At first glance, it might not appear to be one of Southern California's premier tourist attractions. The asphalt walkway is scarred by cracks. Bathrooms are filthy. Even the wooden benches have been stripped for firewood.
Locals in Venice have been arguing for years over how best to renovate the dilapidated oceanfront boardwalk. Now a multimillion-dollar overhaul is about to begin, even as activists continue to haggle about its details.
The Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Commission today is expected to vote on a redesign plan for the 1.7-mile boardwalk that calls for a "textured" concrete walkway, refurbished pagodas, additional bathrooms and a second bike path to keep skaters and bicyclists from colliding.
Community groups who rarely see eye to eye are applauding the plan's various ideas, and officials closely involved in the effort expect the proposal to be adopted. The only major point of contention has been how to resurface the boardwalk--with brick, asphalt or concrete.
Although the choice of one boardwalk material over another might seem mundane to outsiders, the issue holds powerful symbolic value in this seaside community.
One contingent of street performers, peaceniks and others fear that an "upscale" concrete surface will ruin the funky atmosphere of the boardwalk, turning a bastion of free expression into a yuppie enclave such as Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade. Joggers and skaters--both fixtures on the boardwalk--complain that the harder, bumpier textured concrete--made from cement and crushed gravel--will drive away fellow enthusiasts.
"Venice Beach is a place for rich and poor, not just rich," said longtime activist Jerry Rubin, who is among those calling for a new asphalt walk. "Unlike Disneyland, you don't have to pay admission."
Merchants and property owners have lobbied for a brick walkway and Victorian light fixtures--a combination that leaders argue would help spruce up the area's gritty image, which has been further clouded in recent years by gang violence.
Many business leaders say they are disappointed with the choice of concrete but call it an improvement over the boardwalk's dilapidated asphalt.
Some vocal business leaders have accused the consultant who drafted the renovation plan of ignoring the community's wishes for brick. They note that a proposal for such a walkway won more votes at a recent public meeting than plans featuring asphalt or concrete.
"Basically, the consultant walked away from what the community wanted," said Mark Ryavec, executive director of the Venice Boardwalk Assn. "Every serious neighborhood organization in the community supports brick." Officials from the RRM Design Group of San Luis Obispo, the consultant hired to prepare the renovation plan, said their decisions were guided by practical considerations.
Brick was too expensive and asphalt required too much maintenance, leaving concrete as the best long-term solution, they said.
LeeAnne Hagmaier, one of the principal planners from the design firm, said that RRM made every effort to incorporate ideas from various sectors of the Venice community. In fact, the firm's renovation proposal calls for several features that had been sought by the business community as well as the skaters, performers and others. For example, the plan envisions additional bathrooms, new lighting, extra benches and the second bike path, as well as restoration of the 50-year-old pagodas.
Some of the firm's other proposals also have won widespread community support. Among the most popular items are a first-aid station, a new basketball court and grandstand, and a new dance area to accommodate skaters who congregate each weekend.
Many groups in the community also have praised plans for a revitalized central plaza at the base of Windward Avenue, complete with a fountain and a map of the Venice area carved into the concrete surface.
"Our whole premise is to ensure the funky eclectic flavor of Venice Beach," Hagmaier said. "We've listened to everybody who has participated and I think our plan reflects that."
Despite differences over the boardwalk surface, most groups in Venice have endorsed the overall plan and are urging city officials to move forward with construction, which could begin by next summer.
The project is being funded through $10 million in Los Angeles County bond money, approved by voters three years ago. Proponents say time is a crucial factor. The money must be allocated by the end of 1997 or the city parks department risks losing it. Parks officials have reserved $3.2 million to refurbish the Venice Pier, leaving the remainder for the boardwalk and administrative costs.
"We've waited long enough. Let's go," said Chris Williams, co-chairman of the Penmar Neighborhood Assn., a homeowner group in Venice. "We want a safe family-fun environment that remains eclectic. We look forward to it. Right now, that doesn't exist."