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The fight over the First Baptist Church of Venice

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Variety owner Jay Penske wants to make a home for his family out of the church, long a fixture in Oakwood’s black community

Jay Penske wants to convert the church into a residential compound with a rooftop deck, attached four-car garage, and three residential lots.
By Jennifer Swann

Nearly everyone gathered outside the boarded-up First Baptist Church of Venice has grown up in the surrounding Oakwood neighborhood. It’s a Saturday afternoon and many of the people gathered for a rally to save the church can point to their childhood homes just down the street or proudly rattle off the numbers of their first addresses.

Even if they never attended services at the church on the corner of Westminster and Seventh Avenue, less than a mile from the Venice Boardwalk, most have a family connection to it.

Laddie Williams says her grandfather and his son poured the concrete on the front steps and her grandmother cooked meals for people on the streets around it. Jataun Valentine says her great uncle, who worked for Venice developer Abbot Kinney and was later willed Kinney’s first home at a time when racial covenants restricted where black people could live, was a pioneer of the church in the early 20th century; her cousin was later a pastor there. Oscar Rhone, a third-generation member who got married in the church, says his grandmother loaned the pastor the deed to her house to help pay off the property.

“We went to a drug church,” says Dennis Moore, joking. He’s a Vietnam vet who was recruited to the church’s junior boys’ choir as a kid on the basketball court and now serves as assistant pastor at True Missionary Ever-Faithful Baptist Church in South LA. “You see, my mother, my grandmother, she drugged me here every Sunday.”

The church has been an anchor of the black community since 1910, when it was built in Santa Monica (it was relocated to Venice two years later). But it may soon disappear, another casualty of the gentrification that has rapidly changed Venice from a formerly working-class beach community of color to an elite enclave for millionaires and tech companies.

Jataun Valentine’s great uncle was a pioneer of the church in the early 20th century.
The church was built in Santa Monica in 1910. It was relocated to Venice two years later and was rebuilt in the ’60s.

In February, the church, which was rebuilt on a former boat yard in 1968 after outgrowing its circa-1928 building across the street, sold for $6.3 million to a private holding company named after the property’s address, county records show.

In August, the Venice Neighborhood Council backed the new owner’s plan to remodel the church and turn it into to a single family home designed by Venice-based DU Architects. The firm’s work tends to be sleek and modern, a stark contrast to the church’s A-frame and stonework facade.

The applicant for the project is identified in planning documents as Jay Penske, the media mogul whose eponymous company owns Variety, Deadline, and a number of other entertainment-focused publications.

Penske and his wife Elaine Irwin, a former model for Victoria’s Secret and Calvin Klein, plan to live on the property, according to Robert Thibodeau, an architect with DU Architects.

“Jay and Elaine were looking for a suitable site, you know, they’re obviously moneyed people, a suitable site for living with a fairly large property,” says Thibodeau. “This was attractive to them because of the ability to have the outdoor space where the parking lot is and turn that into a garden and have a fairly significant building already built there.”

The project, which still needs approval from the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, proposes converting the two-story, 12,311-square-foot church into a home with a rooftop deck, attached four-car garage, and three residential lots, two of which would be developed around the existing structure.

“The strategy was to convert the existing building into a residence and that was viewed as sort of the least impactful solution to this site,” says Thibodeau, who insists he has no plans to knock down the building. “Basically, [we’re going to] keep the form of the building and work around that to keep the residence they’re going to raise their kid in.”

But to many people who live in the community, the plan to redevelop the church into a single-family home simply makes no sense. “I don’t know why they want to take away something that’s on sacred ground. I don’t know why they want to destroy something that God has planted here,” says Ronnie Brock, who grew up in the church. “You don't destroy what God has put in place.”

Making the matter more complicated, the church property is tangled up in a bitter, two-year legal dispute over whether the church’s then pastor, Horace Allen, had the authority to sell it in the first place. (Allen has since moved his congregation to Westchester, where he still serves as pastor for an organization of nearly the same name: First Baptist Church of Venice Worship Center.)

