Local attorney Michael Jensen offers a blueprint for Venice in a post COVID World
By Nick Antonicello
VENICE – The position of Chair of the Land Use & Planning Committee of the Venice Neighborhood Council (LUPC) has long been regarded as the most challenging and important responsibility of any other standing committee, sometimes just as critical as the VNC itself!
LUPC can be best described as the House, Ways & Means Committee of the VNC when it comes to real estate land use, as it plays a first-step process in any formal action or revision on a residential or commercial parcel here in Venice.
There are numerous technical issues that come before the board and the volume of applications can be steady and relentless as this body usually meets twice a month due to the weight of activity that is reviewed and then sent to the full board for discussion and approval.
For Michael Jensen, his volunteer service as a member and now chairman is a personal passion that he views as an agent of progress, transparency and change that Venice stakeholders can access both by attending meetings and retrieving committee deliberations, data and actions online.
Jensen is a graduate of Drew University (2006) located in New Jersey with a BA in Philosophy and earned his JD from Southwestern Law School (2015) here in Los Angeles where he was a staff member for the Law Review as well as a Brief Writer for the Moot Court Honors program. He has been recognized for his Pro Bono Legal Services and awarded Best Brief, in a Telecommunications Moot Court Competition (2015).
Jensen ran unsuccessfully for the position he currently holds today as he was defeated in a close contest two years ago by a 56%-44% margin with 1,868 votes cast. The winner however resigned and Michael was the logical successor and replacement to fill this void on this all-Important committee by the full VNC.
Soft spoken and clear-speaking, Jensen has a commanding grasp of the functions of LUPC and his leadership style is steady, confident and unifying.
For years LUPC meetings had become controversial and sometimes comedic, as large numbers of stakeholders would gather for what were confrontational and divisive debates and discussions.
With Jensen at the helm, those days seem to be in the rearview mirror.
Jensen credits the current board membership as capable and experienced, and that has drastically cut down the length of the meetings that could go on for as much as four hours.
While many cases remain in the pipeline, increasing the transparency while offering data analytics and an information portal to the public that is reliable are works in progress in a second term.
Jensen sees the future of the MTA site that’s currently home to bridge housing as another important issue, as he believes creating “work force housing” as something that also needs to be addressed in the overall equation of housing affordability here in the community. At the same time, balancing height on Lincoln that will bring parity as well as a pedestrian friendly presence to what is regarded as the community’s primary transportation artery.
While the work load is heavy, Jensen takes pride in the board’s approach to these land use questions and credits the committee for having the knowledge and ability to engage the public in a workman-like fashion.
“It is not a hobby,” offered Jensen.
During our conversation I provided Chairman Jensen with some questions to ponder on the future of Venice and where he sees the community headed from a real estate and land use perspective:
Q. You spent a good amount of time in the workplace between graduating college and becoming an attorney. What made you decide to become a lawyer?
A. I moved to Los Angeles a year after graduating college with liberal arts degree studying philosophy (so, I had no idea what I wanted to be). After some odd jobs, I landed a job as a file clerk in a law firm in Santa Monica, eventually working my way up to a paralegal who supported one of the managing partners. After a few years, law school was the logical next step to advance my career.
Q. You were unsuccessful when you ran two years ago, but the person who won resigned and you were appointed to fill the vacancy. Now that you served, what have you learned as chair and what do you believe are your accomplishments as head of LUPC?
A. As Chair, you are tasked with not only running LUPC meetings (typically, two per month) but scheduling, compiling documents, corresponding with applicants, their representatives, and members of the public for each of those meetings. You also have a monthly VNC Board meeting to attend (the last of which went 6 hours) and Westside Regional Alliance of Councils (WRAC) LUPC meetings to attend on behalf of the VNC. Anyone seeking this position needs to understand that running this committee is nearly an entire job, on top of your day job.
Q. COVID-19 has been a major disruption and how has it effected LUPC? Do you prefer in person meetings vs. ZOOM? Are you planning a transition to live meetings or will there be a hybrid of sorts initially?
A. Like many, I have enjoyed the flexibility enabled by online meetings and their ability to engage more members of the public that cannot be physically present. But I recognize online meetings have resulted in a different dynamic in how the public and committee interact. For example, Zoom meetings have opened the door to disrupters, who by all accounts are neither stakeholders nor have any ties to our community but use meetings as a platform to spread their hate. That is an unfortunate consequence of online access. LUPC will transition to live meetings when recommended and required by DONE. I do not know whether we will have the necessary technology to incorporate online participation at in-person meetings, but that would provide for peak access to our meetings, which is a good thing.
Q. Has Venice hit a housing bubble or do you see prices still increasing?
A. We may experience short blips (such as in 2008-2009), but Los Angeles continues to inhibit housing production, resulting in scarcity. At the same time, Southern California (and the coastal areas particularly) remains a highly desirable area to live. There are many high paying jobs attracting people from across the world. With that, we see a consistent upward pressure on housing costs that will likely continue.
Q. Is housing affordability in Venice just political rhetoric?
A. The original RSO passed in 1979 was enacted as a temporary measure to address a housing shortage—that is written in the law itself (see LAMC 151.01). Forty years later, we have still failed to address this math problem. If we are not creating new units—both affordable and market rate—affordability will be merely political rhetoric. Our goal should be to create enough housing so that market rate is affordable. That’s what a balanced marketplace looks like.
Q. Has the level of construction activity and applications before LUPC decreased in 2022 over 2021? Do you see a resurgence in board activity for 2023?
A. My observation is that development decreased in 2020 and that trend remained through 2022, likely due to COVID and resulting economic impacts. This has given LUPC an opportunity to focus more on broader planning initiatives that will have a lasting impact on our community. Perhaps 2023 will bring more development; time will tell.
