Venice founder Abbot Kinney nudged U.S. founding father George Washington off a local street sign when a Los Angeles City Council committee voted last week to rename a stretch of Washington Boulevard for the man who built the Venice canals.
But first the chairman of the Public Works Committee had to have a mini-lesson in history. “Who’s Abbot Kinney?” asked Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky at the outset of a public hearing Wednesday.
Kinney was the man who envisioned replicating Venice, Italy, in Los Angeles, complete with waterways, gondolas and a larger-than-life entertainment center, a sort of turn-of-the century Disneyland.
Committee members were asked by opponents of the name change not to forsake the country’s first President on the eve of his birthday. But practicality at the edge of the Pacific held sway over nostalgia for the guy who lived on the banks of the Potomac.
Personal experience weighed in too. Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores and Yaroslavsky both said they had been baffled by the numerous roadways in and near Venice named for the first President. In addition to Washington Boulevard, there’s Washington Way, Washington Street and Washington Place.
Yaroslavsky said he has lived on the Westside since he was 7 and is “still not comfortable finding my way around Washington Street and Washington Boulevard. I go down there a lot to train for my marathons, and I still get confused,” he said.
The opponents of the name change, most of whom live or own businesses on the street, did not concede without a battle. The opponents outnumbered the Kinney supporters at the meeting, but the council members appeared to be persuaded by accounts of lost emergency vehicles and complaints about confusion stemming from all the similar street names.
The segment to be renamed is a 1 1/2-mile stretch between Lincoln Boulevard and Main Street. The Lincoln Boulevard intersection is where westbound Washington Boulevard inexplicably makes a sharp turn to the right; what seems like it should still be Washington Boulevard suddenly becomes Washington Street, ending at Venice Pier.
Adding to the confusion, the segment to be renamed is known as West Washington Boulevard to local businesses and residents, who use that name on their stationery even though the city street signs read either “Washington South” or just plain “Washington.”
Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, whose district includes Venice, became a key supporter of the name change. Her aides insist her support is predicated on helping emergency services keep the names straight, not granting a more upscale image to the gentrifying street.
The full council must affirm the Public Works Committee’s decision before the change takes effect.
A neighborhood survey found that 52% of the property owners, residents and business people who live or work along the 1 1/2-mile strip were against the name change. But there was a sharp contrast of opinion among owners as compared to commercial and residential tenants; 72% of the property owners, most of whom do not live there, were in favor of the change to Abbot Kinney Boulevard, but 88% of the tenants were opposed.
The move to change the street name was spearheaded by J. Kevin Brunk, who owns two commercial properties on the street that he had already named for Kinney in expectation that the street name would follow. The West Washington Boulevard Merchants Assn., for which Brunk serves as president, changed its name to Abbot Kinney Boulevard Merchants Assn. Plans had been made to rename the street during the Venice Summer Arts and Crafts Festival last summer with the blessings of leading Venice community organizations, a rare showing of unanimity.
The campaign was stalled, however, by a retired aerospace science consultant in his first foray into grass-roots politics. Walter Woods, a longtime resident of Washington Boulevard, held the name change up for six months by calling into question the validity of the signatures gathered by the pro-Kinney forces. Galanter withdrew her initial endorsement of the change while city engineers restudied the matter.
According to a report issued this month by City Engineer Robert Horii, the department found “no clear overall mandate on either side” and did not make a recommendation to the council committee.
Woods testified at the public hearing, telling the committee, “The people of the boulevard are the ones who count and the ones who don’t want the change.”
But a parade of Venice community activists testified in favor of the change. “It’s a matter of pride,” said Susan Bell, president of the Venice Chamber of Commerce.
Over the years, the street segment to be named for Abbot Kinney has contained an eclectic mix of artists’ studios, funky boutiques, antique stores, restaurants and residences.
In the last decade, however, the street had perhaps been best known around the city as the scene of two tragedies. Journalist Sarai Ribicoff, the niece of former Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, was murdered as she was leaving a restaurant there. A few years later, actress Eileen Brennan was seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident while crossing the street.
Opponents of the street name change included business owners who complained of the cost of reprinting stationery, business cards and other forms. Architect Lise Matthews reeled off 15 separate forms she will have to change.
Others said it would not allay confusion, only require further explanation and “make things even crazier.” As one merchant put it, she would now have to say. “I’m on the street that used to be West Washington but is now Abbot Kinney Boulevard.”
Some merchants, however, favored the change, citing the thousands of calls they field from lost customers.
Though they expressed sympathy for the expense to the small-business owners, Flores and Yaroslavsky said they voted for what they believed was the greater public good. At Yaroslavsky’s suggestion, the committee voted to give the boulevard designation to the stretch of Washington Street that most people think of as Washington Boulevard already.
“We haven’t done away with West Washington Boulevard,” said Jim Bickhart, planning director for Gelanter, after the hearing. “We’ve just moved it back to where it belongs.” To ease the transition, Galanter aide Joan Cory said the city’s Department of Transportation has agreed to post signs for both Washington Boulevard and Abbot Kinney Boulevard until confusion subsides.
And arrangements are in the works with the post office to honor both names until 1992. That’s when Venice is scheduled to receive a new area code--so businesses and residents on the street will have to get new stationery anyway.