Vendors will soon be hawking T-shirts, sunglasses and stuffed animals in a multimillion-dollar development that once symbolized hopes for oceanfront revitalization in Venice.
The three-story Seabreeze building, formerly known as the Bathhouse, has been vacant since its 1984 completion. An agreement to place 48 vending stalls on the cavernous ground floor was signed after more ambitious plans failed.
"The original ideas were a little too high-level," said leasing agent Dick Eastwood, referring to past plans for filling the bottom floor with trendy boutiques, cafes and gourmet shops. "This is a happy medium."
Eastwood said the vendors will be operating by April and predicted that the upper two floors of office space in the building, at 909 Ocean Front Walk, would be leased in the near future. But Venice activists who have followed the project said they are skeptical of its chances for success.
Some question the logic of placing vendors and office workers in the same building. Others contend that the Seabreeze, the first major addition to the shabby Ocean Front Walk in decades, was doomed to fail from the start because of planning errors and management mistakes. Instead of symbolizing progress, they said the project is a monument to bad judgment.
"The building is ill designed," said Michael L. Dieden, president of the Venice Action Committee, a coalition of influential developers, businessmen, residents and artists. "It is an impediment to progress in Venice."
"It has served as a role model for what not to do," said Jim Bickhart, one of the leaders of a community group known as the Venice Town Council.
The ornate red brick replica of a 1900s-era Venice landmark anchors the midsection of Venice's Ocean Front Walk, a legendary haunt for tourists, roller skaters, vagrants, artists, athletes and curbside entrepreneurs. The owners have refused to discuss the Seabreeze, which features massive columns and arches. But estimates of its value range from $3 million to $7 million.
The Seabreeze dominates an area crowded with nondescript apartment buildings and stores. Some real estate brokers and businessmen say that it may have been far too ambitious for its time. They said the Seabreeze's owners could be losing as much as $200,000 a year.
"The building was gorgeous when it was built and it is still gorgeous," said Jack Gross, a Coldwell Banker executive who worked on the project with the original owners. "But it may have come 10 years too soon. It's too good for that area."
"A couple of developers who considered coming into Venice dropped their plans because of (the failure of) that project," said Thomas Safran, one of two developers building condominium-retail complexes nearby. "It was very disappointing."
The Seabreeze project was created by Venice property owners Werner Scharff and Donald Haskins in the late 1970s. The two initially proposed residential or commercial condominiums for the oceanfront site. But the project was altered after residents' groups complained that the plans violated a moratorium on residential oceanfront construction that was in place at the time.
Scharff and Haskins' second proposal called for an office/retail complex. Those plans were accepted, but only after residents won several concessions. One required the developers to replace 100 neighborhood parking spots lost to the project. Another prohibited sit-down restaurants in the development.
By 1982 Scharff and Haskins had scrapped plans for a modern design, according to Jonathan Stout, the building's architect. Instead they decided to pattern the development after a 1907 Windward Avenue building that was known as the Bathhouse. Stout said the Bathhouse building was a good example of early architectural styles in Venice, but also was difficult to duplicate.
"If we had just built a box it would have been cheaper," Stout said in an earlier interview. "But I think this design fits extremely well here."
The 28,000-square-foot project was under construction for most of 1984. Workers had to dig a huge hole in the ground to accommodate the two levels of subterranean parking. They also had to install a glass-roofed gallery that runs the length of the building.
As completion neared, the Seabreeze was touted as a perfect spot for professionals seeking a change of pace. In one advertisement, the building was described as a place for "the creative, for the image sensitive, for those whose work environment plays a vital role in their success."
Gross, who worked on the early stages of the project, said the developer's concept was wrong from the outset because the Ocean Front Walk area lacked an "office atmosphere." He said the developers gave more thought to the building's design than how it might be used.
"I don't think that building was ever created . . . with any input on leasing," Gross said. "There seemed to be a shortage of direction."
Diana Hobson of the Jon Douglas Co. was the leasing agent for the building from 1983, before its completion, to 1984. Like Gross, Hobson said leasing the building proved difficult from the start.
"It was a pioneer building," Hobson said. "Nobody knew what was going to happen with it."
Hobson said she sought retail stores and take-out restaurants for the bottom floor. She said she was initially "swamped" with inquiries, but was unable to secure any tenants because of complaints that the $3.50- to $4-per-square-foot rates sought by the Seabreeze were too high.
When it came to the office space, Hobson said the opposite occurred. "I solicited the film industry, attorneys, even a gymnasium," Hobson said. "And there was just no interest. I couldn't even get a nibble. It seemed that the whole idea of offices there was a moot situation."
Developer Safran, who has been monitoring the project, said the retail rates were "far above what the market was willing to pay." He said the developers also made another mistake. "To reach the retail level you had to climb six steps," Safran said. "It should have been at ground level."
In 1985 Scharff and Haskins sold the building to an Oklahoma investment firm known as Winchester Seabreeze Ltd. They have refused to talk about the property since then. The new owners, who have also refused to comment on the building, changed its name to the Seabreeze and hired Chastain Real Corp. to manage the property.
H. Bennett Carr, a Chastain Real representative interviewed in May, 1985, said the building would house about 25 offices. He predicted that the bottom floor would be filled with clothing shops and restaurants serving sushi, croissants and coffees and other gourmet items by that summer.
"We want to service a market that the oceanfront doesn't cater to at this point," said Carr, who has since left the agency. "We think this is one of the strongest potential retail areas in the city."
Carr's predictions did not pan out. Craig M. Ricketts, the vice president of Chastain Real, said that the Seabreeze remained empty through 1985. The idea of leasing the retail space to vendors came from Sy Block, who had run similar operations elsewhere, Ricketts said.
Block called the building an "excellent" vending location because it provides weather protection and security. He said he will lease 48 vending spots. Each will be about 100 square feet and will cost $600 to $750 a month, far more than the $200 a month paid by the average outdoor vendor.