There are community debates, and there are community debates.
And then there’s Venice.
In few places does the nuts-and-bolts discussion of guidelines for future growth inspire as much impassioned discourse as in the seaside village known for sidewalk cafes, skateboards and Los Angeles’ prime beach.
The current arena for such sparring is a series of weekly workshops where residents and developers are hashing out details of the long-stalled Venice Local Coastal Program, a set of documents that will formally and permanently set the standards for how buildings should be built and land used throughout the area.
The meetings showcase many of the divisions within the diverse community, especially over such issues as parking and commercialization. And they have spawned sideline debates in which some residents are questioning the policies and practices of City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represents Venice.
The debate has also exposed, again, rifts within the Venice Town Council, one of the area’s principal community organizations.
In 1976, the state Coastal Commission directed seaside cities to draw up comprehensive development plans. Some work began on the Venice version then, but it was shelved in the early ‘80s and revived only after Galanter was elected last year.
The Los Angeles City Planning Department divided Venice into nine geographical areas, and separate workshops are scheduled for dozens of people from each area every week.
The sessions began in August and are to end Nov. 5, when groups will present recommendations for what the final coastal plan should include.
Most of these meetings are relatively peaceful and discussion advances at a normal pace, participants say. In others, tempers flare and voices rise.
The extreme case appears to be the so-called North Venice group, where the stakes are particularly high: Participants are from the area of Venice north of Windward that includes Ocean Front Walk and some of the last vacant land on the waterfront.
At a recent session in the back of a beach restaurant, developers and residents shouted at each other, interrupted each other and hurled accusations. One miffed participant branded the session “sickening"; another complained of battle fatigue.
“That’s Venice,” Barbara Palivos, who chairs the group, said later. “People standing up, bellowing at each other, going berserk. . . . “
Finally, Palivos had to call in three professional mediators to conduct the meetings. They made their debut last week.
Many residents are looking to the coastal plan to protect what they see as Venice’s eclectic charm, to safeguard the dwindling housing stock and to solve overwhelming traffic congestion and parking shortages.
Others say the plan must focus on enhancing Venice as a place catering to the millions of people who visit its beach and boardwalk. Many developers want flexibility in the guidelines that the plan establishes.
Galanter has said she wants to forge a compromise among the various goals.
“Venice is not simply a residential community with a wide beach; it never was,” Galanter said in a letter in August to a group of activists who are asking her to stop the rezoning of several residential lots to commercial.
“It was created as a visitor-summer resort and has retained much of that flavor through all of its transitions. Anyone who wants it to be a picturesque equivalent of a quiet Mar Vista neighborhood at the beach is denying its history. Likewise anyone who wants it to be the next Laguna Beach.
“I would hate to see us fall into the trap of turning Venice into an enclave for the rich by virtue of our attempt to control what happens here.”
Arnold Springer, a long-time member of the Venice Town Council who has been involved with the coastal plan for years, said he remains confident that the groups in the workshops will finally reach some consensus on the guidelines. The great benefit once the plan is written, he said, is that everyone will know the rules and will be expected to play by them.
"(The coastal program) will put an end to a great deal of discord and misunderstanding and introversion that has dominated Venice politics for a long time,” Springer said.
“Maybe we can get off the questions of land use and development and go on to other questions, like looking at how to preserve a multiracial, multiclass, multicultural community.”
So far, however, arguments over the coastal-plan process continue. One issue that has angered some participants is the presence at the workshops of architects and design professionals who have taken on the title of “facilitators.” City planning officials said the “facilitators” would help explain building terms or other technical information.
But several members of the Venice Town Council charged that the city was introducing a pro-development bias into the discussions--especially since many of the architects work in groups that represent areas where they have pending projects.
“The city has created a classic conflict of interests situation,” said Steve Schlein, who lives on Ocean Front Walk and is fighting commercial development there. “This is a blatant attempt to influence the outcome of public discussions.”
Opposed to Facilitators
Schlein fired off numerous letters about the facilitator issue to city officials, whom he accused of giving an “official cloak of authority” to the architects. Reactions were mixed among workshop participants, some of whom praised the architects’ presence, while others said it bothered them.
But city planning officials and Galanter’s aides denied it was improper for the facilitators to have a role in the workshops. They said it was unlikely that the architects would have undue influence on the discussions because Venice residents are too politically savvy to let that happen.
“This is not Bakersfield,” Jim Bickhart, Galanter’s planning deputy, said.
“People are not afraid to get into debate and defend their interests. . . . This process, especially given the community in which it is taking place, tends to be self-correcting. You shouldn’t assume people are going to roll over and play dead.”
The facilitator dispute offered a glimpse of the factionalism evident within the Venice Town Council. Some members sided with Schlein, others did not.
The Town Council is also expected to turn to a professional mediator to help iron out some of these differences.
After neighborhoods finish their debate and suggestions for the coastal plan, it must be approved by the full City Council and state Coastal Commission. None of this is expected to happen before next year.
In the meantime, an interim control ordinance (ICO) is in effect in Venice that puts temporary limits on construction. And it, too, has been a breeding ground for debate.
Some residents complain that Galanter is allowing developers to sidestep the interim control ordinance with hardship exemptions. They said that allowing permit-by-permit negotiations with developers amounted to “let’s-make-a-deal” planning.
“Instead of just following the ICO, each project is a bargaining point,” complained resident Ruth Forrest. “The word has gone out (to developers): Ask for the moon, and you’ll get part of it.”
But Galanter said that applying the interim control ordinance rigidly would be a mistake. By allowing exemptions and using the ordinance selectively as “both a carrot and a stick,” she said, developers can be made to provide affordable housing or other amenities in return for project approval.