The quiet life of Florence Thurlow was shaken to its core two years ago when the 71-year-old Venice woman lost two of her three homes in an accidental fire. The Market Street houses had been in her family for more than 60 years and Thurlow had spent her childhood on the canals that once flowed in front of them.
Last week, as she clutched a stack of charred and faded photographs that were rescued from the flames, Thurlow said her neighborhood is being threatened again. But this time the menace is not fire. It is development.
Thurlow and other longtime residents of the 200 block of Market Street are protesting plans to replace three houses there with a 16-unit apartment building. The group contends that the project would ruin the ambiance of the close-knit neighborhood and aggravate the area's severe parking shortage.
"That place is going to be gigantic," said Thurlow, a timid woman who still lives in the remaining family home. "And we don't feel it belongs. Unless we stop big projects like this one, our neighborhood will be gone."
A Los Angeles City Planning Commission hearing examiner is scheduled to hear the apartment proposal, filed by Merl and Dorothy Goulden, on Monday.
Michael L. Dieden, who is representing the Gouldens in their request to build the $1-million complex, said the neighbors' complaints are unfounded. Dieden said the three homes, which the Goulden family has owned for about 50 years, are in serious disrepair and are "not worth saving."
The apartment complex, which would be named "Esther's" in honor of Dorothy Goulden's mother, would be 35 feet high. Dieden called it a landmark project.
"This would be the nicest residential apartment complex in Venice," Dieden said, noting that it would include four units of much-needed senior citizen housing. "We were able to complement and preserve the Craftsman style that exists and develop a project that blends in with the existing streetscape."
However, the Market Street neighbors, a group that includes the Goulden's tenants and other people on the street, say that architecture alone is not the issue. And they have waged a determined battle to defeat the proposal.
The neighbors first learned of the project a year ago. At that time, the Gouldens were seeking permission to build a 19-unit apartment complex on the site. When the Planning Commission staff recommended denial, the project was scaled back to 12 units. The proposal still violates planning guidelines but the Gouldens hope to win a density bonus for including senior housing.
Marjorie David, a screenwriter, is a tenant in one of the Goulden homes. David said the houses are not in poor condition and she accused the Gouldens of trying to ramrod their apartment proposal through the system.
"We're not living in a fantasy world, thinking that just because we rent the property it's ours," David said. "But they aren't following the rules."
"These are not people who love Venice," added Denise Osso, a resident of a nearby home. "And we don't want our community to be another Marina del Rey."
The 200 block of Market Street bears little resemblance to Marina del Rey at this point. The narrow street is lined with trees and cooled by breezes that blow in from the ocean two block away. A mixture of young and old and poor and middle-class people live there. Some of them have children. And small groups of residents can usually be found congregating in front of the aging homes.
The area is not devoid of modern-day influences, however. A small, square apartment building from the 1940s occupies the lot across the street from the Gouldens' property. And another small complex that will be equipped with Jacuzzis is under construction. Compared to the size of the Goulden project, those buildings are minor nuisances, neighbors said.
Two of the three homes that the Gouldens hope to replace date back to the turn of the century, when developer Abbot Kinney created Venice. Tom Moran, a longtime Venice resident and historian, said the 200 block of Market Street is one of the few spots in Venice where Kinney's legacy is preserved.
"The street has special merit," Moran said. "There is a sense of architectural community there. . . . Even with the canals gone, you get a sense of what the original canals were like. It has that echo of the past."
Moran said the character of the street would be altered by the construction of the apartment complex. But he added that there may be no way to stop it.
"That area would be ripe for a historic (district designation)," Moran said. "But without historic status there isn't much they can do. This is really the first attack of apartment building in that area."
Florence Thurlow still clings to her memories of the past. Her family moved to Market Street in 1919, when she was 4, and her father posed alongside Kinney in an early Chamber of Commerce photograph. He later served as the last mayor of Venice, just before it was annexed by the city of Los Angeles.
The manmade canal that flowed through Market Street was filled in during the 1920s and in time nearly everything about the community changed. The historic homes that line Market Street are among the only exceptions. And Thurlow, charred photographs in hand, and her neighbors intend to continue fighting for them. "We care and want to go on living here," Thurlow said.