Chabad finds possible solution to land-use problem in Pacific Palisades


Two weeks ago, Rabbi Zushe Cunin, head of Chabad of Pacific Palisades, believed he would be facing a protracted and difficult battle before he might hear the joyous voices of youngsters playing at Chabad’s new location for Palisades Jewish Early Childhood Center in Pacific Palisades.

Since April, homeowners surrounding the school’s proposed new site, as well as officials of the nearby Getty Villa and the Mormon Church, have expressed strong opposition to the relocation to a leased vacant building off Los Liones Drive. The building sits on private property located below a ridge of expensive homes in the Castellammare Mesa area, adjacent to a Getty Villa service road and to property owned by the Mormon Church.

These opponents have voiced concerns about noise, safety and traffic. But more problematic — and a possible showstopper — they claim Chabad does not have the right to access the building via the Getty’s private service road, the church’s property or the hillside backyard of the building’s owner, off Bellino Drive.

But the recent discovery of a long-overlooked legal document could substantially alter the situation, potentially allowing for a public street to be constructed that would lead directly to the entrance of the proposed site.

“It’s major,” said Cunin, explaining that the public street would cross part of the Getty’s private road as well as portions of the Mormon Church’s parking lot. Chabad is preparing to have the area formally surveyed.

The document, “an irrevocable offer to dedicate,” which was recorded on Jan. 4, 1973, was uncovered during a preliminary title search on the Mormon Church property by David Lacy, founder of Senior Realty Advisors of Covina and himself a Mormon, who has been an adviser to Chabad for its real estate acquisitions for more than a decade.

The document designates a strip of land 25 feet long with variable widths that ends, according to Lacy, at the entrance to the 3,000 square-foot vacant building at the foot of a steep 1.64-acre hillside property belonging to longtime resident Gene Gladden. Chabad is renting this building from Gladden, having signed a three-year lease with a 20-year option last January.

Additionally, the 25-foot easement is shown crossing both the Getty Road and the Mormon property and is shown on a parcel map dated Jan. 19, 1973, which Lacy also found.

The controversy arose after Chabad of Pacific Palisades was forced to find a new preschool location when it received notice that the lease on the current Temescal Gateway Park site would end in June 2008. Cunin was making preliminary preparations on what he believed was the ideal new site for the preschool’s nature-based curriculum when, in early April, he received a letter from Getty Trust attorney Lori Fox denying Chabad access to the building via the Getty Villa’s private service road.

Additionally, members of the 141-family Castellamare Mesa Home Owners Association protested Chabad’s right to enter the property through Gladden’s hillside backyard off Bellino Drive. The Mormon Church also denied a request from Chabad to approach the building through its parking lot, which abuts Gladden’s property. Church officials cited inconvenience for its members as well as potential liability,

Cunin, along with real estate adviser Lacy, believes the potential public street could resolve the thorny access issue. But others, including Chabad’s attorney, Benjamin Reznik, a partner at Jeffer, Mangels, Butler and Marmaro, expressed caution.

“It is still being investigated,” Reznik said. “We have to look at it ourselves.”

Additionally, Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who has been meeting with the involved parties, said, “The city will obviously do its own research,” stating that it’s the city’s role to determine the validity of the claim.

For the Getty, according to Julie Jaskol, the Getty’s assistant director of media relations, the potential public roadway is a nonissue.

“It’s not actually an easement,” she said. “It’s an offer to dedicate that has been standing for 30-some years and that only covers part of the road.”

The history of this potential public street is complicated. According to Chabad adviser Lacy, it can be traced back to 1932, when the then-property owner, whose name is not known, placed certain easements on property owned in that area, providing for roadways, sanitation and utilities for possible future subdivision and development.

The easements were still in place when the consequent property owner, Garden Land Investment Corp., whom Lacy believes may have acquired the land in the 1950s, sold a three-acre parcel to the Mormon Church in 1970. As part of its conditional-use permit to construct the building, the Mormon Church agreed in the document, signed Jan. 4, 1973, to “an irrevocable offer to dedicate” to the city of Los Angeles an easement for public street purposes, should it ever be required.

The Mormon Church does not want to lose any more land, according to Keith Atkinson, West Coast spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Atkinson, who said he only recently learned about the 25-foot easement, claimed that if the public road were implemented, the church would lose up to 10 spaces in its parking lot, for which he believes the church must be compensated.

