LA Weekly—Abbot Kinney is only a 10-minute walk from Venice Beach, but it somehow feels much farther. The ocean breeze doesn’t reach that far. You can’t hear the waves. Instead of the smell of the Pacific Ocean, inscrutable scents spill out of tiny, high-end boutiques.
Over the course of just a couple of years, Venice has become one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Los Angeles. According to the real estate website Zillow, it is the seventh most expensive neighborhood in which to buy a house, its median home value — $1,578,200 — coming in just behind the Hollywood Hills and just ahead of Beverlywood. According to ApartmentList.com, the average rental price of a two-bedroom apartment in Venice is $4,900 a month — well ahead of Westwood, Santa Monica, Brentwood, even Bel-Air and the Hollywood Hills — bested only by the Pacific Palisades and Beverly Glen.
When you rank neighborhoods in the city of L.A. by price per square foot of real estate, Venice becomes even loftier: According to data provided to L.A. Weekly by Zillow, Venice is tied with Bel-Air for No. 2. Only the Pacific Palisades is more expensive per square foot.
As for median rental price per square foot, Venice is the most expensive place in L.A.
Venice has always been an odd mix, a low-rise neighborhood of tiny parcels, canals and slender walk streets. There’s the boardwalk, but there’s also Oakwood, nicknamed Ghost Town, which until recently was dominated by gang violence and open-air drug markets. It was never cheap. But when my parents moved there in the 1970s, it was affordable — as affordable as living by the beach got, at any rate.
But that has all changed. Venice is now more than just a beach town, more than just a tourist attraction. Venice is a brand. Or as Ernest, a man I met outside the Oakwood Community Center (he smoked a hand-rolled cigarette and declined to give me his last name), puts it: “This used to be a community. Now it’s a business.”
So how did Venice become Beverly Hills by the sea?
“That’s easy!” laughs developer Frank Murphy, an easygoing guy with a gray mustache. “It’s super attractive and [housing is] very, very scarce.”
Many neighborhoods in L.A. have fought development, but none has done it with quite the same zeal as Venice.
According to census data analyzed by Dario Alvarez, an urban planner who works with Murphy, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area (which includes Los Angeles and Orange counties) added nearly 2 million housing units between 1960 and 2010. Housing capacity grew from 2.5 million to nearly 4.5 million units, an increase of about 80 percent.
By contrast, the number of housing units in the 90291 ZIP code, which makes up most of Venice (everything north of Washington Boulevard), stayed more or less the same.
Which is not to say there was no new construction. But any modest gains were offset by houses literally taken off the market. For example, in 2002, when Julia Roberts bought a $1.2 million, two-story house on one of the coveted, picturesque walk streets, she also bought the lot next door, tore down that house and installed a swimming pool. (She sold her house to Tim Robbins, in 2010.)
“She was the first super A-lister that bought here,” Solo Scott says. “That was one of the big news items that really kicked it off.”
Between 1960 and 2010, at a time when the population of the city and the county was going up (the city added 1.3 million people, the county 3.7 million), the population in the 90291 ZIP code actually fell, by about 20 percent. The other parts of Venice, south of Washington Boulevard, saw an increase in both development and population.
Anti-development activists like to argue that development fuels gentrification, that the construction of new, high-end apartment buildings makes the whole neighborhood more expensive.
But the case of Venice is a counterpoint. For the last 50 years, Venice has successfully fought developers to a stalemate. The housing supply stayed constant, while demand grew. As a result, the value of property in Venice has soared.
In 1996, according to data provided by Zillow, the average home value in Venice was $251,000 — more expensive than Silver Lake and Encino but cheaper than Westwood, Studio City, Mid-Wilshire and Los Feliz. Today, Venice’s average home value is nearly $1.6 million, more expensive than all of those neighborhoods — more expensive, in fact, than its historically tony neighbor to the north, the city of Santa Monica, which, according to Alvarez’s research, added more than 10,000 dwelling units between 1960 and 2010.
“Santa Monica has grown even higher, they’ve allowed a tremendous amount of density,” says Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Association. “The trouble in Venice is you’re running right up against an almost universal opposition to changing the building height.”
Perhaps without realizing it, density foes have laid the foundation for Venice’s gilded age.
“It’s OK to build a $3 million house,” Murphy says, “but not OK to build two $1.5 million houses on the same lot.”
Walk around Venice today and you’ll see construction everywhere. Every few blocks, a home is being torn down, remodeled or built. Most of the newer homes are modernist gray boxes, designed to maximize usable space.
“A lot of it is schlock, midlevel quality,” Scott says. “It’s 3,000 square feet next to 100-year-old California bungalows. It’s a money grab.”
There [also] aren’t many apartments in Los Angeles that stand three feet from the sand, with bedroom windows that look out onto the Pacific Ocean.
There are, of course, other factors at play in the gilding of Venice. Google opened an office in Venice in 2011; Snapchat followed in 2015. Both have employees who live nearby.
“A lot of people in that tech world value walkability,” Quaid says.
Home prices in Venice will almost surely continue to rise, even relative to the rest of L.A.’s expensive market. The City Council recently approved the creation of a Business Improvement District, essentially a special business tax to fund cleanup and security guards in Venice. Dennison says the plan’s “stated goal is to raise property values, and it made a lot of promises to do so.”
One might ask, should we care? Does it matter that none of the employees in Venice (besides the tech sector) can afford it?
“It’s the most diverse coastal community in the United States,” says long-time Venice resident Judy Goldman. “If you care about a community being healthy, it needs to be diverse. If not, it will lose everything that makes it special. It will become Disneyland.”