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Community Essay : Venice: This Time Listen to Locals : Poor planning has caused visual and social blight. But a new mayor gives the beachfront hope for a new beginning.

July 19, 1993|JANE SPILLER | Jane Spiller writes about design issues and visits Venice Beach in off-peak hours. and

Beach season is upon us and Venice residents are busy getting out earplugs and stocking up on jumbo-size trash bags as throngs of their inland neighbors arrive to shop and gawk on Ocean Front Walk. Cars have been bolted to their parking spaces for the summer. Along the boardwalk, Tarot card readers muscle aside street artists for lucrative spots, and fast-food vendors have laid in enough paper cups and napkins to unleash a blizzard on neighborhood streets and sidewalks.

Our city government, which transformed the quiet beachfront in only 10 years into a boardwalk circus through "shop at the beach" zoning, is now armed with $10 million of Proposition A money to finish the undertaking. And who better to spearhead this "revitalization" effort than the Recreation and Parks Department? Can we look forward to more ocean view corridors barricaded off with massive concrete walls like 18th Avenue, where Recreation and Parks placed the handball courts, and more architectural delights like the Muscle Beach monolith and barrier-bleachers? Will the folks who designed the abandoned concrete "pavilion" auditorium in the heart of the beachfront, whose mighty walls form the most popular graffiti canvas, let anything happen that might open up any ocean views?

What's going to happen to the decade of Herculean effort by Los Angeles residents that resulted in the Urban Waterfront Restoration Plan after endless public workshops sponsored by Councilwoman Ruth Galanter's office and the State Coastal Conservancy? The good news is that Proposition A specifies that funds for Venice be spent in accordance with the plan. The bad news is that Recreation and Parks gets to spend the money. Inquiries to the department have located few who have ever heard of the waterfront plan.

Maybe "Rec. and Parks," as it's known, is so out of touch because its bureaucrats are too far away, downtown in City Hall. Here's an idea to fix that. Let's move Rec. and Parks into the vacant pavilion. If the space doesn't work for them, maybe they can saw up the concrete walls that block the ocean views and use them as office partitions or as shields to dive behind for cover when gang warfare breaks out on crowded weekends.

And while we're getting Rec. and Parks into the neighborhood, let's introduce them to the Community Planning Advisory Committee, appointed by Galanter, which could help them develop a comprehensive approach to beachfront facilities development, instead of picnic table-by-picnic table.

Maybe we could also introduce them to some talented architects and designers. Maybe the two clunky bathrooms and recreation center office they just spent a year designing in-house could have been done better and cheaper outside. Why not aim for excellence?

Most important, why not try to design public safety back into the beachfront? There aren't enough police for the crowds of 150,000 and more drawn to Venice. The recent beach closure in response to gang fighting is ominous. Pacific Division Police Capt. Richard LeGarra is concerned that the situation is potentially explosive. "It just takes a spark and the whole beach is gone." The city must find ways to reduce crowds through modifying the zoning and permits that created the crowds.

Certain types of spaces are inherently dangerous. Police say that the narrow walkway between the new bleachers and Recreation center is a major problem on Sunday afternoons, when people are shoulder-to-shoulder and gangs congregate there. On a recent visit, Police Chief Willie Williams expressed concern that crowds had no way to spill out onto the beach. Community groups said this before the improvements were built, but no one listened.

There is new leadership at Rec. and Parks. The beach restoration project is a chance for a new start. Maybe, while the Riordan revolution re-evaluates how city government works from the top down, the new mayor could empower the community from the bottom up. Require city departments to consult citizen committees on local projects. Tap into a wealth of local know-how. Start an era of creative collaboration that could turn Venice around.

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