Over the years, the Mormon Church has granted two easements to the Getty Trust to use its land for a private roadway. Atkinson believes one was granted in the 1970s, for use by emergency vehicles. The other was granted in January 2001, when the Getty Villa was undergoing an extensive expansion and renovation. Atkinson said he believes Getty officials told Mormon Church representatives at that time that the construction of the paved and widened private road would make the city of Los Angeles less likely to request the full easement for the public street.

While many people question the feasibility of the city of Los Angeles financing a public street in that area, Lacy believes there are several good reasons that this might occur. For one, a public street, as opposed to the Getty Villa’s private service road, would offer additional street parking for visitors to Topanga State Park, located across the street from the Mormon Church. It would also improve access for fire trucks and other emergency vehicles in the area.

“It provides for cleaner use of the property,” Lacy said.

Chabad, Getty and neighbors square off over Palisades school plan


Rabbi Zushe Cunin, head of Chabad of Pacific Palisades for 16 years, is accustomed to “overcoming and embracing all challenges,” he said. But the uproar surrounding his plans to relocate Chabad’s Palisades Jewish Early Childhood Center to a vacant building off Los Liones Drive — in a canyon below an affluent Pacific Palisades neighborhood and off a service road leading to the Getty Villa — has surprised him.

In support of the school’s nature-based curriculum, Cunin, 38, believed he had found an ideal new location when he came upon an empty 3,000-square-foot former storage facility at the base of a hillside property. He tracked down the owner, longtime Pacific Palisades resident Gene Gladden, who agreed to lease the property to Chabad.


Cunin (photo) was making preparations to turn the site into a preschool, planning to open in September, when an attorney from the J. Paul Getty Trust sent a letter denying Chabad’s right to access the property via the Getty Villa’s service road.

Around the same time, members of the neighboring Castellammare Mesa Home Owners Association, which has 141 member families, began a flurry of e-mails and telephone exchanges questioning Chabad’s right to access the property alternatively through Gladden’s backyard off Bellino Drive and also raising concerns about other safety and noise issues.

Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl has become involved, as has the Palisades Mormon Church, to which Cunin turned with a request for access through the church’s parking lot.

This might seem just an ordinary land-use dispute with, on one side, a preschool hoping to operate in a residential area — which can be allowed with a conditional-use permit — and on the other objections from neighbors who don’t want increased noise and congestion. But there is a history of high-profile, contentious disputes in this neighborhood: The Getty weathered its own heated and drawn-out legal battle with local Pacific Palisades homeowner associations, which began in 1997 when it announced plans for an extensive renovation and expansion of the Getty Villa. The clash centered on plans for a outdoor amphitheater. The much-delayed opening of the Getty Villa didn’t happen until January 2006, following years of negotiation with neighborhood associations.

Enter Chabad, an organization whose name is a Hebrew acronym meaning wisdom, understanding and knowledge, and which, as part of Chabad-Lubavitch is one of the largest sects of Orthodox Judaism worldwide. Known for its evangelical outreach and zeal, Chabad has its own history of controversy in many circles.

Rabbi Cunin had been successfully operating Palisades Jewish Early Childhood Center in various locations in Temescal Gateway Park without conflict since the preschool was founded in 2000. The school enrolls approximately 50 children, ages 2 to 5, who, Cunin said, come primarily from Pacific Palisades and other Westside locations and from all levels of religious observance.

Last year the Santa Monica Conservancy, which oversees the park, voted to end the lease of the Chabad preschool as well as that of the private Little Dolphins preschool, ruling that public park area should no longer be walled off for private endeavors.

On Jan. 29, 2008, Cunin signed a three-year lease with a 20-year option on the building owned by Gladden, which sits near the service entrance to the Getty Villa, next door to the Mormon Church and across the road from Topanga State Park. Cunin began making some of the necessary renovations to the property.


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Everything went smoothly until April 2, when Getty Trust attorney Lori Fox informed Cunin that Chabad does not have the right to approach the building via a private Getty service road — which Chabad disputes. As a result, Cunin said, Chabad officials, teachers and workmen began accessing the property through Gladden’s driveway off Bellino Drive and down a steep stairway in Gladden’s backyard.

Neighbors became aware of the activity, as well as of the building, which was newly painted inside and staged with small tables and chairs. An outdoor area now sported playground equipment to enable prospective parents and state inspectors to better visualize the future preschool. Cunin believes that many residents assumed, erroneously, the preschool was already open for business.

Homeowners began an exchange of e-mails, and one homeowner, whose child had attended the school, contacted Cunin to clarify the school’s status. He assured her that he didn’t plan to use Gladden’s home as access for the school. She shared this information with the other neighbors.