Q. What is the future of Lincoln Blvd and where do you see major areas of activity in terms of new construction in Venice both residential and commercial?
A. Lincoln Blvd. is the largest commercial district we have in the community. For that reason, it is an obvious place to look to add mixed use developments that will both increase housing stock and provide community-serving commercial resources. More than ten years ago, the City created
the Lincoln Blvd. Community Design Overlay (CDO) in an effort to make a “cohesive, pedestrian-friendly and vibrant commercial and mixed-use boulevard.” Since that time, very little has changed to achieve that goal, which is why it is on my list of priorities for LUPC.
Q. What is your overall view of Oceanfront Walk and what would you suggest to improve it?
A. Ocean Front Walk remains the second most frequented tourist attraction in Southern California. We should embrace this is an asset that brings massive economic benefits to our community. Yet there are empty, unused lots or sites where projects go unbuilt for over a decade now, leaving shells of structures or vacant lots that invite vagrancy and crime. As a result, tourists and locals do not feel safe, especially at night. We improve this by reactivating the space, which means developing these vacant or unused lots to make visitor-serving facilities that combine a commercial component on the ground floor with residential uses above.
Q. We now have new political leadership across the board in Councilwoman Traci Park, Assemblymember Tina McKinnor, Supervisor Lindsey Horvath and Mayor Karen Bass. What is your assessment of these new elected officials to date?
A. It’s early yet, but Mayor Bass and Councilmember Park have given me hope. It appears they are ditching failed policies under former- Mayor Garcetti and Councilmember Bonin, in favor of policies that already demonstrate tangible progress. I am especially hopeful about the relationship the VNC is building with Councilmember Park’s office. Likewise, I am interested to learn how Assemblymember McKinnor and Supervisor Horvath look to distinguish themselves from our prior elected representatives to improve our community.
Q. Of the 21 elected positions on the VNC, 13 are Community Officers but stakeholders can only select one. Would you support a BY LAWS revision so that Venetians can cast votes for all thirteen slots? If not, why not?
A. I think it’s unusual to have 13 at-large elected officials and be limited to only voting for one. We should consider whether that results in stronger representation or undermines it. We also may want to think about whether Venice should be divided into districts (such as its sub-areas) and whether the existing division of subareas reflects a commonality of interests. All of this is on the table in my opinion.
Q. Are you endorsing a candidate for VNC President? If so, why?
A. I’m endorsing Daffodil Tyminksi for President. I met Daffodil in my first term on LUPC in 2016 when we were both committee members. She is a brilliant attorney, working for several years at the U.S. Attorney’s office, and has the gravitas to take on the role of President.
Q. Is the presence of lay people on LUPC a help or hindrance? Do people contact you on how to join the committee? Are you happy with the committee’s current makeup?
A. LUPC is the most technocratic aspect of what the VNC handles. When I first volunteered on the committee in 2016, I was in my first year of being an attorney and knew very little about these technicalities. I was a lay person, but I was willing to learn.
When there is a vacancy, information is posted on our website (venicenc.org/lupc). We have had three vacancies filled since I was appointed Chair (the first one was to fill my seat). I am happy that our committee has members with different careers and varying ages and ethnicities.
Q. Height restrictions have long been supported by the public. Do you see an increase in height in new construction moving forward in Venice?
A. We have to look at height restrictions in context of the increased demand for housing. There are strong opinions on both sides of this debate. Existing homeowners perceive increased density and height as devaluing their neighborhood. On the other hand, housing advocates argue affordability to be inextricably tied to more density and increased height. We have state mandates to increase housing across Los Angeles, and Venice has to take on its fair share of those units in a way that makes sense. The discussion we are currently having on LUPC (and with CD11 and the planning department) is where it is appropriate to increase heights to preserve lower heights elsewhere, to stave off broader state measures that are aimed at changes across the board.
Notably, Lincoln Blvd. is one place where this density is proposed—especially the portion south of Washington where parcels are abutted by existing multi-story buildings. The existing CDO for Lincoln (approved in 2008) reiterates that there is currently no height restriction on the east side of Lincoln Blvd., despite a 30-foot restriction on the west side (not including applicable density bonuses). In my opinion, we should work to achieve parity in height on both sides going forward. If we look elsewhere in the world, cities have managed to achieve the balance of increasing height of modern development against the backdrop of historic sites, and we can achieve that balance, too.
Q. The last meeting of the VNC was quite contentious and in many ways unproductive. What can be done to prevent the VNC from continuing down that path or was it just a bad night for the board?
A. The presiding officer of a public meeting held over Zoom has the difficult task of maintaining order in the face of those who want to disrupt the process. There are built-in functions that can make this easier, such as muting both the board members and public until each person is called upon in an orderly fashion. Instead, we appear to allow anyone to speak, at any time. This results the type of meeting we saw in February, where a few individuals are monopolizing the meeting, at the expense of what should be a productive dialogue. It was a bad night for everyone. We may want to look to other political bodies as to how agenda items are calendared and handled at public meetings to create a more efficient process.
Q. Name three objectives you have should you be elected. What specifically do you want to accomplish?
1. Community-led development plan for MTA lot (currently Bridge Housing)
2. Terminating or drastically revising the proposed Venice Median Project to reflect the VNC’s and neighbor’s prior recommendations
3. Soliciting more recommendations for Venice Community Plan and Local Coastal Program
Q. Is Venice on the right track?
If you had asked me six months ago, I would have definitively said, “NO.” However, we have a change in local leadership on nearly every level. So far, Mayor Bass and Councilmember Park have given me hope that we are moving in the right direction. Time will tell if this bears out.
Nick Antonicello is a longtime Venetian covering the candidates and issues for the March 26th VNC elections. Have a question or a comment? Contact Antonicello via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org