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Abbot Kinney Boulevard's renaissance a mixed blessing

The Venice street has gone from gritty to glitzy over recent decades, attracting tourists but driving out some longtime denizens.

October 25, 2013|By Martha Groves

When reporters for national magazines and tourists from around the world recently began showing up on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, veteran shopkeepers saw the attention as validation that they had turned the once-desolate stretch into a hip strip.

Now, however, that pride over what GQ magazine called "the Coolest Block in America" has turned to anxiety for some longtime merchants and residents who say Abbot Kinney is getting too posh for its pants. The arty, indie fare that used to dominate the boulevard is being replaced by $1,400 handbags and $600 boots from Italy.

Developers have bought and razed or renovated Abbot Kinney buildings, including vintage bungalows that had housed holdouts from the street's rougher days. Rents for some storefronts have doubled or tripled, and retailers and cafe owners have hired valet companies to ease the parking crunch.

Modish chain stores with distressed-wood floors and subdued lighting have replaced pioneering shops such as Surfing Cowboys and Jin Patisserie, which have relocated to more affordable digs in Mar Vista and Culver City or are eyeing emergent Rose Avenue in Venice.

The wildly successful bistro Gjelina — no substitutions, even for you, Robert Downey Jr. (who owns a Modernist house up the street) — is building another eatery on the boulevard and a bakery nearby. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to turn the former Broadway Gymnastics building at the corner of Main Street into his office and a small restaurant. And local developers have proposed a boutique hotel that would incorporate Joe's and Primitivo restaurants.

An upgrade was inevitable, given the street's location and the area's favorably evolving demographics, including the arrival of Google and other Silicon Beach companies.

"But now," said Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin, who lives in neighboring Mar Vista, "it may be at risk of being a victim of its own success."

Some sense in the offing a replay of familiar flame-outs such as once hot and now not so much Melrose and Montana avenues.

"More and more every day, it feels like Abbot Kinney is separating itself from the neighborhood," said Marta Evry, a longtime resident. "It's a street for tourists, people from outside the area, but not a street for the people who live here."

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Three decades ago, Abbot Kinney was an enclave where struggling artists coexisted uneasily with violent gang members.

Back then, when the not-quite-mile-long stretch between Venice Boulevard and Main Street was known as West Washington Boulevard, gunshots routinely rang out at night in the Oakwood, the adjoining drug-infested ghetto. A U.S. senator's niece was shot to death in a holdup on the sidewalk in 1980.

Abbot Kinney had been on a slow upward trajectory since a name change to honor the coastal community's visionary founder. A crackdown on gang activity helped rid the area of career criminals. Meanwhile, singular haunts such as Hal's Bar & Grill and relative newcomers such as Gjelina drew crowds.

Outsiders began to view the street as a great real estate investment. New owners revamped buildings that in some cases had stood untouched for decades. Real estate agents now use proximity to Abbot Kinney as a selling point for $2-million cottages in, yes, the Oakwood, now largely gentrified.

The shift is happening before bemused residents' eyes. "Day by day, it's changing," said Laddie John Dill, an artist who has lived and worked near the boulevard for decades. "I'd hate to see Abbot Kinney lose its uniqueness and become like a mall."

Young artists, who in the past lent flavor to the street, would have to be trust-fund babies to afford space on Abbot Kinney now, Dill said.

It was just six years ago that Pinkberry, the frozen yogurt chain, opened an outlet on Abbot Kinney and was greeted with the modern equivalent of torches and pitchforks. A group called Venice Unchained, dedicated to keeping large-scale chain stores off the boulevard, organized protests and boycotts. The shop closed three years later because of disappointing sales.

Now, a dozen or more chains — including Lucky Brand, Gant, Flannel and Alexis Bittar — populate the street. They're not the Gap or H&M, admittedly, but neither are they mom-and-pop operations.

"It's gotten really fashionable, not always in a good way," said Pierre Auroux, a Venice resident who was leaving an Abbot Kinney lunch spot on his bicycle one recent sunny afternoon. In years past, he added, "it was less Beverly Hills and more of a beach vibe. It wasn't as safe and nice, but that's what gave it character." The people-watching, however, can be excellent. Recent sightings: Ben Affleck and Sky Ferreira.

The Abbot Kinney buzz has carried far and wide. Visitors from New York, Europe, Asia and Australia have put the street on their itineraries. "The appeal of Venice is broadening, and Abbot Kinney is at the epicenter," said Jack V. Hoffmann, a property owner and longtime resident.

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