Several years ago, filmmaker Dan Abrams was in his office above Primitivo Wine Bistro on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, an ex–New Yorker thinking about how much he loved Venice.
L.A.'s housing bubble meant beloved bungalows were being converted into high-design mansions and condos, transforming once-charming pocket neighborhoods as land speculation gripped the city. But Abrams had some money, and realized that if he bought the quirky property where he rented his office, he could preserve the place he loved, which also encompassed iconic Joe's Restaurant and a third eatery, plus the popular local Sculpture Gardens Nursery, the community's famed melaleuca tree and back parking lots along Electric Avenue. He figured he could develop the site based on environmentally sustainable ideals imbued with a Venice vibe, going up in height but not too high. No blundering national developer would swoop in and wreck Abbot Kinney.
Most people, even the ones who despise it — and there are many — will concede that was the genesis of Abrams' 92-room hotel plan, a proposed multistory addition to Joe's and Primitivo with a motor court facing Electric Avenue and a hidden lobby/courtyard oriented to Abbot Kinney.
Abrams envisions a trendsetting hotel L.A. residents might stay in, one that embraces green technology and offers a bar, pool, 100-seat restaurant where Willie Jane is today and a rooftop vegetable garden to supply local restaurants and locavores.
But for the last few weeks, the soft-spoken Abrams has found himself painted as a blundering developer. Blogger and activist Marta Evry has derided his renderings as looking "like something out of Orange County" — the kiss of death in Venice.
Even though neighborhood critics don't go so far as accusing Adams of being a carpetbagger, they say his project could open doors to people who are. On her blog and on Facebook, Evry claims that Abrams' four-story project "will break precedent that other developers will be quick to exploit. A Beverly Hills developer recently purchased the property on Abbot Kinney that includes Hal's and Just Tantau for $20 million, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is in the early planning stages to develop his corner property at Main and Abbot Kinney. Already we've heard reports he is asking to grandfather in 40 nonexistent parking spaces."
Traffic from Abrams' project, Evry says, would "create permanent gridlock on Abbot Kinney, Broadway and Electric as cars, taxis, trash trucks and delivery vehicles cue up to service the hotel and deposit its guests."
At a tense, standing-room-only meeting of 250 people at Oakwood Recreation Center on Oct. 2, Abrams stood, looking ill at ease, with his architect, David Hertz, and his REThink Development partners, Steve Edwards and Greg Reitz, as local residents let fly such Venice jibes as "I think you're creative people. I think your project is not!" and "You have stolen my joy!"
But the developers defused much of the fury when Edwards announced that Abrams had changed his mind, deferring to neighborhood fears by lopping off the hotel's fourth floor. In the revised plan, the hotel will comprise about 68 rooms, with the possible addition of maybe 18 more down the road if Abrams chooses to add land he currently leases to a preschool.
Abrams owns the entire block between Westminster Avenue and Broadway, aside from a church and another building. He explained that the property's cost requires that he develop it: "A lot of people want for nothing to happen on the property. ... That is not one of the options."
Buildings in Venice are restricted to a 35-foot "variable" height sloping roof. Try to go higher, and you've got a battle before the California Coastal Commission or City Hall.
That's something Abrams is intent on preventing — and soothing the neighborhood is the key.
The filmmaker's progressive bona fides include owning, with producer friend Chris Salvaterra, the rights to the story of young lawyer Sarah Weddington, who argued and won Roe v. Wade. He's spoken repeatedly of building consensus, and he hung around after last week's meeting, talking quietly with his opponents. He and his team responded in recent days to several hundred emails, including some from residents who decided to back him.
He didn't have to convince noted architect Larry Scarpa, who lives nearby and once designed housing plans for the site. Smart communities adapt to tighter parking and taller buildings, Scarpa says, pointing to Charleston, S.C., as an example. "It looks like [Abrams is] preserving a lot of it, which I think is a good thing," he says.
The hotel is a big deal because, despite rapid gentrification in Venice, no big commercial project on Abbot Kinney has made it off the drawing board in years. Another proposal on Abbot Kinney, the Ray Hotel, was half the size but a tighter fit. Fought by the Venice Neighborhood Council and ridiculed by then–City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, it died during the recession.
Opponents believe Abrams' idea will encourage other high-end developments that spell the end of charming Abbot Kinney. Edwards confirms that some storefronts on Abbot Kinney recently sold, together with a portfolio including costlier land on Robertson Boulevard, for $1,600 a square foot.
Kim Michalowski, who owns two Abbot Kinney boutiques (Skylark, a vintage shoe and clothing shop, and Ananda, an eclectic gifts-and-fashion store), said last week, "I have two businesses and 13 employees and I can't afford to have a room in his hotel — and I can't afford to eat in Abbot Kinney's restaurants anymore. Dan is a good friend, but we're not all $1,000-a-night hotel-goers."
David Ewing, a respected activist, says that he likes Abrams personally. But, he adds, the hotel is specifically designed to draw loads of trendy new people — and that, and its scope, will necessarily alter the zeitgeist of Venice. "I heard that Jin's [a defunct patisserie] rent went from $5,000 a month to $35,000 a month on Abbot Kinney," Ewing says. "We're really talking about the rate of change, and can we slow it."
"What made [Venice] attractive was the people who live here," resident Gail Rogers says. "But when commercial developers go too far, all that will be left is an overdeveloped and gridlocked street."
But Abrams' architect, Hertz, who worked under Frank Gehry, says the building will have an entirely different impact than critics believe, acting as a moderating force against the feared pushing-out of creatives and middle-class families. And Greg Reitz notes that the hotel will provide 178 parking spaces — far more than required.
Hertz tells the Weekly that the auto entry on Electric will include a "low, living wall of green" to mask taxis and cars from pedestrians and the residents across the street. The cars won't create backups as Evry claims; instead, an automated parking structure underground — like those in Tokyo, he says — will be quicker than a valet.
"We are preserving the outdoor living room, the Sculpture Gardens and the area locals call Dr. Jerry's Botanical Garden, which has the melaleuca tree — we are building the whole hotel around that tree," Hertz says. "The man who used to tend the garden, he's maybe in his late 80s, is very pleased."
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Abrams says he is aiming his pricing at "medium high-end, not $1,000 rooms," and that preserved and new spaces inside will be perfect for locals. "There's overall concern about the changes in Venice, and I think we're getting some of the brunt of that — and I understand that. And I think these are valid concerns, and we intend to address them."
Abrams' friend Ken Hepburn was opposed to the hotel. "I would like to see Venice as a little Shangri-La. But the fact is, we are the focus of an international audience." Now, after nine big and small community meetings, Hepburn says, having development in the hands of a local is better than having "someone come in and solve the problem for you."
That may be true, Evry says, but this is one project that came too much out of the blue, and she thinks she knows why.
"They say there have been five meetings with the [Venice advisory] Land Use and Planning Committee, and there have been. But hardly anyone knew about them, because Dan and his team did very little outreach, no matter what they say," she says. "What is going on here is they do want to build consensus. With people who agree with them."