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Preservationists Score Narrow Win in Battle Over Walk Streets : Neighborhoods: Council waives requirement that property owners expand the walkways when they subdivide their lots. Fire officials warn that the lack of access poses risk.


VENICE — The narrow, foliage-shrouded walk streets of Venice are a great place to chat with a neighbor, sketch a hundred-year-old bungalow, ride a bicycle or take a nap in the sun.

But you can't drive a fire engine down one.

That complaint by Los Angeles city officials has led to a long-running debate over how to preserve the historic walk streets that dot the beach community, and still provide access in emergencies.

Last week, the preservationists won a round when the Los Angeles City Council, at the urging of Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, agreed to waive a longstanding requirement that property owners expand the walkways when they subdivide their lots.

"We are absolutely happy, because we see these streets eroding before our eyes," said Sandy Bleifer, an artist and head of a committee to preserve the walkways.

Inspector Charlie Justis of the city's Fire Prevention Bureau said he was disappointed by the action, which he said was taken without consultation with the Fire Department.

"The Fire Department has made its concern and its position as clear as it possibly could," Justis said. "Those streets should be widened to give us any chance at all to provide proper fire and life safety in that area."

Venice's walk streets are as old as the community itself, designed to promote strolling and a European ambience, said Shelli Kwiat, a Venice Historical Society member. Most of the 65 walkways are clustered near the coast, although some are as far east as Lincoln Boulevard.

Typically about 10 feet wide, some of the walkways have been squeezed by encroachments and foliage down to as little as four feet.

That is far short of the standard 40-foot-wide city right of way. And the alleys that provide vehicle access behind the walk streets often are so narrow and clogged with illegally parked cars that it is difficult or impossible for firetrucks to pass, Justis said.

The Fire Department raised the issue of poor access in the 1970s, or perhaps earlier, Justis said. The problem has become more pressing recently, as many of the community's original beach bungalows have been replaced with two- and three-story condominiums.

"The conditions will continue to worsen. And the buildings will eventually be built to maximum density and maximum height with no way to service them," Justis said.

Capt. Philip McKay, commander of the fire station that serves Venice, said his crews have not had to fight a fire that could not be reached in the walk streets area during his two-year tenure. But the firefighters frequently drill on how they will get hoses and other equipment to isolated streets, he said.

For at least the past decade, city officials have tried to resolve the access problem with a long-range street-widening plan. The plan requires property owners subdividing lots on the walk street to improve the walkway in front of their projects.

Each builder must provide a total of 14 feet of walkway and unobstructed border, measured from the center of the walkway to the fence line. In theory, when all properties on both sides of the street are redeveloped, a 28-foot-wide lane will be created.

Bleifer and other activists say the reality is that only a handful of lots have been redeveloped, degrading the continuity of the streets. They also question when, if ever, enough property will be rebuilt to provide more room for firetrucks.

"People are required to pull back their fence line, and this has created a devastation of the gardens and front yards," said Bleifer, who lives a block from the beach on Sunset Court.

Bleifer's neighbor, John Stein, said the walkway widening rule may discourage owners from improving their properties.

"And, frankly, we are worried that this is just the first step in trying to open them up to traffic," Stein said. "The whole city comes to Venice because it has something the rest of the city doesn't have."

The community's complaints about the widening of the walk streets got Galanter's attention, but a recent case before the Coastal Commission cemented her resolve to do something.

A condominium developer who had been told by the city to widen the walk street in front of his project was ordered by the state agency to leave the walk at its current width of 11 feet. The commission's staff said the walkway, Paloma Avenue, should be preserved as "a very important visual resource and an important part of the North Venice community's character."

The City Council on Tuesday unanimously agreed that the city should cease requiring walk street widenings. And Galanter said the preservation effort will be made permanent in a current revision of the Local Coastal Program, which will direct development in Venice.

Justis said he is growing tired of battling to improve fire access in the community.

"Why should I continue to beat my head against a brick wall? We got too many other things going on," he said, on learning of the City Council action.

But Bleifer said she and other local residents are cognizant of the fire safety issue and are looking for solutions that are more aesthetically acceptable.

The community group arranged with the USC School of Architecture and Urban Planning to have graduate students study the program. The students suggested more than a dozen improvements, including better parking and code enforcement to keep alleys clear; the purchase of smaller engines to navigate the narrow streets and installation of fire hydrants on walk streets that cannot be reached by truck.

Bleifer said her group has not determined how to pay for such improvements, but she added: "We want to do this in another way rather than in the cheap, easy way that would be so devastating to the neighborhood.

"Some would like to see the whole world cemented, maybe, but there has to be a balance between the atmosphere of the community and the safety issues."

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