(Editor’s note: The story first ran on the Westside Current on August 7 and is reprinted with permission.)
By ANGELA MCGREGOR
The L.A. Times ran a July 30 editorial (“Are L.A. leaders trying to sabotage homeless housing in Venice?”) that suggests that the sole reason the project formerly known as Reese-Davidson hasn’t yet been built is because city officials, in particular the city attorney, Hydee Feldstein Soto, are “slow-walking” or possibly “sabotaging” it.
The article – which appears to have been produced at the behest of Venice Community Housing Corporation CEO Becky Dennison (who is the only source quoted at length) — ignores so many fundamental facts about the project’s long and troubled history, it is difficult to view it as anything other than propaganda.
Rather than illustrating the article with a rendering of the massive project, the Times chose a heart-rending photo of Rebecca Dannenbaum, described as a 48-year-old unhoused woman currently living with her dog in a pedestrian tunnel near the Venice canals.
But that is hardly her whole story. In 2018, Dannenbaum told Fox News LA she was enjoying living in a van she was renting from the Venice Vanlord for $450 a month. In 2019, she made headlines (and sparked local debate) when she floated a makeshift barge in the Venice Canals she said was for “storage.”
By January of this year, she told KCRW that she had moved from the encampments on Hampton Avenue into A Bridge Home in Venice (ABH). It’s unclear at what point she and her dog left ABH for the pedestrian tunnel where she was photographed for the Times article, or why. According to police records, since 2013, the 54-year-old has been arrested nine times, mostly for selling drugs.
The article itself is as lacking in factual context as the Dannenbaum photo’s caption, beginning with the implication that without this massive, controversial and expensive project Venice would have no housing options for the homeless.
There are currently more permanent supportive and low-income units under construction in Venice Beach — including a project Venice Community Housing (VCH) is building on Lincoln Boulevard which wasn’t mentioned in the article — than would be created in the proposed Venice Dell project.
And this doesn’t include the dozens of affordable units planned for the site of the First Baptist Church in Oakwood, nor the mandated affordable units to be included in the project which will eventually built on the Metro Yard, the current site of the 154-bed Venice A Bridge Home.
The article describes the lot in question as “surplus city property”, but in fact it contains a much-used beach parking lot as well as an apartment building that houses four low-income tenants.
The developers are mandated by the Venice Coastal Zone Specific Plan to retain the 194 parking spaces, and the proposed design of the project does so with elaborate, expensive parking towers utilizing mechanical lifts.
In total, according to VCH’s own numbers, the project is expected to cost more than $86 million, including a $3.3 million developer fee to Venice Community Housing and Hollywood Community Housing. This figure doesn’t include the parking.
According to the Times, the project has “hundreds of supporters in Venice, but it also has hundreds of opponents,” implying that the community is about equally divided in its regard for the project.
In fact, the Venice Neighborhood Council, elected with more votes than any other NC in Los Angeles, has voted down the project three times, primarily due to the developers’ insistence that it doesn’t require a full CEQA review, despite being located in a tsunami flood zone, within a site located on the National Register of Historic Places, within the dual Coastal Zone and requiring a major zoning change and numerous waivers.
Even the granddaughter of one of the prominent Venetians for whom the project was initially named — pioneering African American builder Arthur Reese — strongly objected to the project, stating “My grandfather would be appalled. This is not suitable now and is not smart planning for the future growth of our population, particularly knowing that it is families of Color and with lesser economic means that need access to the beach to escape our ever hotter climate.”
After Sonya Reese Greenland filed a cease-and-desist letter to both Becky Dennison and Sarah Letts of HCHC, the project’s name was changed to the “Venice Dell Community.”
Traci Park, who last year was elected to represent CD11 with more votes than any other councilmember candidate, told the Current during her campaign that she would, “squash this on day one. Not only did the VNC vote it down, over 1,000 community members have objected to this, it violates the Venice Local Plan, it violates CEQA, it violates the Coastal Act, it’s a waste of money, it’s wrong for the community, it’s a no go, it’s done.”
She urged the Council to refrain from further action on the project until after she was seated in January “in order to bring new vision, collaboration, and leadership to resolution of the outstanding issues.”
But the Times maintains that Park should now support the project since “it was approved by the City Council before they were elected and should not be undone now,” as if her primary directive is to uphold the agenda of her predecessor even if it conflicts with the wishes of her stakeholders or the platform upon which she ran.
Dennison’s primary complaint in the Times article seems to be that “city officials in various departments stopped meeting regularly” with her in April, no doubt signaling the end of her extraordinary access and support within City Hall, after eight years of unwavering support from former CD11 Councilmember Mike Bonin.
As exclusively reported Click here. Bonin’s support for VCH culminated with a $27,500 gift of taxpayer funds to them on the day his chosen candidate for CD11 Councilmember conceded the election to Park.
Dennison appears to be mainly frustrated with the City Attorney, who instructed housing officials to refuse to sign and submit the developers’ application to evict the families living on the property, some of whom have been there over 30 years.
The Times characterizes this as “City agencies’ refusal to interact with the developers — at the direction of the city attorney’s office.”
But as both the Times and Dennison should know, it is not legal to evict tenants in order to accommodate a project which has yet to receive a building permit, and the permit for this project cannot be issued until the Coastal Commission’s ruling on the project, which has been delayed three times due to incomplete applications from the developers.
We reached out to the City Attorney, Hydee Feldstein-Soto, for comment, and were told that her office has no response to the Times’ article at this time.
Feldstein-Soto is tasked with defending the City in litigation brought against it by the Coalition for Safe Coastal Development, a local non-profit suing to stop the project because, as stated in their opening brief, “There might be a safe version of a supportive housing project for this site that does not also substantially impair the public’s constitutional right to access coastal/marine resources and violate so many other important laws, but this Project is not that project. Affordable housing remains a societal priority, but legal safeguards cannot be ignored to green light a flawed project concept or location.”
Nowhere in Safe Coastal Development’s brief does the group contend that (as the Times states) “the project will make the neighborhood susceptible to tsunami flooding.” However, the advisability of placing a population this vulnerable in a project this costly in an existing flood zone (exacerbated by an ongoing climate crisis) has been brought up at every Venice community meeting about the project.
Safe Coastal Development’s case is currently scheduled to begin in late October, likely after the Coastal Committee’s ruling, which is due sometime in October. In the meantime, Mayor Bass and other city officials should consider the full picture when determining the merits of this controversial and expensive project.