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South of the Border

By Frank Gruber

Except for a few months, since I moved to L.A. in 1978 after law school I've lived in what could be called "Abbott Kinney Land" -- the pleasure resorts of Venice and Ocean Park that he and his partners developed a century or so ago.

First I lived five years on Electric Avenue at Palms, around the corner from Brandelli's Brig and what was then called West Washington Boulevard. Then in 1983, my wife-to-be and I rented a little house on Raymond near Fourth. A few years later, we bought our first house, directly south, on Marine Street. In 2000 we moved to our current place on Beverley.

I'm not sure I was cognizant in 1983 that we were moving into a separate city; the border between Venice and Ocean Park seemed as significant as a line of latitude. Since then my identification with Santa Monica has grown, but one of my favorite walks is still down Main Street into Venice or, as we did last week, down Oceanfront Walk to Washington, with a return home by way of the canals, Abbot Kinney and/or Main Street.

I like to take out-of-towners to see the Frank Gehry building with the Claes Oldenburg/Coosje van Bruggen binoculars. It's a delightful walk on Main almost to the binoculars, but south of Rose, past Jonathan Borofsky's ballerino, Main Street widens, the sidewalks narrow, traffic becomes faster and more oppressive, and, worst of all, suddenly there are no friendly buildings (let alone monumental sculptures).

Where Main Street goes bad (Photos by Frank Gruber)

On the west side of the street, you hit a jumble of elevations that are the remains of an old railroad right of way, much of which is a City of L.A. parking lot, then after that, at Sunset, there is the M.T.A. bus yard, which is wrapped in chain link (like a Christo installation?) on top of a concrete plinth.

A century old, the bus yard is oldest the M.T.A. operates. It originally serviced the trolleys that connected Venice and Ocean Park with Los Angeles.

The Venice Bus Yard

The yard is historic, but small and obsolete. At 3.3 acres it can service only 77 buses and it abuts residences on three sides. Its location, near the beach, is on the edge of the service area and the M.T.A. wastes driver time and fuel getting the buses to and from their routes. Most important for the M.T.A. and anyone who breathes, the M.T.A. cannot practically convert the yard's facilities to fuel the clean-burning compressed natural gas (CNG) buses the M.T.A. is converting to.

The M.T.A. would like to replace the Venice yard with a bigger one that can service CNG buses, and a developer, Robert D'Elia of RAD Management, who would like to build housing on the site, has furnished a solution. RAD has located a site in an industrial area on Jefferson Boulevard big enough to service 150 buses, all CNG-fueled, and RAD and the M.T.A have entered into a deal to swap the properties.

The logic of this deal is obvious. The benefits are important not only to Venice, but also to Santa Monica and the rest of the Westside, where residents and workers heavily use M.T.A. buses as well as our own Big Blue Bus. As long as the Venice yard is in operation, all the buses that the M.T.A. operates out of it will be diesel, and as other districts switch to CNG, the oldest and dirtiest diesel buses will be sent our way.

What's more, adding housing and ground-floor retail to this stretch of Main Street will help make a good pedestrian connection between Main Street in Ocean Park and Abbott Kinney Boulevard and the rest of Venice.

Main Street along the bus yard

So what's the problem? Why am I writing about this?

Let's face it, when a developer wants to build 208 units in Venice, as in Santa Monica there are going to be problems. This project has become controversial for reasons that will remind Santa Monicans of the controversy over the apartments now being built a little ways up Main Street at the Boulangerie site.

I haven't followed the Venice project, and I haven't seen the plans. I'm not going to comment much on the substance except to say that, based on accounts in Venice papers and talking to a few people involved, it seems that many complaints from the locals were reasonable, in that the original designs were somewhat closed off from the neighboring streets and lacked much of a ground-floor presence on Main.

The project needs a couple important variances, relating to size and height. Because the developer, Mr. D'Elia, is providing on-site affordable housing, he gets the benefit of the state's bonus in the number of units he can build. But unless he builds all small units, his square footage will exceed what is zoned for the site. He also wants to build higher in the middle of the site (not on the street frontages) than the permitted height of 35 feet, to allow for more space between the project's separate structures.

Since larger units for families and a less monolithic project are good things, he has a good case to make for the variances.

It probably hasn't helped that Mr. D'Elia also developed the Venice Art Lofts across Main Street, which do not treat the street well. To give Mr. D'Elia credit, however, as well as his architects, Santa Monica's own Koning-Eizenberg, he and they have responded positively to criticism. In a new design they have incorporated a public walk street that will connect Main and Pacific Avenue, they have broken the development up into fourteen buildings, and they have improved the retail component.

The project comes before the L.A. Planning Commission this Thursday, and I would hope by then the development team will be able to make a presentation that will warrant approval.

Unfortunately, Bill Rosendahl, the new council member for the area, has injected himself in the dispute in an unhelpful way. He wrote a letter to the L.A. Planning Department Sept. 23 opposing the project. That's his right, and he reiterated the reasonable arguments I mentioned above about openness and access, but ultimately he took the position that the proper outcome is dependent upon the developers making all the neighbors happy.

This is not the kind of leadership we need, but it's typical from L.A. council members -- at least those in affluent districts -- who may appear to rule their districts like feudal lords, but who in fact are scared to do anything that doesn't please every one of their vassals -- even the most demanding.

For instance, council member Rosendahl has talked big about the importance of transit, but to please a few whining motorists, he is threatening to terminate the dedicated bus lanes on Wilshire that have done so much to improve the reliability of buses on that major route.

Santa Monicans may remember when Mr. Rosendahl sagely told our city council this summer that the Westside suffered from being "jobs rich and housing poor." You might think given that pithy wisdom he could find a more positive and proactive approach toward a project that will add more than 200 units of housing and solve an essential transit issue.
The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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