Venice Beach, Pay to Play

by Dan Fagan

I’ve lived in Southern California for twenty years. I moved out from the Jersey Shore in the 1990’s and have been honored to call Venice my home these past seven years. And while much of Venice has seen overwhelming change in its long-storied history (see oil derricks on the beach), in many respects, it hasn’t changed a bit. It’s still home to Muscle Beach, the genesis of America’s acceptance for squats, deadlifts, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Venice culture is still eccentric as ever. On any given day, skaters shred. Street performers and snake oil salesman lure the million plus tourists that crowd the streets to buy their wears and donate a dollar or two to the beachfront entertainment. The smell of (up until recently) an illegal substance clings to the shops and many of the more permanent residents along the boardwalk. It’s crowded. It’s bohemian. It’s Venice. And for this guy from the Jersey shore, it’s home.

In one significant way Venice has changed. Despite the aura of dreadlocks and counter culture, Venice has become a paradox of its somewhat frugal past. Pedestrian friendly renovations and rising gentrification have started a trend that has lead property values to only increase in recent years. According to real estate giant Zillow, Venice is tied with Bel-Air for the most expensive neighborhood per square foot in the greater Los Angeles area, shortly behind the Pacific Palisades.

A number of factors have contributed to Venice becoming one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Los Angeles over the past decade. The rise in popularity of nearby Abbott Kinney, which arguably started in 2012 after GQ named it “the coolest block” in America didn’t help. Ambitious real estate projects and hip coffee shops begin to filter in, developments that caused a headache for residents and anti-growth legislation that has tried to preserve Venice’s old school zeitgeist.

Ironically, Abbott Kinney (the person and founder of Venice Beach) was a real estate developer. After failing to turn Venice into well…. Italy, Kinney rethought his idea and developed a town built on entertainment, similar to New York’s Coney Island. Today, the only indication of Kinney’s failed dream remains in the Venice Canals, that have now become an opportune spot for Instagram photos.

Trying to maintain the status quo has had mixed results and the proof is in the pudding. Literally.

In my 16 years of assisting both commercial property owners, retail, and restaurant tenants alike with their Westside needs; I have seen considerable changes to the type of tenants, post the great recession of 2007-2009. Venice and other surrounding beach front communities are seeing their beloved, “Mom & Pop” shops who have sustained themselves since the 1960’s (and some earlier than that), closing in the past decade.

Although some have retired, the vast majority are being taken out by rising demand for a limited commercial market, rising rental rates, and a significant uptick in rents being paid by the new influx of tech and production companies (see Silicon Beach).

The changes have been self-evident on the aforementioned coolest block Abbot Kinney, but are also branching over to outlying streets where demand for new products, healthier food options, and consumer demand has risen for the best. Could this be the death rattle for the beloved Mom & Pops? Perhaps. As rents continue to rise, the current winners in this transition are the landlords who have owned the beach-front community properties for years, hoping to cash in on the hot market.

Unfortunately, who can afford these rents and sustain a profitable business?  As rents continue to cut into one’s profitability in percentages well above what most sound operators would choose to accept. Slowly but surely, top dollar corporations are inching their way into Abbot Kinney, Lincoln, Washington Boulevard and Ocean Front Walk. Ultimately, changing the environment of creative and artistic culture that Venice was built on. 

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