Chabad’s attorney Benjamin Reznik, a partner at Jeffer, Mangels, Butler and Marmaro, argues that the preschool location is “brilliant.”

“It’s a building that’s safe and appropriate. It’s got a nice, flat garden around for the kids to play outdoors, and it’s got nice access: The parents can drive right up,” Reznik said.

The Getty, however, sees the site differently. Getty attorney Fox sent a memorandum to area homeowner associations on May 9 summarizing the Getty’s communications with Chabad and objections to the location.

“We have serious concerns about the proposed use of both the warehouse and access via our service road,” Fox stated in the memo, emphasizing safety concerns for the children.

The dispute over use of the service road is not surprising, given its complicated history.

Access along the service road to the Getty guard booth, which sits just above the driveway to the Gladden building, uses an easement granted by the Mormon Church, which bought its three-acre property in 1970 from a private developer, according to David Lacy, who founded Senior Realty Advisors of Covina, and who has assisted Chabad in property acquisitions for more than a decade. It was originally a dirt road, which the Getty paved and later widened, as required for its renovation.

But Gladden was granted the necessary permits in 1981, he said, to construct a building on the lower part of his property for recreation and storage. He also received permission from the Getty to access the building via the service road. Gladden subsequently rented the building to the Getty for 25 years for storage purposes, a lease which ended approximately six months ago, according to Gladden.

Because Gladden has been allowed access to his building for the last 26 years and because the Getty has never revoked that right, Lacy believes that Gladden as well as Chabad, as his representatives, “has a legal right to a prescriptive easement” on that property.

Holy Moses — The Getty’s latest collection puts a Christian perspective on the leader, lawgiver and


A few years ago I was leading a group of American Jews on a tour of sites in Eastern Europe. Convinced that the narrative and psychological history of Poland cannot be understood without a visit to Jasna Gora, the great pilgrimage church in Czestochowa, and a view of its devotional painting, the so-called Black Madonna (believed to have been painted by St. Luke), I brought the tour group there en route to Auschwitz. To my disappointment, many in the group were puzzled, some even amused, at the crowds of people intensely venerating the small painting.

“Jews don’t do that sort of thing,” they said. When I asked how many of them had placed a small slip of paper in the crevices of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, they assured me “That’s different!” and rejected my argument that we have our own kinds of object veneration, best exemplified in the ceremonial kissing of the Torah as it is carried around the synagogue.

The Getty Center’s upcoming exhibition “Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai” (Nov. 14-March 4) provides a great opportunity to ponder these religious confluences, while also coming almost face-to-face with some of the earliest, and most beautiful, images in Christian art. Mount Sinai resonates for Jews as the place where Moses received the Law from God. The wilderness of Sinai is the place where the Israelites wandered after their escape from Egypt. The images come to the Getty from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, located at the foot of the rugged mountain, which is said to where Moses communicated with the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-5). But viewers might be surprised to see that the Moses images in some of these extraordinary works aren’t the ones we’re accustomed to seeing.

The exhibition includes images from both the “New” and “Old Testament,” but it is the link between the former and the site from which they emanate that may be most interesting to the Jewish community. It’s a major accomplishment for the J. Paul Getty Museum to have persuaded the religious powers in charge to lend treasures from this venerable, yet almost inaccessible, site; but it’s also a coup for Angelenos, since the exhibition will not be seen elsewhere, and few of us are likely to have the opportunity to visit the monastery itself.

But this is more than an opportunity to ogle rare treasures. Indeed, they come to us with a visual tradition of their own, and need to be understood within that tradition. Byzantine art, with its vast time span, from the fifth century almost to the modern era, is generally characterized by stylized frontal figures and a rich use of color, especially gold. It doesn’t look like the more naturalistic art we have come to know since the Renaissance, although visitors will recognize in these icons the underpinnings of much early Italian panel painting. Initially, the somber narrative images may look static, but they merit careful attention to uncover the magic of delicately doleful faces, almost every one with a unique personality, sharing in a piety to which we can only aspire.

As devotional objects, the icons are eloquent, and it’s probably worthwhile imagining the pious monk communicating with these images on a daily basis. They must surely have become personal devotional friends, assistants on the route toward salvation. Seen as mantras for meditation exercises, these icons have a universal quality that goes far beyond the specificity of a given saint or religious narrative.

While the Getty exhibition centers on approximately 43 rare icons, from the sixth to the 17th centuries, the exhibition will also attempt to explicate their context in the isolated monastery whose construction was ordered by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century (he’s the one who built the famous, and beautifully ornate, Byzantine church, Hagia Sofia in what is now Istanbul).

