The faint outlines of a $7-million plan to renovate the Venice Boardwalk have begun to emerge following a four-hour community workshop held last week amid the colorful chaos of Venice's Graffiti Pit.
In the first of three public hearings scheduled on the boardwalk renovation issue, more than 100 residents spoke Saturday on how to improve oceanfront restrooms, create new public murals, separate bikers and skaters, rebuild the boardwalk itself and improve lighting, landscaping and recreational facilities.
The unofficial consensus: Renovate the boardwalk but preserve the creative atmosphere and funky street performances that have made the oceanfront walkway one of Southern California's most popular tourist attractions.
Saturday's workshop, held near the Venice Pavilion at the graffiti-splashed picnic area known as the Graffiti Pit, was conducted by RRM Design Group. The San Luis Obispo company was hired by the city's Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners to create a preliminary plan for the boardwalk's refurbishment.
The smoothly choreographed public meeting contrasted sharply with past efforts at consensus. For more than a year, rival community groups have clashed bitterly over how to spend $7 million earmarked for rebuilding the boardwalk--part of a voter-approved bond issue that also includes $3 million to restore the Venice Pier.
One group, led by boardwalk merchants, supports a major overhaul. Another, which includes street performers, fears that a make-over might squelch the walkway's creative spirit, turning it into an upscale mall.
Although such differences were apparent at Saturday's workshop, the proceedings remained orderly, even cooperative. The San Luis Obispo design firm received much of the credit for the changed in atmosphere.
"It's good that RRM is not from here. They have no financial stake in the outcome," said Richard Feibusch, a member of the Venice/North Beach Neighborhood Assn. "They're trying to listen to everybody."
RRM officials arranged the beachfront issues into categories including "pagodas," "public health and safety," "performing activities" and "public art." Then they asked participants what improvements they wanted under each heading and wrote the answers on posters hanging on the Graffiti Pit's walls.
After a few hours of public remarks, each participant was given stick-on dots in two colors to place next to the public comments they supported or opposed. (Orange stickers signified support, blue stickers opposition.)
Within moments, the residents' preferences became clear.
Receiving the most support was a comment against "gentrification," an indirect slap at a proposal to resurface the boardwalk with bricks. Many also favored a statement that the boardwalk's new surface should be attractive, smooth for roller-skaters, cost-effective and durable.
Most participants wanted separate paths for bicyclists and bladers that extend along the beach all the way to the marina. A majority also favored curves in the bike route to keep speeds slow. And most opposed the construction of a sand wall to prevent sand from blowing onto the bike path, supporting the argument that the barrier could hem in riders and in-line skaters and possibly make bike-path accidents worse.
Others pressed for well-marked restrooms and better lighting. Pay toilets received both strong support and strong opposition.
Many at the hearing urged more public art displays--and strongly opposed limiting street artists and entertainers to designated areas.
"Such rules would inhibit the flexibility of many performers by locking them in a pocket," said Jerry Rubin, a community activist. "Venice is not a mall. People come here because of the free spirit and spontaneity."
As with any Venice community meeting, there were a few unorthodox suggestions. One person proposed a helicopter-free zone and free hot dogs. Another asked for "wishing fountains." Tim Rudnick, a Venice artist, said, "The boardwalk has too much lighting. We need more darkness."
And when discussion of restroom improvements bogged down in the minutiae of towel racks, diaper-changing tables and special lighting, one participant yelled, "We're not building a condominium here, we're building a bathroom!"
Despite the seamlessness of the proceedings, some participants had reservations.
"There's no overall attention to a theme or master plan," said Mark Ryavec, executive director of the Venice Boardwalk Assn., a local business group. "Right now the process is being diced up, item by item. Whether it will be pulled together at the next meeting remains to be seen."
But Keith Gurnee, a principal in RRM, said it was important for his firm to keep an open mind and seek a wide range of opinion.
"If we had come in with a theme, we would have had a preconceived idea of the project," he said.
RRM employees plan to create several alternative designs. On June 21, company officials will brief the recreation and parks board on Saturday's hearing. They plan to conduct a second workshop July 15 and a third in mid-August.
For information, call RRM at (805) 543-1794 or Kathleen Chan of recreation and parks at (213) 485-5671.