Despite neighbor’s complaints, Chabad expansion approved by L.A. City Council

Chabad of North Hollywood, an Orthodox congregation in Sherman Oaks whose expansion project set off a four-year dispute with a group of neighbors unhappy about the proposed new building’s size, returned to the Los Angeles City Council on June 27 for a second time to seek approval for the plans for their now partially built 12,000-square-foot new home.

The council’s unanimous vote appeared to mark the end of the protracted battle between neighbors supporting Chabad’s proposed expansion of its home on West Chandler Boulevard and those who objected to the building, first approved by the City Council in June 2009, saying it was too large for its lot.

The objectors sued the city and eventually prevailed in a California Court of Appeals, which ordered the council in August 2011 to set aside its initial approval. The council then sent the matter back to the Planning and Land Use Management committee (PLUM), which held a well-attended, hour-long hearing on June 26.

At that hearing, neighbors opposing the project argued that the building would change the character of their neighborhood. Chabad supporters, who significantly outnumbered the opponents at PLUM, urged the two members of the committee present to allow Chabad to continue its expansion, saying their 31-year-old community had outgrown its previous building, that the new building would be an improvement to the neighborhood and that because they are Orthodox Jews who do not drive to synagogue, the project — which could accommodate up to 200 worshipers but would include only five on-site parking spaces — would not have a negative impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

After hearing from about a dozen people on both sides and a representative from Councilman Paul Koretz’s office, in whose district Chabad is located, PLUM sent the matter to the full City Council for a vote the following day, with a recommendation that Chabad’s request be approved.

At the June 28 City Council meeting, Koretz arranged for the matter to receive a second public hearing before the full council. After hearing many of the same arguments made one day earlier at PLUM, Koretz urged his colleagues to vote in Chabad’s favor, in part because the building is mostly already built.

After the votes were tallied, the few dozen Chabad supporters remaining in the council chamber applauded.

“If neighbors have any specific issues, other than that the project continue, they’re welcome to call us,” said Rabbi Aaron Abend, Chabad’s spiritual leader, just after the vote was taken. “We’re good neighbors.”

According to Abend, the building is about half-finished and should take another year to complete. The walls on the triangular patch of land already rise up to their full 28-foot height.

Jeff Gantman, one of two neighbors who led the opposition to the Chabad expansion, has consistently maintained that neither he nor the members of the group he leads is motivated by anti-Semitic or anti-Orthodox sentiments, nor are they opposed to Chabad’s presence in their neighborhood.

Most of the neighbors in his group, Gantman said, are themselves Jewish, and their primary objection has been to the way in which the 12,000-square-foot project was first approved by City Council. That approval, brought about in 2009 by then-Councilman Jack Weiss, overruled a decision made by an employee of the Department of City Planning in November 2008, who had approved a smaller, 10,300-square-foot project.

After the council vote, Gantman appeared resigned to the Chabad building, but maintained that the approval of the project had not been transparent, and said his group would be requesting a “thorough review” of the process.

“It’s really a question of the city, and the process, and has this been done correctly,” Gantman said. “That’s our issue. It’s boring, but that’s the issue.”

Conflicting Schools of Thought


You don’t have to go far to hear complaints about the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD), the city’s beleaguered public school system, nor very far to catch grumbling about Mayor James K. Hahn. But linking the two is a stretch for many, because Los Angeles’ mayor has no authority over the city’s schools — none at all.

Yet one challenger in particular, Bob Hertzberg, has made LAUSD the centerpiece of his campaign by pledging, somehow, to break up the nation’s second-largest school system. Politically, the strategy isn’t off the wall.

Education polls at the top of voter interest in Los Angeles, and, for that matter, it’s also a prime focus of the Jewish community. A 1997 study commissioned by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles found that 64 percent of the region’s school-age Jews attend public schools.

Hahn’s allegedly thin profile on education, therefore, could count a great deal on Election Day. But you won’t hear many complaints about Hahn from the L.A. Unified bureaucracy, which, to paraphrase Greta Garbo, mostly wants to be left alone. In that respect, Hahn has complied magnificently.

To be sure, city school officials could easily assemble a wish list for Hahn. They’d love the financial support that Santa Monica showers on its schools — more than $450 per student, plus additional taxes that sock property owners at $331 per parcel.

L.A. school officials also wouldn’t mind more help finding places to build classrooms and playgrounds — LAUSD is pushing to complete 159 new construction projects, including 79 entirely new schools, over the next six years.

More help fighting truancy — and preventing vandalism and other crimes near schools — would be nice. And then there’s the pernicious gang problem, which sometimes determines which children from a particular neighborhood can safely attend certain schools. It also leads to occasional campus brawls.

But many district officials would happily trade all the potential upsides for a mayor who keeps his distance. Educrats and unions prefer to call the shots themselves, even when the results displease parents and students.

That sort of stasis was upended when Richard Riordan served as mayor from 1993 to 2001. Drawing on the example of Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna, Riordan led campaigns that threw out four incumbent school board members. His handpicked school board majority unceremoniously dumped Supt. Ruben Zacarias and other top bureaucrats who’d spent entire careers rising to their positions.

Ask Hahn and he’ll dismiss the entire Riordan era as turmoil to no avail.

“Look, he made no impact,” said Hahn in an interview with The Journal. “The previous mayor spent a lot of time and effort raising money to rearrange the members of the school board. One of them, I think, still remains of the people that he elected to office.”

Hahn acknowledged schools’ importance, but also insists it’s not his role to manhandle L.A. Unified, saying, “I want to be a partner with the school district.”

As mayor, he performed a substantial and overlooked favor for Roy Romer, the current schools superintendent. He unflinchingly supported Romer’s ongoing desire to resurrect the Belmont Learning Complex project, which will likely go down as the nation’s most expensive high school, whether or not it opens.