Yale professor Robert S. Nelson led a team of curators who obviously became as transfixed by the place as by the works they were borrowing, attempting to present in the exhibition design a sense of the environment in which Saint Catherine’s sits. For those who want to contemplate the difficulties of land and climate endured by the wandering Israelites, that aspect of this exhibition should be an added incentive to visit the Getty.

Yet the concept of a 1,400-year-old monastery as a Christian pilgrimage site that is so intimately tied to Jewish history would likely be a seductive subject, even without the inspirational art. The show will explicate the role of icons in Christian liturgy, which ought to intrigue both Christians and non-Christians. As professor Thomas Matthews writes in the splendid catalog, the icons “bring us face to face with the deep debt of Christian religion to its pagan antecedents … [and] challenge our understanding of the underlying religious phenomena.”

That will surely be evident to Jewish viewers, as well, for the affinity of so many of our own rituals.

Given the Sinai origins of this exhibition, you won’t be surprised to find a number of images of Moses: Removing his sandals in front of the Burning Bush, receiving the Law and even standing beside the Virgin and Child. You won’t encounter the Moses we’ve seen in later Western art, who’s also the venerable law-giver we know from Jewish ceremonial objects — all of which have their origins in Christian art. Here Moses is a young man, generally beardless, almost diffident, in awe of his God, rather than awesome to his People. This might be a reflection of the monks’ considering Moses as a role model in their lives of meditation and prayer — a Moses striving for, rather than automatically imbued with, sanctity; he is the law-receiver, rather than the law-giver. Among the small number of non-icon artifacts in the exhibition is a sixth century cross incised with scenes from the life of Moses.

Remarkably, these icons were first published only in the 1950s, so this rare public display promises to expand our understanding of an important chapter of art history, especially in regard to European panel painting for which these paintings are important antecedents. The earliest ones have also provided new insights into the cult of icons and the religious sensibilities underlying this major aspect of Christian worship, as well as its debt to earlier pagan sources.

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday
22

Polka gets dotty at the Getty this evening with the last installment of the center’s Summer Sessions series. “21st Century Roots” offers “roots music for the new millennium,” in the form of three groups: Brave Combo, a polka ensemble that mixes music from Mexico, Germany and Japan; Golem, an edgy klezmer rock band; and moira smiley & VOCO, a band that mixes the dance songs of Eastern Europe with Appalachian tunes. International folk dance lessons are also offered.

5:45 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. (dance lessons). 6:30 p.m. (first music set). Free. Getty Center South Courtyard, Courtyard Stage and Garden Terrace, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-7300.

Sunday
23

Can’t get enough of the man in tights? Head to the Museum of Television and Radio to see Superman as he appeared — in his many forms — on the small screen. For one final week the museum presents a selection of TV shows, including the 1950s “Adventures of Superman”; the steamier 1990s Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher affair, “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”; today’s Superman for the teen and tween set, “Smallville”; the animated 1970s classic “Superfriends” and the newer “Justice League”; as well as the unaired 1961 pilot of “The Adventures of Superboy.”

Through July 30. Noon-5 p.m. (Wed.-Sun.). $5-$10 donations suggested. 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 786-1025.

Monday
24

Beat the summer heat with a refreshingly star-free film festival. Dances With Films enters its ninth year with a host of talent-filled films, sans celebs. Why no familiar faces? Festival co-founder Leslee Scallon explains, “The other festivals are busy programming mostly celebrity oriented films. It’s not that we’re dissing celebrities, we’re just giving films a chance to be seen that are getting squeezed out of the circuit.” Offer your support July 21-27.
$10 (per ticket), $125 (festival pass). Laemmle Fairfax Theatre, 7907 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2929.

Tuesday
25

Young Artists International alights on Los Angeles for its ninth annual International Laureates Festival. The week of classical music concerts features iPalpiti, their orchestral ensemble of 26 musical masters ages 19-30, representing 26 countries. Tonight, a smaller affair at the Ford Theatre features Bassiona Amorosa, a virtuosi sextet of double-bassists from Munich.
July 23-30. Prices and locations vary. (310) 205-0511.


Wednesday
26

Love a Gershwin tune? Karen Benjamin and Alan Chapman explore George’s music in tonight’s installment of the Parlor Performances @ Steinway Hall Presents… “Songwriters and Their Songs” series. Hear some of his best-loved pieces, as well as the stories behind them.
8 p.m. $25. Steinway Hall, 12121 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 471-3979.

