Asphalt Beats Artists in Venice
Tibby RothmanFool's gold: Gilded shovels officially mark City Hall's decision to pave over Ruscha's vintage shack.
VENICE IS KNOWN FOR its vicious, microbe-sized internecine political fights, but a recent one turned out to be a doozy, garnering coverage by media as far away as The New York Timesand the New Yorker and pitting the district’s noteworthy artistic community against its vocal business community.
At issue: asphalt or artists? Should two old shacks adjacent to studios used by famed Los Angeles artists Ed Ruscha and Laddie John Dill be razed to make way for parking?
Dill, a commercial success with plenty of museum exhibitions to his credit, has been a 30-year fixture on the Venice scene, a community tent pole and driving force behind the area’s identity as an artists’ enclave. Ruscha’s art world credentials place him in the same echelon as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Museums such as MOMA, LACMA and the New Tate possess work by the men.
This being Los Angeles and not London or New York, automobiles won the round, launching a new phase in Venice’s history. It turns out that Venice’s love affair with its artists was just a long fling — great sex but not worth the sacrifices of an enduring relationship.
Declaring that the dirt alley on which both art shacks sit is city property, City Councilman Bill Rosendahl and parking proponents want it paved and filled with parking meters to serve the increasingly crowded, almost terminally hip Abbot Kinney business district. They say that the shack, where Ruscha often paints, encroaches on city property and that no one, even men who created Venice’s valuable-to-the-city-treasury brand, should be given special treatment.
When my editorial, published by a Venice-online site, stated that this was a bad business practice for Brand Venice, casting an unnecessary stone at its most core business — the creation of art — The New York Times followed with a news story, and righteous indignation ran rampant in Venice. (Full disclosure: I am on record opposing the plan to remove the artists’ space for parking.)
In response to the national attention, an e-mail war raged in which the opposing camp made the case that no special favors should be granted to successful — meaning wealthy — artists. Never mind that Culver City and Santa Monica are courting artists for the economic payoff they bring. Robert Feist, who owns a business next to the two artists’ studios and wants the extra parking installed instead of vintage old artists’ shacks, sent out sardonic e-mails along with a photo of the offending structure.
In reaction to The New York Times’ lame out-of-towner headline describing one shack as “Eden,” Feist sent out e-mails enclosing a photo of a shack and snickered over whether such a rough-looking structure deserved landmark status.
Just what made Venice go so ballistic? Several groups in Venice have been advocating for parking space, but this wasn’t really about whether to put parking on this tiny bit of public land. Back in 2002, the parking lot adjacent to the shacks was welcomed by locals because it served as a ruse to halt a row of affordable housing proposed for that same alley. Left-leaning or not, Venice residents don’t want affordable housing any more than Rancho Park residents.
They objected to the fact that the building would include three stories — ground-level parking and two stories of apartments above — saying it was too big for the area, and a poor fit in the pricey, bustling shopping and eating district along Abbot Kinney.
Abbot Kinney business owners, anti-affordable housing advocates and a respected real estate strategist met with Cindy Miscikowski, Venice’s then–city councilwoman, to come up with a plan to put the kibosh on the deal. The long, narrow property, a former railroad-right-of-way, had always been set aside for parking.
Evincing the virulence of feeling against affordable housing — sharpened in Venice by three decades in which old-style federally subsidized housing projects for the poor have been badly run and allowed to turn shabby — Venice residents lined up at a public meeting to complain that Venice had enough “affordable housing.”
Miscikowski, whose husband, Doug Ring, is a wealthy developer with vast holdings in nearby Marina del Rey, went the obvious route, opposing the affordable housing and backing plans for parking meters. Her successor, Rosendahl, followed suit.
And that’s how things were left. But since 2002, there’s been a dramatic resurgence of businesses on Abbot Kinney, and many restaurants and other buildings have been granted development permits with little or no parking. City Hall and Rosendahl are also allowing illegal land uses that jack up the fight for parking.
These special favors from downtown allow property owners to erect new development or expand without adding enough extra parking. For example, one glamorous residence with a rooftop swimming pool has operated for months as a de facto television studio while the city has turned a blind eye.
The rules for requiring shops, businesses and housing developments to provide parking were created long ago to make sure Los Angeles does not become unlivable. But under the heavily pro-development Villaraigosa Administration, as the Weekly has previously reported, those safeguards are steadily being dismantled.
There’s a new loophole allowing large developments without a single parking space — if the developer can prove that there’s a way for the inhabitants to get around without a car, such as a bus line within three blocks. But even before this Orwellian “100 percent parking reduction ordinance” reared its head, Villaraigosa’s appointees on the various planning boards had been allowing huge numbers of “variances” — fancy development without the necessary parking.
As a result, the demand for new parking facilities in the almost entirely built-out Westside area is at an all-time high, but there’s no obvious place to put all the cars.
Although Abbot Kinney is clearly going upscale, it was no surprise to Venice residents when Rosendahl — who lives in Mar Vista — proposed in the fall of 2007 two parking lots for homeless people who would live in campers. His tin-ear scheme, similar to a clunker proposed by former Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg to erect neighborhood outhouses the homeless living on the back streets of Silver Lake, so infuriated Venice residents that a recall was threatened.
After that, Rosendahl needed a feel-good issue to woo the area back, and he jumped on the chance to promise more parking. At the ceremonial groundbreaking this month, Rosendahl rhapsodized about how the new parking meters to be erected — Ed Ruscha’s shack will be torn down in about four months — could be operated by a cell phone or credit card. Without irony, he promised that L.A.’s newest asphalt parking lot would be “state of the art.”
At the same event, Rosendahl gave a history of the tussle over the land that opponents of the paving-over found somewhat sanitized, but which was repeated as truth by The New York Times. Rosendahl, not mentioning how the small bit of land was set aside for parking usage in order to stop affordable housing.
His speech was a somewhat schizophrenic, with the councilman dropping Ed Ruscha’s name as frequently as a hip-hop artist stealing samples. “We don’t want to see you leave,” Rosendahl said of Ruscha. However, he seemed to dismiss decades of work by Ruscha, Dill and other Venice artists who have lured art buyers, visitors and money to Venice, acting as the catalyst for the current revitalization. To Rosendahl, it was about shopping: “People come from all over the world to come to Abbot Kinney,” he said.
The groundbreaking show played well to Abbot Kinney business leaders and those opposed to new homeless programs, as well as a smattering of longtime Venice community activists. Then the suits went to their shovels, appropriately painted gold, which awaited them in a pile of sand shaped as though it had been exhumed from a grave.
Smiles flashed and cameras clicked. Rosendahl had his self-described “get things done” moment. Property owners had a fat strip of asphalt parking, which assures that no affordable housing project will rise. Merchants could smile over the new meters. And no one mentioned that the ceremonial dirt that the men were shoveling had been trucked in from Griffith Park, a neat fact discovered by KNX reporter Michael Linder.
As it turns out, in its future, Venice’s dirt won’t even have its own identity.
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