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CRITIQUE : Venice Project Mixes Housing With Shops

November 19, 1989|LEON WHITESON | Whiteson is a Los Angeles free-lancer who writes on architectural topics.

To the casual eye, the new Venice Renaissance building on Main Street does not seem out of the ordinary. Yet its cream stucco walls enclose a mixture of condos, apartments, shops and restaurants rarely found under one roof in Los Angeles.

This highly urban mix of residential and retail areas in one development, common in most U.S. cities, is unusual here, where zoning laws encourage--or rather, enforce--a physical separation of the places people live and shop.

These long-entrenched ordinances encourage a suburban-style sprawl that separates housing from shops or offices. But as the city runs out of space to expand and the population continues to grow, different patterns are beginning to be considered in official quarters.

A mixed-use ordinance, which will permit commercial and residential segments under the same roof, is now being drafted by Mayor Tom Bradley's staff.

The Venice Renaissance is the first major project in the city of Los Angeles in many years to combine a mixture of uses in one complex. Its design demonstrates how this combination may be gracefully planned, and sets the tone for the city's evolution toward a more mature urban style.

The real quality of the Renaissance's architecture is to be found in the clever way in which the condos, apartments, shops and restaurants have been seamlessly fitted together in a plan that keeps the various elements distinct, yet fuses them in a common identity.

Conceived by architects Johannes Van Tilburg & Partners for developers Harlan Lee & Associates and the Anden Group, the design creates a lively pedestrian frontage while preserving the privacy of the residential units above.

"We tried to achieve an architecture that is both street-friendly and distinguished," Van Tilburg explained.

"Given that the building densities in Venice have to grow as property values increase, we feel that this kind of mixed-use development enhances the character of the neighborhood while accommodating the needs of newcomers."

In contrast to some of its recently developed neighbors on Main Street, the Renaissance is a model of grace. Compared to the lumpish red-brick and black-glass mall across Navy Street or the crude modernist steel structure on the northwest corner of Main and Marine Street, the Renaissance is sensitively scaled, lightly handled and discreetly detailed.

The Mediterranean style chosen by Van Tilburg for the Renaissance may be bland, but the pleasant way the architects have elaborated the potentially chunky design with curved Streamline Moderne balconies and perky towers keeps the geometries crisp.

The Renaissance's shops and restaurants are set back behind an arcade that recalls the original Venice colonnades. The column capitals are cast aluminum copies of Venice developer Abott Kinney's early-20th Century originals that include mustachioed faces.

Each corner of the block-long building is anchored by a major restaurant, and the stores are a deliberately neighborhood-oriented mix, including a bakery, pharmacy, bookstore and dry cleaner.

A giant clown created by artist Jonathan Borofsky will dominate the main corner at Rose Avenue and Main.

Behind the retail space is a three-level parking garage for 473 autos, entered off Navy Street, under a steel sculpture by Guy Dill. The main level is for shoppers and, on weekends, for beach visitors. The lower levels are for tenants' cars.

A deep concrete slab over the shops and garage creates a horizontal firebreak that also serves as a platform for the lightweight wood-frame construction of the two- and three-story living units above.

To break up the long facade, the architects have divided the 66 condos into three inverted V-shaped sections that angle back from the street. Most of the condos have a seaward view over Venice Beach to the west. The smaller apartments set aside for senior citizens overlook Main Street and its colorful parade of increasingly upscale shoppers.

This articulated layout makes the scale of the residential blocks more domestic and intimate and sets up a pleasant visual rhythm along Main Street.

The two-bedroom condos are planned to seem spacious and bright. The top-floor units have lofts overlooking the living room, reached by circular stairs. Entry to all the residences is through separate ground-floor lobbies that are locked for security.

The spaces on the first-floor platform between the condos are planted as rooftop communal gardens looking toward the sea. These gardens are particularly attractive for the occupants of the 23 senior citizen apartments located along the Main Street frontage.

These self-contained one-room units are rented out for $100 to $300 per month to elderly and disabled people chosen by the developer from a list of applicants supplied by a local senior citizens committee.

"We placed the units for older people on the street for a mixture of reasons at once commercial, architectural and humane," explained Michael Dieden, the Harlan Lee partner in charge of the project.

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