Jew vs. Jew in dispute over Chabad of North Hollywood expansion

How big is too big for a synagogue in a residential neighborhood?

That’s the question at the heart of complaints by some neighbors, including some Jewish ones, about the new home for Chabad of North Hollywood, which is under construction on a corner of West Chandler Boulevard near Valley College, in Sherman Oaks. The new building, which could accommodate up to 200 worshippers, is about eight times the size of the synagogue’s former home, which occupied the same site.

This dispute has been going on for four years, since the project was first announced in 2008, but is about to get a new airing at the Los Angeles Planning and Land Use Management Committee on Tuesday, June 26. For the 12,000-square-foot structure, whose exterior walls already rise two stories – about 28 feet—above ground, Chabad of North Hollywood was granted a conditional use permit by the Los Angeles City Council in 2009, as well as a variance allowing for just five onsite parking spaces.

That decision rankled a group of neighbors opposing the project, and they took the matter to California Superior Court, which in 2010 ruled against them. In August 2011, the California Court of Appeal reversed that decision and ordered the Los Angeles City Council to set aside its initial approval. Which is what brings the matter now to the city council’s planning committee.

What will happen at that hearing is far from certain, however.

“To me this is what we call a ‘fix-it’ case,” said Benjamin M. Reznik, the prominent land-use attorney who is representing the Chabad group. Reznik has submitted materials, officially known as “findings,” to the committee that he said will allow the city to both approve the project for a second time and comply with the court’s order. 

“The court never said you can’t approve this project,” Reznik said.

The eight pages worth of findings submitted by Reznik to the committee members on June 21, allege that the Department of City Planning’s zoning administrator “erred” and “abused her discretion” in multiple ways when she approved a smaller version of the project in November 2008.

If the three-member committee adopts those findings, the project would then come before the full L.A. City Council for approval, which could happen as early as June 27.

That outcome, however, would be unlikely to satisfy Jeff Gantman, who lives near the Chabad Synagogue and is one of the leaders of the West Chandler Boulevard Neighborhood Association, the group opposing the expansion.

Gantman, who is Jewish, emphasized in an interview that he is neither opposed to Chabad’s presence in the neighborhood, nor to the group’s desire to expand.

“They’ve been here for 30 years,” Gantman said. “They were here when I bought this house.”

But along with the building’s size—Gantman called it “a blemish on an otherwise residential neighborhood” – his frustration is focused on the L.A. City Council members who approved the 12,000 square-foot project in 2009, despite an earlier ruling by the Department of City Planning that said it should not exceed 10,300 square feet.

“We didn’t sue Chabad,” Gantman said. “We sued the city. They’re enabling Chabad to do what they do.”

The triangular building site, which was so quiet on a recent morning that birds could be heard chirping from the tall trees nearby, is bounded by two well-trafficked thoroughfares—Chandler Boulevard to the south and the Orange Line Busway to the north. The aluminum framing of the building’s second story rises to about twice the height of the sound-blocking wall separating it from the busway.

That’s also about twice as high as most of the nearby houses on streets off Chandler, west of the synagogue. Most of the houses on Chandler also have significant open space on their sites, and many of the private driveways appeared large enough to fit two cars. Only a few cars were parked on the street.

That the city demanded only minimal parking on the site is a point of contention between the supporters and opponents of the Chabad expansion project.

Rabbi Aaron Abend, the leader of Chabad of North Hollywood, said in an email that the synagogue regularly attracts about 150 congregants to Saturday morning services, which currently are being held in temporary structures located on the site during construction, and said that 95 percent of those who attend would describe themselves as Orthodox. In addition to prayer services, Chabad of North Hollywood offers adult education classes and youth programming, including a once-a-week Hebrew school program that currently enrolls 35 elementary school-aged students.

In an article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on June 18 outlining the current status of the dispute, Reznik said that because the building’s users are Orthodox, the small number of on-site parking spaces was not an issue.

“Right adjacent to this synagogue, about 15 cars can park, just on its side of the street. That’s not an impact on the neighborhood,” Reznik told The Journal. An additional 12 cars will be able to park on an adjacent site, by arrangement with the MTA, Reznik said.

“To say to people that the project won’t have any impact on the surrounding neighborhood, it’s not being honest,” Gantman said.

But behind disputes about issues like parking allotments and zoning regulations are sentiments that suggest this might be a case of less religious Jews objecting to the growing presence of Orthodox Jews in their neighborhood. In an October 2011 article from the Los Angeles Daily News, reporter Dakota Smith wrote that Chabad supporters believe their Jewish opponents are motivated by “fear that Orthodox families ‘will become the majority’ in the neighborhood.”

Gantman, who described himself as a “proud Jew,” denied that anti-Semitic or anti-Orthodox sentiments are driving his group. He said that “three-quarters or more” of the members are themselves Jewish. Responding to questions in an email, Abend declined to engage in any speculation about what motivates the opponents of the expansion.

“There are a handful of people who have vocally opposed the project since its inception; it would be inappropriate for me to speculate as to what their motives are,” Abend wrote.

Further complicating this matter is the fact that it was former Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss who helped pave the way for the project to go forward in its current larger form on June 19, 2009,  less than two weeks before he left office.

According to Gantman, Weiss presented his proposal to the council as a compromise, but, Gantman said Weiss did not meet with the neighborhood group in advance. According to an article that appeared in the Times on June 9, 2009, the city council considered a large number of high-profile projects in Weiss’s district just before his departure.

Weiss could not be reached by the Journal for comment. He also declined to comment for the Times’ recent article about the Chabad dispute.

A deputy for Councilman Paul Koretz, who succeeded Weiss to represent the fifth council district in 2009, called the situation at Chabad of North Hollywood a “mess.” His deputy told the Times that “at this point, the best Koretz can do is allow neighbors to air their grievances — something that didn’t happen the first time around.”

With the Los Angeles City Council’s approval of new district lines on June 20, responsibility for the site of this conflict is set to change again. When the new district lines take effect on July 1, the Chabad of North Hollywood will be located in Council District 4, currently represented by Tom LaBonge.