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Lines in the Venice sand

L.A. council zones the boardwalk to regulate artists and vendors and reduce conflict.

April 10, 2008|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Vendors and performance artists who sell their wares and entertain on the Venice Beach boardwalk will soon be operating under a new set of rules.

A new ordinance, approved unanimously by the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday, is aimed at settling a years-long battle over how to regulate an area that has long defied regulation.

Backers argue that the rules will curtail unwanted commercial activity and bring order to an often unruly subculture grounded in freewheeling public expression. Among other things, the rules set noise limits on some street performers.

"We want to protect the free-speech ambience of Venice," said Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the area. "It is the most eclectic, Bohemian, creative beach in the world, and people come from everywhere -- 1 million people a year -- for this ambience."

Under the ordinance, the boardwalk's west side will be divided into two zones -- a "p-zone" and an "i-zone." Between Memorial Day weekend and Nov. 1, free-speech performers wanting to peddle newspapers, leaflets, bumper stickers and buttons will have to obtain a permit to work in one of 105 p-zone spaces.

Meanwhile, 100 i-zone spaces will be designated for individuals seeking to sell items they have created or that are "inextricably intertwined" with the message they wish to impart, according to the ordinance. For i-zone areas, permits would be required year-round.

This is just the latest attempt by the city to tame the famed boardwalk.

A 2004 ordinance created a lottery system to determine who would get space and where. The next year, an activist group called Food Not Bombs, represented by attorney Carol Sobel, filed suit in federal court, alleging that the ordinance violated 1st Amendment rights.

The case landed in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson. A former president of the L.A. Recreation and Parks Commission, Pregerson noted weaknesses in the original ordinance but did not rule it unconstitutional, and the lottery continued.

Meanwhile, he took a keen interest in trying to craft an ordinance that would stand up in court.

It was Pregerson, Rosendahl said, who suggested the zones. Although there is some intermingling, p-zone spaces would mostly be on the northern end of the boardwalk and i-zone areas would mostly be on the southern end.

Renowned for its charm and eclecticism, the boardwalk has also over the years exhibited an unsavory side.

After a recent weekend "drum circle," a man was slain and found buried in the sand. During summer months, police officers often feel overwhelmed by the surge of tourists and residents.

The vendors and performers themselves have created many problems, engaging in verbal disputes or physical altercations. Some vendors even sought restraining orders against other boardwalk regulars.

Until the lottery went into effect, painters, vendors, musicians and free speakers during summer would begin congregating at 5 a.m. or earlier in the hope of staking out a location. Joel Shields, a longtime renter on the east side of Ocean Front Walk, said he has not seen "a single altercation since the ordinance went into effect."

Still, the legal challenge prompted Los Angeles police officers not to issue citations. As a result, Shields said, the illegal selling of commercial items has increased in the last several months. "You've got mass-manufactured items with made-in-China stickers," he said.

That has angered merchants on the east side of the boardwalk, who pay rent, wages and taxes for the privilege of selling commercially made sunglasses, flip-flops and T-shirts in stalls or shops.

In response to residents' complaints, the ordinance approved Wednesday also restricts noise. Sound greater than 75 decibels when measured 25 feet from the source and above 96 decibels when measured one foot from the source would be prohibited.

The city Department of Recreation and Parks will be responsible for enforcing the ordinance.

Rosendahl said he plans to push the city to approve the funding necessary to buy sound-measuring equipment, educate boardwalk denizens about the new rules and post explanatory signs in time for Memorial Day weekend.

"The key," he said, "will be enforcement."

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martha.groves@latimes.com

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