It's become a familiar sight in Venice Beach: buildings, big and small, with papered-over windows. Outside, security guards in gray shirts patrol the area, telling suspected troublemakers or just ordinary residents to keep moving. And youthful, harried, lanyard-adorned employees trudge to their cars after a long day's work.
Numerous changes have roiled Venice over the last decade: the hyping of Abbott Kinney, the spread of modernist-box homes and the growing domination of houses for rent on Airbnb. All have helped make Venice one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. But of all the changes, many residents say, none has changed the physical landscape of Venice as much as the arrival of Snapchat — or Snap, as it is now known.
"You start feeling like you’re in somebody else’s neighborhood, or you’re on somebody’s corporate campus," says longtime Venice resident and activist David Ewing.
As of Dec. 31, 2016, Snap Inc. employed 1,859 people, and most work in Venice. But Snap does not have a corporate campus like Google's Venice office, located in the Frank Gehry–designed binoculars building. Rather, Snap has spread out in a very L.A.-style sprawl, its 305,000 square feet of office space (according to a March SEC filing) distributed across numerous properties, most of them leased.
Venice resident Mark Rago keeps a running spreadsheet of Snap properties. He claims he has confirmed 23 properties where Snap has offices — and he says there are an additional 14 unconfirmed properties.
"I think there’s probably more out there," Rago says. "I have a real estate friend who tells me the list is short." Either way, he says: "It's an obscene amount of buildings."
Snap Inc. did not return our requests for comment.
About half of Snap's offices are clustered near its executive offices on Market Street (Snap has taken up the entire block), where residents say Snap security guards are the most aggressive.
"We’re very concerned about the use of private security in public space," says Becky Dennison, executive director of Venice Community Housing. "I think they’ve been bad neighbors."
Venice resident Rick Garvey says the guards harassed him one time, when he sat down on the curb with his two giant labradors. The guards, he says, "not only patrol the entire bock but the entire area, because Snapchat employees park all over. In a five-block square, they have seven properties and employees that go back and forth. Ostensibly, they say the security guards are to protect employees from homeless people."
Snap also leases a number of properties on the Venice Boardwalk. People go to the Boardwalk, says Venice Neighborhood Council president Ira Koslow, "to see the stores, the T-shirts, the artists, whatever. And when Snapchat takes over a building, it becomes very bland. It's like if you were to pull down a blind. The windows are covered in this plastic gray."
A complaint filed recently with the Coastal Commission by the group Venice Dogs (to which Rago belongs) charged that Snap was leasing parking spaces meant for residents.
Snap also has taken over the leases of several restaurants in the area, including the Tlapazola Grill and Sean's Cafe, the latter of which has been converted into a private cafeteria for employees. Snap also has leased part of the Gingerbread Court shopping center on the Boardwalk. Perhaps most controversially, Snap has been accused of converting in-demand residential units into small offices. Last year, several complaints were filed with the Department of Building & Safety alleging that the Thornton Lofts were being used as offices. The complaints were referred to the Department of Housing; it's unclear if any action was taken. Last year, Business Insider reported that the lofts were zoned as live-work spaces and that a bed and clothes were brought in to make it look as if someone lived there.
"It was like an IKEA setup but nobody really slept there," an ex-Snapchat employee told Business Insider.
There are signs that Snap's sprawling, open-air campus may not be working for the now publicly traded company. According to an SEC filing from February:
This diffuse structure may prevent us from fostering positive employee morale and encouraging social interaction among our employees and different business units. Moreover, because our office buildings are dispersed throughout the area, we may be unable to adequately oversee employees and business functions. If we cannot compensate for these and other issues caused by this geographically dispersed office structure, we may lose employees, which could seriously harm our business.
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That might be why Snap recently leased 300,000 feet of office space in Santa Monica, near the airport. That's about enough office space to accommodate its entire Venice operation, although the speculation is that Snap is merely expanding into Santa Monica and not relocating there.
Which means Venice residents might have to continue putting up with Snap's security guards and its obscured windows.
"A lot of these tech startups don’t have a handle on community relations," Ewing says. "Their model is disruption, so it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that they’re in a community that they should have some respect for.
"I don’t think it’s malicious," he continues. "It’s just some kids, basically, with a lot of money to play with and not much of an education in citizenship."