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Being on Waterway Is Like Living Outdoors : Venice Canals: Secluded island-like living along community's six canals is only minutes away from congested Venice streets.

August 14, 1994|CHRISTIANE KESSING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Kessing is a Santa Monica free - lance writer

When Venice Canals resident Luis Rivas steps into his garlanded gondola, families of geese and ducks accompany him on a cruise along the tranquil waterways that border his backyard.

"Living in Venice Canals is like living outdoors," Rivas said. "This is one of the last spots in Los Angeles where you are in touch with nature."

Although just a few minutes east of Venice's crowded boardwalks, the community's six canals (Grand and Eastern canals run north-south; Carroll, Linnie, Howland and Sherman stretch east-west) are a serene sanctuary.

Accessible by car on just one road, Venice Canals offers secluded island-like living away from congested streets and traffic noise. The community features turn-of-the-century cottages with offbeat gardens of herbs and palm trees, pallazo-style villas and stylish contemporary homes.

Rivas, 53, and partner Lynn Miller, 55, moved to Venice Canals with their two dogs, Chelsea and Bubbles, in July, 1992. Rivas, an employment benefits broker, and Miller, a travel agent, sold their homes in Encino and Culver City, looked for a place with character close to the ocean and found their dream house in Venice Canals.

They paid $660,000 for a three-bedroom contemporary home. The peach-colored house was built in 1977 at the junction of Eastern and Howland canals. "I fell in love with it immediately. The view over the canals is breathtaking," Miller said. "We spend most of our evenings out on the deck enjoying the stunning nature."

Venice Canals is a small neighborhood of 351 homes. It is bounded by South Venice Boulevard on the north, by Washington Street on the south, by Ocean Avenue on the east and Pacific Avenue on the west. The 1,200 residents of the middle- to upper-middle class community are primarily Anglo, with Latinos as the second largest group.

The area is best known for its two miles of inland waterways accentuated by picturesque bridges that make it a favorite tourist attraction. In June, 1993, the community made the news when animal lovers unsuccessfully tried to prevent state wildlife officials from killing Venice ducks infected with a deadly virus.

Ducks have been part of Venice's charm since 1905 when tobacco tycoon Abbot Kinney recreated the idyllic waterways of Italy's ancient city of canals on what was then a tract of swamp and sand. Kinney, a broadly educated romanticist, envisioned the beach community as starting point of an American Renaissance that would begin on Californian shores.

The once-worthless salt marshes, drained by 40-foot-wide, 5-foot-deep canals, featured column-lined arcaded streets, luxury hotels, upscale shops and lavishly decorated restaurants. Even before the official opening of Kinney's Venice of America in 1905, most of the 592 residential lots had sold for as much as $2,700 each.

Some eight decades later, in 1985, Connie Blackwell paid $150,000 for a 30-foot-by-95-foot lot at the junction of Eastern and Howland canals.

"I knew immediately that Venice Canals was the perfect neighborhood for me. The moment you get into the community, it feels like the countryside," Blackwell said. "At the same time you are close to beach and airport."

Two years and $250,000 later, Blackwell, 46, moved into her 3,500-square-foot dream house. "I wanted to create a real homey atmosphere, especially for the kids I planned to adopt," the owner of a school for insurance agents said.

Today Blackwell's daughters Katie, 6, and Molly, 5, whom she saved from a Romanian orphanage in 1991, roam her house. They leave the quaintness of the community only for school, (both attend the private Waldorf School in Santa Monica and for such necessities as trips to the mall or visits with friends.) "With the water and the wildlife, Venice Canals is a wonderful place for my girls to grow up in," she said.

Visitors to the community often point to Blackwell's unique home as one of the canals' architectural highlights. It features such rarities as wooden ornaments, antique stained glass windows and a pre-Civil War fence from New Orleans, all collected from salvage yards in Louisiana by Blackwell.

The famed canals have long attracted people searching for a life off the beaten path. "Every house has a different feel to it," said Gail England, realtor with Jon Douglas Co. "Most people who buy here choose the location first and the house second."

Home prices range from $300,000 for a charming 750- square-foot Craftsman bungalow from the 1920s to $850,000 for a sun-splashed contemporary villa with prime island location. An average single-family home sells for about $500,000.

Although the diversity in architectural styles attracts people from all walks of life, Venice Canals residents share the preservation of their lifestyle as a common goal.

After most of Kinney's original canals were filled in 1929, the remaining canals deteriorated. Crumbling sidewalks, rotten footbridges and algae-green water caused the city to close the canals to the public in 1942.

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