Thursday 27

Judi Lee Brandwein can’t get no satisfaction, but discusses it this one last night, for your amusement. “Fornicationally Challenged” is the 40-something divorc’e’s one-woman mature-audiences-only comic show. It returns tonight only for a local send-off before its opening at the New York International Fringe Festival.
8 p.m. $20. Santa Monica Playhouse Main Stage, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 394-9779, ext. 1.

Friday
28

Ponder the art of Bonita Helmer in George Billis Gallery’s exhibition of her latest works. The moody, thought-provoking abstract acrylics focus on the interplays of fundamental elements, forcing the viewer to reconsider basic notions such as space and time.
Through Sept. 2. 2716 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 838-3685.

Finders Keepers?


It’s definitely tsuris time at the pristine white acropolis complex of the Getty, which overlooks the San Diego Freeway, and at its wonderful, freshly renovated, fake Pompeian villa up the Pacific Coast Highway. Barry Munitz, the Getty Trust’s president and CEO since 1998, has been battered with press reports about apparently uncontrolled and self-indulgent personal expense-account spending of the kind that we have learned to associate with corporate malfeasance. The Getty’s vast assets may result from spectacular corporate earnings, but a trust is responsible to the public — to us! — not to stockholders. Insider staff dissatisfaction became most evident last fall, with the sudden resignation of Getty Museum Director Deborah Gribben.

Last week’s overdue resignation of Getty trustee and major antiquities donor Barbara Fleischman appears to be an attempt to resolve conflict-of-interest charges, which earlier forced the resignation of Marion True, the Getty’s prominent curator for antiquities. True is currently being tried by Italian authorities, who claim that she was involved in the Getty’s acquisition of allegedly stolen archaeological material. (Her defenders argue that True was actually responsible for the museum’s adopting stricter policies to determine the legality of its acquisition of ancient art.) Meanwhile, the Getty trustees have been attacked for inadequate fiduciary oversight, while simultaneously creating an investigative committee to see whether anything wrong has happened in either the Trust’s or the museum’s actions.

Problems like the Getty’s grab headlines because the countries from which the antiquities came — Italy, Greece, Turkey and Mexico among them — are no longer shy in their very public demands for restitution. In response, our own sense of righteous indignation moves in one of two directions: outrage that a museum is holding objects that are alleged to have been stolen and/or outrage that a museum — society’s safe-haven for precious things — is being asked to return objects to people who didn’t know how to take care of them properly. (Hey, otherwise how would they have gotten out in the first place?) This problem of objects claimed by previous owners or countries of origin faces all museums with historical holdings like a looming epidemic, a sort of Asian bird flu of the arts: There are a few isolated cases so far, but the fear of contagion could spread panic.

The Getty’s initial opaque response to such external pressures seems to be typical of many of our most valued public institutions, although it’s just possible that the Getty’s stunning arrogance is exceptional, even in the uppity world of museums. The Getty’s very spot, at the top of mountains in Pacific Palisades and in Brentwood, is symbolic of the institution. Is there, in these locations, an innate sense of not belonging to all those freeway backups down below that is emblematic of the distance between the Getty and the necessary demands of the real world? And is this what we see in many of our museums — that is, while providing one kind of access (educational programs, audio guides, etc.), they are nevertheless making sure that there is a wall keeping the public from knowing anything about how the place is run, the role of the trustees, and whether there are questions surrounding how the collections got there?

In light of this, I’ve been remembering my own professional museum experiences, and how I functioned in my role as a public servant — for that’s what museum workers are. On an organization chart, I reported directly to the trustees, but I always knew that my real bosses were the museum visitors, or even the potential visitors I had yet to lure in. Guiding midsized museums, such as the Baltimore Museum of Art and later the new Jewish Museum in Berlin, placed me in highly visible positions, but it never occurred to me that I needed an unlisted telephone number or other means to keep the public from my door. Even while working at the Smithsonian as assistant secretary for museums, with oversight responsibility for 15 of our national museums, I felt that anyone ought to have access to me, whether in my office or at home and, frankly, it never was a problem. Despite its size and wealth, the Getty management’s secrecy and absence of candor is not acceptable for an institution that is meant to serve as a public trust.

The criticism, nevertheless, is worth reviewing as well. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) was quoted expressing his concern “that the Getty board has been spending more time watching old episodes of ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ than doing its job of protecting Getty’s assets for charitable purposes.” But then, the Senate is not exactly our first stop when seeking probity these days. And even though the Council on Foundations recently placed the Getty Trust on probation, that doesn’t give us license to rush to judgment.

Here are some Jewish ethical questions we might ask prior to a Getty visit:

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