Why Defend the Venice Specific Plan?

By Dennis Hathaway

The Venice Coastal Zone Specific Plan came into being as part of an attempt by the city to give local communities greater voice in land-use and planning decisions that were traditionally made in offices and corridors of city hall, where influence was wielded not by members of the local community, but by the real estate development lobby and other interests with a financial stake in those decisions.

Before putting in place the zoning and land-use regulations in the plan, the city planning department solicited extensive opinion from community members about such matters as building height, density, transportation, architecture and design. In other words, they asked the question, “What do you want your community to be?” Not everyone agreed, nor did the final product perfectly reflect everyone’s desires, but it was a significant attempt to empower the community to make the kind of decisions that had historically been made by politicians who usually deferred to the interests who had their ears and funded their campaigns.

Now, with real estate development in Venice having picked up a full head of steam, it’s little surprise that resistance to the concept of community empowerment embodied in the specific plan is growing by leaps and bounds, although it’s never stated as such. Rather, developers seeking major exceptions to specific plan limits on such things as height and density claim that the community benefits inherent in their projects—units of affordable housing, tourist amenities, cutting-edge architecture, greenness, to name a few—warrant what is essentially a tossing-out of the fruits of the grass-roots labor that preceded adoption of the specific plan and replacement with the old system of decision-making by city hall politicians and their appointees.

It’s easy to see why development interests prefer this latter way. It’s not as easy to see why many members of the Venice Neighborhood Council board and its Land Use and Planning Committee have apparently bought into an idea that ultimately diminishes, rather than enhances, their power. The word “power” is appropriate in spite of the fact that the VNC board and LUPC have, on paper, very little. Their power is through being the voice of the community, and by extension, supporting the empowerment of the community to fight attempts to impose land-use and other decisions from above. And the weapon to fight those attempts lies right at hand, in the form of the Venice Coastal Zone Specific Plan, which really is the voice of the community when it says, “you may build this high, you may build to this density.” And so forth.

The power to decide on a project with a major impact in Venice is in the hands of 15 persons in city hall, only one of which is beholden in any significant way to members of the community. That’s 15 persons who mingle daily with lobbyists who don’t represent defenders of community empowerment and the details of specific plans, but interests who would be happy if those defenders were silenced, or simply went away.
To be fair, the planning commission and city council could approve projects in Venice that blow holes in the specific plan even if the VNC board and LUPC unanimously oppose them.

However, by not defending the specific plan, and sending a message to developers that they should design their projects within the restrictions of that plan, our local representatives and ostensible voice of our community are encouraging those developers to do the opposite, and to imagine that their desire to build things that will provide the maximum return to themselves and their investors is the greater good, transcendent of any ideas the people on the ground in Venice—homeowners, renters, small business owners, workers, professionals—may have believed they were embodying in law when they participated in the process of shaping the Venice Coastal Zone Specific Plan.

Some have said that this plan should not be regarded as carved in stone. I agree.

But how should it be changed? Through the piecemeal granting of exceptions, or through the same kind of process of community input that preceded its initial adoption? If you believe in community empowerment in regard to land-use decisions, the answer is obvious. Open a community debate, let those who believe added height and density is warranted under certain circumstances make their case, and if it’s a strong enough case then it will attract community support. Let those who believe that the plan should be modified to attract the development of more affordable housing make that case. And what better function for the VNC than to be a facilitator of such a debate, instead of taking actions that make the system less democratic, less responsive to the community it was established to represent.

Posted: Mon - October 1, 2007 at 08:09 PM