Kosher Condos Take Aim at Orthodox

Driving through Pico-Robertson, real estate developer George Saadin smiles as he points out kosher markets filled with shoppers, Judaica shops, shuls and dozens of kosher restaurants — veritable signs of the Jewish renaissance taking place now in the neighborhood.

The area, he said, had nearly everything that the growing number of observant Jews could want, save for one glaring exception: kosher housing. Saadin hopes to change that.

Saadin, 42, is nearing completion on a 16-unit condominium project on Cashio Street that targets traditional Jews. The kosher condos, believed to be the largest and among the first such developments in the Southland, will each feature two dishwashers, two separate counters and two sinks to allow religious Jews to cook and clean dairy and meat products separately. The units will also have programmable timers to automatically turn lights off and on during Shabbat and a netila station — a sink for ritual handwashing.

"I’m trying to fulfill the needs of our people, who are looking for something like this," said Saadin, a member of the Executive Committee of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The development is open to non-Jews, he said. "I wanted to do something different from what everybody else in the area, because you get [top] dollar for doing something unique."

At starting prices of at least $600,000, the two- to three-bedroom condominiums won’t come cheap. However, Saadin expects them to generate lots of interest because of their inherent appeal to observant Jews and their relatively large size in a neighborhood teeming with older, smaller apartment buildings.

Kosher condos "make living our lifestyle so much easier, so much simpler. There’s definitely a demand," said Rabbi Yitzchok Sommer of Anshe Emes on Robertson Boulevard. "If you’re Orthodox, you want to live within walking distance of a shul, within walking distance of a mikvah [ritual bath], bakeries and a school for your kids that you don’t have to schlep to."

But the Pico-Robertson development may prove a tough sell. That’s because many experts predict the housing market will slow in coming months if interest rates rise as expected. That could force Saadin to roll back prices to fill his building.

To be sure, individual homeowners in Los Angeles and elsewhere have customized their kitchens at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars to make them kosher. However, only a handful of developers across the nation have tailored large projects for a Jewish clientele.

Saadin’s $5-million project, slated for completion by early October, is believed to be the second major kosher housing development in Southern California in the past two decades. In 1987, some members of the Orthodox Pacific Jewish Center in Venice invested upward of $300,000 a piece for a kosher housing development near Lincoln Boulevard. Elsewhere, kosher housing units have appeared in religious neighborhoods in Israel, New York and Florida.

However, religious Jews have occasionally shown little appetite for kosher housing. For instance, two condominium projects near Boca Raton, Fla., which were to include kosher kitchens and onsite temples, were scrapped due to a lack of interest.

Others’ failures don’t frighten Saadin. Before deciding to go kosher, he said he and his listing agent, Yaron Hassid, canvassed area residents and rabbis to gauge interest in such a project.

The positive response so overwhelmed Saadin that not only did he decide to build the condominiums on Cashio, but he also acquired three nearby properties for 32 future kosher units. He said he expected to break ground on all the projects within the next 12 months and to complete a 16-unit building on Shenandoah Street by the end of 2005.

During his 16 years in real estate, Saadin said he has mostly had success. He has built 10 apartment complexes and renovated 18 others. Still, Saadin has firsthand knowledge about the riskiness of speculative real-estate ventures. In the early 1990s, a bank foreclosed on two of his apartments near USC when the market bottomed out, he said.

Going forward, listing agent Hassid, director of new condominium sales at Coldwell Banker, said he expected word of mouth to largely sell the kosher condos. "Just by going to the rabbis, we’ve already started to get the word out," he said.

Jews began settling in Pico-Robertson en masse in the 1950s with the opening of several Orthodox shuls, demographer Pini Herman said. Many spent just a few years in the area before moving on to more upscale neighborhoods like Beverly Hills, he said.

In the 1970s and 1980s, some Pico-Robertson Jews sold their homes during an era of "white flight." Recently, Orthodox Jews have returned to the area, which boasts cheaper housing than the Westside and an increasing number of businesses catering to them. This time, he said, they might stay permanently.

"With relatively plain houses going for a million dollars in Southern California, Pico-Robertson is going to become a final destination for Jews," Herman said.