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Clean It Up or Kill It 

Consternation at the Venice Pavilion

Wednesday, May 27 1998
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A rundown amphitheater on the Venice boardwalk, considered by some to be the heart of the funky beach strip, has the quarrelsome arts community at odds once again over whether to save the building or demolish it.

The Venice Pavilion seemed even more dank, dark and vacant last weekend in contrast to the local activists raging outside the concrete walls as consultants released a gloomy analysis of the building's condition and asked for input on how to renovate - a project that will cost at least $2 million.

A sprawling landmark at the end of Windward Avenue that offers whiffs of urine when the doors open and looks more like a fortress than a performance space, the Pavilion has fallen far from the days when the Lennon Sisters graced the stage and the Byrds headlined at the 1967 festival "Angry Arts Against the War."

To some, and count among them the funkiest in the crowd, the Pavilion has symbolized Venice's history as a mecca for theater and arts. To the well-heeled contingent joined in opposition, the massive structure that opened in 1961 and closed nearly 25 years later is a poorly designed albatross and an uncomfortable place to see a show.

"It's windy here in the afternoon, and it's cold and windy in the evening," said Harlan Lee, who has lived in Venice since 1977. "It's a nightmare."

The debate over the Pavilion is not new, but input from design consultants - RRM Design Group from San Luis Obispo - is the latest twist in the long-running saga. Some say this is the city's first attempt to explore what it would take to save the behemoth structure - including its theater, concession stand and kitchen area - an effort that has cost Los Angeles nearly $60,000 in studies and will require more community meetings before the process is through.

Last weekend's assemblage, in the spray-painted concrete graffiti pit next to the Pavilion, was organized by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks and Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. A feisty crowd, activists on both sides of the issue yelled out points, told each other to "shut up," and came nowhere close to a consensus.

Of course, Venice has never been known as a Robert's Rules of Order kind of place, especially when it comes to discussions about the boardwalk and Pavilion.

What the consultants presented was a laundry list of expensive improvements. The Pavilion, closed since 1985, is structurally sound, but the interior is severely deteriorated and not up to most building and accessibility codes. The theater suffers from poor acoustics and ventilation.

And although city parks officials say they plan to apply for voter-approved bond funds to pay for the work, there is no guaranteed funding for the project. A cheaper alternative is to demolish the building, which RRM Design estimates at roughly $130,000 - a figure Pavilion supporters criticized as low-ball, pointing to a state Coastal Conservancy report that estimated demolition at approximately $800,000.

"The Pavilion was misdesigned, and the design flaws have to be addressed, but they're not a reason to tear the building down," said Jonathan Markowitz, a Venice resident.

Roadblocks aside, RRM Design asked the more than 50 people who turned out for the meeting to vote on what a renovated Pavilion should look like and be used for. The group graded a range of options that include renovating the current facilities, replacing the bunkerlike building with a structure that provides more ocean views from the boardwalk, and making the site even bigger.

The group also considered possible uses for a renovated Pavilion, options that run the gamut from a performing-arts center to an oceanarium. Another community meeting is planned for this summer, when RRM Design will release the results of the votes that were cast.

Some Pavilion supporters called it pointless to make such a wish list before the building's fate is determined, and they worried about making choices now that could hurt future efforts to keep the structure standing.

"No one has told us that the likelihood of our being able to save the Pavilion would be greater if we went with Plan A or Plan B," said Richard Abcarian, a veteran Venice activist and Pavilion supporter. "I refuse to get bogged down in these dream details. I want to keep my mind focused on what I think is the real issue: Is it going to be saved?"

The passion of those trying to save the Pavilion was the bulwark that stopped Recreation and Parks officials from razing the building in the early 1990s. The department was acting on the results of a study completed by the state Coastal Conservancy, which concluded that most people in Venice favored demolishing the Pavilion, although the report also acknowledged a groundswell of community support for saving the structure.

Pavilion supporters blame the Department of Recreation and Parks for leaving the building idle and rotting since 1985, ratcheting up the cost of renovations. Park department officials say they had good reason for not maintaining it.

"We did not have the funds and [the Pavilion] was not usable," said Kathleen Chan, project manager for the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Money is still the Pavilion's biggest problem. The renovation project was not included in spending priorities for the $10 million chunk of 1992 Proposition A park bond funds that were allocated to Venice. At the time, the Venice Arts Mecca, a nonprofit children's arts program, had a lease on the Pavilion and tried unsuccessfully to generate $1.5 million in private donations to renovate the structure.

Proposition K, a 1996 tax-assessment measure that allocates public money to improve Recreation and Parks facilities, could be the Pavilion's funding solution. In order to qualify for the funding, Chan said, environmental studies on the building have to be done. And to get that far in the process, Venice activists will have to reach some agreements.

"Do I think there is a possibility of money? Yes," Chan said. "But I don't want to raise any false hopes. We need the community to know where they want to go so we can get it."

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