Museum of Tolerance expansion plans controversy continues at City Hall

A long-running dispute between homeowners and the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance (MOT) and Yeshiva of Los Angeles (YOLA) entered a more formal stage last week, with a hearing by the Los Angeles City Planning Department on Oct. 24 at City Hall.

At issue are plans by the MOT/YOLA complex at Pico Boulevard and Roxbury Drive to adapt and expand its facilities to accommodate the museum’s increasing attendance and activities.

Most controversial is a proposed two-story addition for the existing MOT, which would cover most of the memorial garden, now used for occasional ceremonies.

A good number of the 144 homeowners in the adjoining, and predominantly Jewish, North Beverlywood neighborhood have strongly objected to proposed changes in operating hours, parking arrangements and the addition of the previously denied ability to rent facilities to outside groups.

Homeowner activists Susan Gans and Daniel Fink have argued that the proposed plans violate the conditions under which MOT and YOLA were given permission to build and operate in the first place, and that the changes would lower the neighborhood’s quality of life through growing traffic, noise, crowds and parking problems.

The Oct. 24 hearing was an initial step by city planners to hear both sides of the case and present their findings to the decision-making City Planning Commission, said hearing officer Sarah Rigamat and senior planner Maya Zaitzevsky.

The two-hour hearing gave the Wiesenthal Center, which had chafed under the homeowners’ charges and in response to a report on the confrontation in The Journal (Oct. 19), a chance to roll out its high-profile supporters.

According to interviews with participating city planners and spokespersons for the Wiesenthal Center and homeowners, the hearings included extensive testimony on behalf of the Weisenthal Center’s work.

Susan Burden, the center’s chief financial and administrative officer, and Kathy King, an outside consultant, submitted a sheaf of letters, all written within two days of the hearing, enthusiastically praising MOT’s impact in promoting tolerance, social responsibility and Holocaust education in Los Angeles and throughout much of the world.

Among the supporting correspondents were Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, as well as officials representing school districts, peace officers, UCLA and others. In addition, there was live testimony by two Holocaust survivors and two rabbis.

Gans, a lawyer and a leader of the homeowners’ group, argued that the letters and testimony, however sincere, were beside the point. “I am willing to stipulate right now that MOT performs a valuable public service,” she said. “But what we’re talking about here is the enforcement of zoning regulations.”

Countering previous letters by residents critical of the museum, the Wiesenthal Center also introduced letters from supportive neighbors.

One, by Alan Willner, said in part, “The minor inconveniences that any close neighbor may have to living proximity to the institution are clearly offset by the many important benefits that we all derive from the very impressive work that they do.

“I fully endorse their efforts to expand their facilities that are so importantly needed and look forward to many more years of living in their close proximity.”

The Wiesenthal Center also found a champion in Jack Weiss, the area’s city councilman, who spoke at the hearings.

In a phone call to The Journal after the meeting, Weiss argued that the The Journal’s reporting had exaggerated the dispute, which he described as not particularly noteworthy.

He added that the operating and building conditions for the museum were “set over 20 years ago, and it has become more successful than anybody could have imagined.”

Weiss also noted that “MOT’s plans will go forward; it would be irresponsible to do anything else … it would be perverse to punish the city and the Wiesenthal Center for its extraordinary success.”

Neighborhood activists have complained for some time that they cannot get a meting with Weiss, but the councilman said that he would call a mediation session and try to narrow the gap between opposing views, if homeowners “stop telling us that the sky is falling.”

However, the hearing also had some cheer for the residents, as city planners told the Wiesenthal Center to submit more detailed plans, suggested revisions, expressed concern about the center’s past violations of its conditional use permit, and stressed the need for MOT and YOLA to act as good neighbors.

In addition, Psomas & Associates, a land use consultant for the Wiesenthal Center, introduced a modified plan, meeting some neighborhood objections in access and parking, including possible changes in the size and shape of the addition.

The hearing officer indicated that she might tentatively recommend approval of another controversial request by MOT to take over two stories of the yeshiva.

The next step in the process is consideration by the City Planning Commission, which is not expected to take up the matter until a meeting in early January or February.

In the meanwhile, North Beverlywood homeowners hope to enlist the support of the wider South Robertson Neighborhood Council at a meeting on Nov. 6.