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Proposed Venice observation wheel spurs parking, traffic concerns

The 200-foot-tall attraction would be just west of the boardwalk and offer a 15-minute ride. City parks officials say the goal is to create a reason for people already visiting the beach to stay longer.

April 12, 2012|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times

A British company's proposal to build an observation wheel about as tall as a 20-story skyscraper at Venice Beach has some residents' heads spinning at the prospect of more crowds, trash and noise.

With enthusiastic support from Los Angeles park and tourism officials, Great City Attractions is seeking permission to operate a 200-foot-tall mechanical ride just west of the Venice Beach boardwalk at Windward Avenue. The attraction would consist of 42 enclosed, air-conditioned "capsules," each capable of accommodating eight people.

The wheel would be similar to, but less than half as high as, the 443-foot London Eye, a giant wheel on the South Bank of the Thames that draws an average of 3.75 million visitors a year. The prospect of millions or even tens of thousands of wheel-go-rounders descending on Venice Beach prompted one group of activists to urge the city to perform a full environmental review.

"The parking, traffic and scenic impacts of the Ferris wheel installation are highly problematic for our neighborhood," said Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Assn., a residents advocacy organization. John Henning, the group's attorney, expressed concern in a letter to the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks that the developer had no plans to provide traffic mitigations or additional parking, despite the wheel's proposed location "in one of the city's most parking-starved areas."

But where residents see problems, tourism officials see potential.  "We think this could be a major visitor amenity for Venice Beach," said Michael McDowell, senior director of cultural tourism for the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Great City Attractions will seek a three-year permit from the city to operate its attraction on park property, said Kevin Regan, assistant general manager of the recreation and parks agency. The company would cover the cost of installing the $12-million wheel, operate the ride and provide 24-hour security. The company and the city are negotiating an agreement that would determine how revenue would be divided.

Parks officials said the intention was not to draw hordes of new visitors to Venice but rather to create a reason for people already visiting the beach — particularly families — to stay a bit longer.

"The whole intent is to create a nice activity that is in line with public recreation," Regan said. He added that the city's share of revenue from the wheel would go into the department's general fund. Some Venice residents say they want the money to be earmarked for improvements in their community, such as bathroom maintenance and more frequent trash pickups.

The wheel would operate daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The basic adult fare would be $12 to $15 for a 15-minute revolution, during which riders would have 360-degree views of the coastline and inland.

Nigel Ward, head of global site development for Great City Attractions, sought in an interview to allay concerns. Unlike a "carnival-style" Ferris wheel with open baskets, flashing lights and loud music, he said, "we're at the other end of the marketplace … with no flashing lights and no music. It's much more observation than thrill ride."

Although maximum daily capacity would be about 12,000 riders, Ward said, the business is highly seasonal. In nine years of operating 30 wheel projects in Europe and Australia, the company has "never yet … achieved anything like maximum capacity for more than a few rides in any high season or peak holiday period," Ward said. The Venice wheel would be the company's first in North America.

Amusement rides were a key part of Venice of America when it opened on July 4, 1905, with a system of waterways meant to evoke the storied Italian city.

"There's historical precedent for having these types of amusements down here by the beach, and I do support that," said Daniel Samakow, a boardwalk restaurateur. "But I think there are issues of scale and placement and traffic.... The devil is always in the details."

Times news assistant Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.

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