California Journal: They discover, they gentrify, they ruin: How ‘progress’ is wrecking Los Angeles neighborhoods
A few months ago, on a Sunday morning, I drove from my house near the Venice Pier over to Abbot Kinney Boulevard to meet my cousin for a cup of coffee at Blue Bottle, which is to coffee what the French Laundry is to dinner: peak fetishization. (But yes, of course, delicious!)
I circled the block a few times, adamant that I would not pay $9 to park in order to buy a $5 cup of coffee. Fortunately, I found a spot on the street, but not before getting yelled at twice by motorists who were mad at me for blocking them as I waited for the space.
Abbot Kinney, as you undoubtedly know, was once a funky retail outpost that was forever on the verge of being discovered. Unfortunately, in 2012, GQ named it “the coolest block in America,” and pretty much everything went to hell after that.
Now you can spend 400 bucks on a pair of boots at John Fluevog Shoes, but you won’t be able to get them repaired anywhere on the street. If you don’t mind the gridlock and all the man buns (and if you squint hard), Abbot Kinney still maintains its old aesthetic: low-slung shops, coffeehouses and restaurants.
The same cannot be said for Oakwood, the residential neighborhood that abuts the east side of Abbot Kinney. The only Venice neighborhood where African Americans were allowed to purchase property during the days of restrictive racial covenants, Oakwood has been subjected to the same real estate pressures as other beachside towns.
Developers and new buyers with little regard for Oakwood’s place in Los Angeles history have erected massive, lot line-to-lot line boxes, some quite industrial looking, that tower over traditional single-story homes. Streets are narrow. Traffic and parking are a mess.
“You could substitute the word ‘Venice’ with Boyle Heights, Studio City, Encino, Mar Vista, Larchmont, Los Feliz, the downtown Arts District,” said Dan Rosenfeld, a thoughtful urban planner who has also worked as a developer. “The world changes. I don’t think you can freeze the environment.”
Otherwise, he said, you end up with museum cities, like Venice, Italy, or Florence. “And that’s not our future.”
Venice, Calif., he said, is a unique planning challenge. “It has some of the most beautiful beachfront anywhere, a creative character on the boardwalk, older buildings and canals that make it absolutely unique. If you took off restrictions, it would look like Hong Kong.”
Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal called Venice the “toughest place in America” to build new housing:
Venice Beach is an extreme example of what has been happening in wealthy urban enclaves across the U.S. that have been resisting new housing development in recent years. Apartment developers have stepped up production focused largely on the inner cores of big U.S. cities, where millennials are flocking for high-paying jobs and easy commutes, and where development is often welcomed.
Meanwhile, surrounding low-rise neighborhoods — many filled with older structures and historical character — are keeping developers out. Residents of these older urban neighborhoods generally have resisted newcomers, complaining about congestion on roads and public transportation and seeking to preserve architecture, sunlight and views.
The chief economist of BuildZoom, a website for contractors, told the Journal the only way to ease housing-price pressures is to relax zoning restrictions and allow tall new buildings across most neighborhoods. “If you don’t open the floodgates,” Issi Romem told the newspaper, “things won’t improve.”
Oh sure, just what this city needs: tall buildings in every neighborhood.
Robin Rudisill is a local slow-growth activist who chaired the Venice Neighborhood Council’s land use and planning committee. What’s really keeping Venice housing stock at critical lows, she said, is that so many multifamily rental units are destroyed to make way for high-end single-family homes or expensive condos.
“Every time they build something new, it’s eliminating two- and three-unit buildings to make room for McMansions,” said Rudisill, who ran unsuccessfully against L.A. Councilman Mike Bonin in March. “If the city were serious about affordable housing, it wouldn’t allow that.”
Rosenfeld thinks that the suburbs and neighborhoods such as Venice with special character should be treated very gingerly, but that the city core — ringed by the Harbor, Hollywood, Golden State and Santa Monica freeways — could absorb almost limitless growth.
“Single-family neighborhoods to me are sacred,” said Rosenfeld, who would be comfortable with 100-story buildings inside the freeway ring, Tokyo-style. “We all admire the quality of, first, the bungalows, then the ranch houses. Life is too short, for me as a developer, to want to change the character of our pristine single-family neighborhoods.”
There is a reason neighbors have trigger tempers when confronted with new projects on streets like Abbot Kinney, which has become a gridlock-plagued tourist destination, rather than a neighborhood commercial district.
Developers seem characterologically unable to conceive projects that are sensitive from the get-go. It’s always: burst through the door with a ridiculously overambitious plan, then scale back when the inevitable NIMBY explosion occurs.
When developers proposed a first-ever hotel on Abbot Kinney, they roared in with a design for a four-story, 92-room monolith that would have taken up an entire block. Neighbors (naturally) objected, and the project, still on the drawing board, has been scaled back. Even so, 14,600 square feet of existing commercial space will more than quadruple to 64,000.
A small side street near the heart of the Venice Beach Boardwalk, Market Street, is now home to the corporate headquarters of Snap Inc., parent company of Snapchat, the booming tech company that is out of place in a seaside town like Venice. The secretive company has snapped up all kinds of commercial and, some critics say, residential units across Venice for its growing workforce. A spokesman told the website Curbed LA that Snapchat was planning future growth outside of Venice and apologized “for any strain that our growth has placed on those who live and work here.”
My irritation meter went into the red zone recently when I started noticing people wearing brown Canadian Mountie-style hats loitering on public sidewalks along Pacific Avenue and Market Street. The faux Mounties, it turns out, are Snap Inc.’s private security force, and the deserved target of local protests. If your workstation is a public sidewalk but your work does not involve selling handicrafts or asking for spare change, you need to go inside.
Be a good citizen, Snapchat. Don’t just apologize. Disappear from Venice. You know, like one of those photos on your app.