financially attractive as new construction.

Councilwoman Galanter ignored our proposal and instead included in the new Specific Plan the requirement that every development project abide by the mass, character and scale of its surrounding neighborhood, without giving any definition to those terms. We all have seen how effective that has been over the last two decades at preventing over-development or preserving historic structures. The only instance I can recall of a Zoning Administrator denying a project permit on grounds that a new project would violate mass, character, and/or scale was for a two story project in North Venice where the streetscape is almost entirely one-story. Since our proposal was made in 1993, hundreds of bungalows and Craftsman structures have been destroyed and replaced by bleak, towering three-story stucco boxes.

The current push to revisit the issue grew out of resident annoyance at 3,000 square foot modernistic boxes going up next to one-story, two bedroom Craftsman homes in the eastern walk streets. In response, I formed another working group composed of Eileen Pollack Erickson, a walk street resident, Arnold Springer, former co-chair of the Venice Town Council’s land use committee, architect Michael King and myself. We developed a draft plan for the eastern walk streets that would have modestly downsized the building envelop, required variegation on the front of new structures and slight setbacks between floors, and pushed roof access structures to the back of the building so they would not be visible from the walk street. However, Mr. Springer dropped out of out of discussions before we could finalize our proposal and the VNC went ahead with setting up the Ad Hoc Committee, which has now produced a proposal that would bring most construction or remodeling of single family homes in Venice to a halt.

It would for the first time establish a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) for Venice homes at .45 of the lot size. For example, a typical lot in the “Lost Canals” district of 30 by 90 feet (2,700 square feet of lot size) would be allowed about 1,300 square feet of living space. The proposal does allow some small increases in square footage for variegation (that is, breaking up flat planes, balconies, setbacks between stories, gen- erous use of windows, etc.) but would not allow a typical 2,500 foot house for a family of four that is currently allowed by the Specific Plan. Similar to our earlier historic incentive plan, the Ad-Hoc Committee’s proposal would grant a 30 percent increase in FAR for retention of historic structures in a remodel/addition, but that would only increase FAR to .6, so the resulting house would be limited to about 1,600 total square feet, way below what is allowed today.

Now, I am an ardent fan of historic preservation. I have spent 27 years restoring my 1905 Islamo-Byzantine house on Rialto Avenue, which is rumored to have been built by one of Abbot Kinney’s Italian draftsmen. I also recently remodeled its 1949 guesthouse in the same architectural style. However, I cannot support the Ad-Hoc Committee’s proposal because it is fundamentally unfair. There are 2,900 square feet of livable space on my lot and I have yet to hear anyone complain that it is over-built or an example of “mansionization.” There are five other pre-1922 structures on my block that also have more than 2,200 square feet of livable space (my thanks to Ad-Hoc Committee member Brian Finney for this research). I cannot see the justification for the Committee’s “first past the pole” policy, which would accept the generous square footage of those homes constructed early in the century – in Abbot Kinney’s time – but would deny it to those who wish to build now. I also do not believe that a broad amendment to the Specific Plan should be adopted without each sub-area in Venice having the opportunity to fine-tune it for their area, much as the Specific Plan itself was crafted, sub-area by sub-area. As Venice architect John Reed recently wrote:

“The committee’s recommendations fail to address the uniqueness of Venice’s many different sub-areas and establishes a FAR that for numerous properties will make constructing a three bedroom, single family home for four people impossible. Venice is unlike any other district in Los Angeles for a multitude of reasons, including much smaller average lot sizes and lot width, additional parking require- ments, reduced height limit, waterways, etc.”

As I mentioned recently in testimony before the committee, their plan still does not address a couple of the factors that drive owners of older buildings to demolish instead of restore: setbacks and parking. Many of these structures in my neighborhood have only one or two foot side-yard setbacks from the property line. In some instances they do not comply with current rear or front yard setbacks. So, sticking with the original building lines requires both reinforcing or replacing the old foundations while also incurring the cost of additional structural reinforcing to support second and third floors, which under current codes must conform to three or four feet side- yard setbacks. This is very costly and argues for new construction instead of reuse and restoration. Their plan also does not decrease parking from two to one spaces for a new sec- ond unit or allow parking in rear side-yard setbacks.

Before the committee’s proposals move forward to the Neighborhood Council I would recommend that:

• They base their proposals on a Floor Area Ratio that allows at least 2,500 square feet to be built on all residential lots.

• Gives parking and setback and modest height incentives to pre-1940 structures.

• Allows fine-tuning by residents in each of the Specific Plan sub-areas to assure incorpora- tion of local concerns and issues.

I would also like to see them pursue an option to allow property owners to declare their block, by a super-majority, an historic zone where only Craftsman style construction would be allowed, existing setbacks allowed and con- tinued into second and third stories, the full envelop of the current Specific Plan would be available, with added incentives such as relax- ation of parking requirements or modest addi- tional height. I believe this is required to encourage owners to preserve and remodel older one-story structures in the Craftsman vernacular and thus preserve the charming streetscapes of Abbot Kinney’s Venice of Amer- ica in least some areas of Venice.

Finally, the recommendations must be translated into drawings so that residents can see clearly what would be allowed under each FAR iteration and incentive scenario. The council office could greatly assist this process by providing a modicum of funding so the com- mittee could retain an architectural firm to translate their written proposals into images.

Los Angeles is notorious for destroying its own built history. Let’s see if the Ad-Hoc Com- mittee’s well intended efforts can be built upon to reverse that legacy of neglect here in Venice.

Mark Ryavec is president of the Venice Stakeholders Association.

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