The lawsuit, filed in December 2015, just days after Allen held a church meeting to approve selling both the structure and the land, alleges that that meeting was both unofficial and impromptu and did not allow the church membership to vote on it.

Plaintiffs Herman Clay, a trustee and deacon, and Sharon Moore-Chappell, a staff minister, accuse Allen of obtaining loans using the equity of the church property and using the proceeds to fund his own personal expenses. They claim that $3.5 million of the church’s money is still unaccounted for.

Allen declined to comment through an email from his attorney, Steve Cameron.

Cameron denies these allegations, insisting that the sale was conducted properly and with full authorization of the church. He called the plaintiffs’ claims false and “outrageous,” writing in an email that the church congregants “have demonized Bishop Allen” without evidence.

“The disgruntled members are understandably upset because ‘their’ Church will become a residence,” Cameron wrote. “They chose to sue rather than go along with the new vision for the Church, a vision shared by a majority of the members.”

The case went to trial last summer, but in a hearing on Friday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rafael A. Ongkeko said he had not yet made a decision on the underlying issues in the case. He said there were gaps in the church’s financial records and that without having all of the receipts, he couldn’t be confident that Allen had not stolen money from the church. The trial is set to reopen in February.

Thibodeau says the property had been on the market for more than two years before Penske bought it, and that he’d previously looked at it with several other developers who had wanted to build multiple apartments on the land.

“I think that people were afraid of the purchase, possibly because of the lawsuits over the move, so they shied away from it, and it also was not priced inexpensively,” he says. “I know that the suits have indicated clear title, that things were done properly, and so far things are moving forward because the bishop and them I think followed procedure is my understanding.”

While the lawsuit stalls in court, members of the community worry about what may happen to the beloved property in the meantime. They’re not sitting around waiting on the trial to decide its fate. The rally on Saturday, which drew a crowd of several dozen, was organized as part of the Save Venice campaign, a larger effort to halt new development and advocate against the displacement of low-income tenants.

“My heart and soul is here,” says Naomi Nightingale, a longtime Venice resident who helped spearhead the rally. “We’re working and talking and supporting the fact that this church should not be demolished. We are here to say it ain’t over until it’s over, and we’re not going to quit.”

One of the goals of the campaign, aside from raising awareness about the church’s history and significance, is to nominate it as a Historic-Cultural monument, which would delay—and maybe even halt—its demolition. The nomination is about the congregation and its cultural significance, and not necessarily the building itself. It was relocated to Venice in 1912, reopened in Westminster Avenue in 1928, then rebuilt again at is present location in 1968.

They’re calling on 11th District Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin to lend his support for the cause. During a Love Not Hate anti-racism rally in Venice in August, Bonin framed the property battle as one that’s significant to the black community.

“I am looking in the mirror and I am looking at the white privilege that I benefit from, and looking at what we can do to dismantle systemic racism here in Los Angeles and in our society,” he said while speaking at the rally. “So yes, I will do what I can to help save that church.”

But members of the Save Venice campaign say they haven’t heard a word from Bonin since. David Graham-Caso, a spokesperson for Bonin’s office, tells Curbed in an email that the councilmember “has been working to connect the organizers of the Love Not Hate Rally with the developer proposing a project on the site to see if there is something they can agree on that will recognize the historical significance of the church.” Graham-Caso did not respond to a follow-up question about Bonin’s timeline or plan for connecting activists and developers.

To Nightingale, the church is more than just a piece of land. It’s a symbol of the community she now fears developers may erase from the neighborhood.

“When we think about the loss of our legacy, we think about the loss of our history, we think of what it is we don’t see anymore,” she says, standing in front of the church’s boarded-up doors. “And if you don’t see it anymore, you soon forget that it was even there. You pass by certain places and you see an empty space and you say, ‘What used to be there?’”