Romer’s own school board has been squeamish about the safety of the Belmont site, an old oil field. But as Hahn pointed out, much of Los Angeles — not just the unfinished school — sits above old oil fields, so any hazards should be surmountable.

Mostly, Hahn’s education agenda has been to expand a city-led, after-school program through grants and private donations.

“I’m making an impact in thousands of kids’ lives every day by having an after-school program,” Hahn said. “They’re doing better in school. They’re getting better grades. They’re getting better attendance. And they’re staying out of trouble.”

Riordan partisans, in turn, counter that Riordan catalyzed more sweeping reforms. For one thing, it’s almost certain that former Colorado governor Romer would never have become superintendent, except for the chain of events that Riordan set in motion, despite the former mayor’s political missteps, philosophical inconsistencies and occasionally ham-handed meddling. Under Romer’s leadership, the district has made gains in academic achievement and pressed forward unrelentingly on the country’s largest school repair and construction effort.

But Romer doesn’t want a mayor telling him what to do any more than did Zacarias. Romer betrayed initial concern, in fact, when Riordan became Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appointed education secretary — when Riordan appeared ready to pry into L.A. Unified’s affairs again.

More recently, Romer got downright testy over Hertzberg’s platform in the mayor’s race. Hertzberg contends that LAUSD needs to be shattered into pieces because it’s just too large, too ineffective. Hertzberg, a former state Assembly speaker, cites an alarmingly high dropout rate — in the range of 50 percent — as all the justification he needs.

Romer, who’s in his 70s, doesn’t want the distraction of a complex and years-long breakup process when he’s already got a full agenda to accomplish before he leaves town. It includes his massive bond-funded construction program, which would be a challenge to divvy into pieces, especially if it means dismantling a school construction division that Romer spent several years putting together.

Of course, there’s plenty of middle ground between Hahn’s separation-of-powers approach and Hertzberg’s atomic bomb, and that’s about where Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, a third major contender in next week’s primary, tries to position himself. Villaraigosa, a former union organizer, has the backing of the vocal and powerful teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).

Riordan openly opposed UTLA’s influence over school board elections. For his part, Villaraigosa appreciates UTLA’s support, while also wanting to avoid the label of union partisan.

Riordan backed Villaraigosa’s unsuccessful bid for mayor against Hahn in 2001. This time around, Riordan’s supporting Hertzberg, who didn’t run in 2001.

In the state Legislature, both Hertzberg and Villaraigosa, another former Assembly speaker, pushed successfully for school construction funds and made education central to their profiles as lawmakers.

More recently, Villaraigosa, in his brief tenure as an Eastside councilman, has helped clear the bureaucratic path for the opening of a well-regarded charter school. He’s also participated in planning a new high school whose development could incorporate public park space, neighborhood child care, new housing and a transit station.

Hertzberg also fully embraces such efforts to make new schools into centers of community service and neighborhood revitalization.

Such aggressive collaboration may be logical and sensible, but it’s not a political given. It’s been more typical for council members — and sometimes mayors — to treat the school district as an alien force to be thwarted as a competitor for land and resources.

Mayor Tom Bradley, for all his accomplishments, opposed building a school at the Ambassador Hotel site, siding with commercial developers. Hahn, as well as his challengers, accepts that the health of the city politic is married to that of the city’s schools.

But Hahn also insists that Hertzberg won’t — can’t — accomplish district breakup — end of story.

Hahn may be correct. Yet the right leader at the right time can mightily influence events for better or worse. Romer, for one, is politically shrewd enough to understand that, as do district officials who remember when Riordan was mayor.


Israel & e-Urban Legends

Is Fuji Photo Film U.S.A., Inc. doctoring maps of Israel in its promotional material in order to woo Arab customers?

That’s what the latest *urgent* message being passed around on the Internet alleges.

But like many Web campaigns, this hysterical report is false — and Jewish organizations are coming to the aid of Fuji and Sony, another company erroneously accused of the same crime.

This is not the first false information being disseminated on the Web, especially when it comes to Israel and the Jews. Previous e-mail "urban legends" have claimed that Wal-Mart stores were selling globes with Israel labeled "Palestine" and that the Sprint long-distance service was billing Israel calls as "Palestine."

The Wal-Mart claim was wrong, while Sprint said international standards obligated it to designate calls to the 970 country code as being to the Palestinian Authority, which it had inadvertently abbreviated to "Palestine."

This latest anonymous e-mail reads: "Fuji Co. removed Israel from its complimentary world map which is distributed to their customers with a purchase…. Yes, in Fuji stores abroad you receive the world map without Israel!!!"

Later in the e-mail it tells people "Subaru is Fuji." In fact, Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. is the parent company of Subaru of America, Inc. Though it shares the same common Japanese name, the company is unrelated to the film manufacturer.

Fujifilm has received more than 500 e-mail complaints on the issue in the last few days. Its representatives say a third-party wholesaler in the Ivory Coast produced and distributed — without permission — a calendar bearing the Fuji logo that excluded Israel.

"Apparently this third-party wholesaler created a calendar with a map, and put our logo on the map," Fuji spokesman Tom Shay said. "They did not have permission to use our logo."

Officials at several Jewish organizations have been besieged with complaints from people upset over the Fujifilm rumors.

The Anti-Defamation League listed Fuji’s response on its Web site. Because of the call volume, even the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, which normally deals with media issues, was forced to circulate an e-mail with the Fuji and Subaru responses to the incident.

Shay said Fujifilm has not decided whether it should be more proactive in fighting the rumor.

"We are really watching it very closely," he said. "We certainly don’t want to add to the issue if it is going to resolve itself over the next few days." — Matthew E. Berger, Jewish Telegraphic Agency