After more than six years of negotiations with tenacious Venice residents, developer Thomas Safran has cleared the first hurdle in his quest to build a condominium/retail complex on the northern end of Ocean Front Walk.
Safran's $7-million project was approved last week by the Los Angeles Planning and Environment Committee. The development faces full City Council and state Coastal Commission review, but Safran said he does not foresee any problems.
"I think the basic issues have been resolved," Safran said, adding that he hopes to start construction on the five-story development early next year.
Safran's project has been a subject of controversy since 1979, when the West Los Angeles developer first sought permission to build a residential complex on a parking lot at Ocean Front Walk and Navy Street.
Two community groups, the Venice Town Council and the Navy Estates Homeowners Assn., demanded revisions. Among Navy Estates' biggest concerns was that Safran's building would block their view of the ocean. The Town Council complained about parking and affordable-housing opportunities. The two groups eventually won concessions on the size and shape of the building, its parking capacity, its retail offerings and its housing mix.
At last week's Planning and Environment Committee meeting at City Hall, representatives for both groups said that Safran had satisfied most of their demands, thereby moving the project closer to approval.
James E. Clemons, the lawyer representing Navy Estates, refused to comment on the specifics of the agreement with Safran. In his letter to the committee, however, Clemons said the group urged approval of the project "without modification." Based on the agreement, Navy Estates also pledged to support the project when it comes before the Coastal Commission in the fall.
Jim Bickhart said the Venice Town Council also was satisfied with the plan, pending a couple of clarifications. "After six years, we're as close as we've been since the time he (Safran) first came in with this project. . . ." Bickhart said. "He's shown more willingness the last couple of months to talk seriously than before."
Safran's 55,000-square-foot building will include a floor of retail outlets, 35 condominiums, nine of them subsidized for low-income residents, and 22 rental units for the elderly. Safran said the condominiums, which will range from 500 to 1,000 square feet, will sell for $100,000 to slightly more than $200,000.
The development will be patterned after turn-of-the-century beachfront architecture on the East Coast, Safran said, with wood exterior, a steeped roof and balconies. Under the agreement with the neighborhood groups, Safran cannot include a sit-down restaurant and is prohibited from selling alcohol.
Since the development will cover a community parking lot, Safran said he still has to find a way to provide enough replacement parking to satisfy the Town Council. At the Planning and Environment Committee hearing, Safran offered to solve the problem by using mechanical car lifts. The plan was rejected, however, when Fire Department officials testified that the lifts create a fire hazard.
Safran, who is 14 parking spaces short of meeting the Town Council's demands, said he hopes to reach an agreement before the project comes before the Coastal Commission. Bickhart said the Town Council has encouraged Safran to appeal the rejection of the mechanical parking plan, and said that the group would continue to push for a solution.
"It will probably mean a little more negotiating," Bickhart said. "We may also suggest that he try to find some off-site parking. This hasn't been discussed with him."
Despite his concerns about parking, Bickhart agreed that Safran's long-delayed project is close to becoming a reality. Bickhart said the Town Council still is not thrilled about the development, but added that it was impossible to defeat it or modify it any further.
Learned a Lot
"Accepting the final reality of the market place these days, we know he (Safran) has to build a fairly substantial building in order to (make a profit)," Bickhart said. "We would prefer a smaller building, or an all-senior building, but those things aren't possible right now."
Safran said he learned a lot during his six-year negotiation with Venice's residents. The developer said he recommends that others who hope to build in Venice be aware of the power and commitment of the community organizations.
"If somebody wants to go into Venice and develop, they have to be very pugnacious, creative and patient," Safran said. "They have to be willing to listen to other ideas and work with community groups, the City Council, the Coastal Commission and practically everybody else. Finally, you have to be willing to redesign your project about 25 times."