Neighbors oppose Chabad expansion on Pico


Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, head of Chabad of California, has a dream — a block-long, five-story “village” on Pico Boulevard that would provide a girls day school and boarding school along with affordable, safe housing for Holocaust survivors and other elderly people and for teachers with large families.

On the ground floor, retail stores — such as “milchig” and “fleishig” commissaries, a pharmacy and a clothing store selling inexpensive, modest but fashionable clothing — would serve the residents as well as the community. Beneath the proposed almost 108,000 square-foot building, 80 feet in height, would be two levels of subterranean parking.

“It will make lives easier for people, including the people down the block,” Cunin said.

But for neighbors living in the vicinity of this one-block area on the north side of Pico Boulevard, bordered by Wetherly and Crest drives as well as a back alley, the project represents anything but a dream. They envision a nightmare — a structure too massive for the 28,000-square-foot parcel of land that they believe is certain to bring more noise, traffic and trash into an already congested area.

“I don’t want a monster built right behind my back yard. It destroys my privacy. It’s outrageous,” said Mike Rafi, who lives on Wetherly Drive, one house away from the alley behind the Chabad property.

The Master Use Permit Application that Chabad of California filed on Aug. 7, 2007, for property located from 9001 to 9041 W. Pico Blvd. calls for the four buildings currently occupying that block, which is owned by Chabad, to be demolished. The proposed mixed-use development complex would include seven retail stores on the ground level; a junior high school accommodating 225 girls and high school for 200 girls on the second floor; 25 dormitory rooms housing 100 girls on the third floor; and 31 residential condominiums, one to three bedrooms, on the third, fourth and fifth floors.



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Neighbors and community advocates brought their objections before the Land Use and Economic Development Committee of the South Robertson Neighborhoods Council at meetings held on Aug. 5 and Sept. 2. The neighborhood councils, created in 1999 by the new Los Angeles City Charter, serve as advisory bodies to city council members and the mayor but have no regulatory power.

Opponents focused on the scope of the project, claiming their point was illustrated by the number of variances that Chabad is seeking, including exemptions to zoning and building requirements stipulated by the Los Angeles Municipal Code and the West Los Angeles Community Plan.

These include Chabad’s request to build to a height of 80 feet instead of the mandated height of 45 feet. The organization is also asking for a floor-to-area ratio of 3.84 to 1 in lieu of the established 1.5 to 1, which pertains to the building’s total floor area in relation to lot size.

Additionally, Chabad wants approval to provide 71 parking spaces instead of the required 168 and also wants the mandated loading space to be waived.

Chabad attorney Benjamin Reznik, a partner at Jeffer, Mangels, Butler and Marmaro, maintained that the variances are necessary because of the limitations the commercial zones impose on a building’s square footage.

“L.A. was designed and built as a commuter city where all the major boulevards — Pico, Olympic — have shallow lots that don’t lend themselves to the ability to create a mixed-use village,” he said.

He added that the limitations concern traffic and that the impact, with students who are not allowed cars and with many elderly residents who don’t drive, will be controlled.

South Robertson Neighborhoods Council’s Land Use Committee members proposed that both sides appoint representatives to meet and attempt to work out some compromises regarding size. Meanwhile, because the project is currently undergoing review by the Los Angeles City Department of Planning, with the environmental impact report expected to be released in the next week or two, the committee also proposed sending a letter to City Planning stating its opposition to the requested variances.

The motion passed unanimously at the Sept. 10 South Robertson Neighborhoods Council board meeting, held at Hamilton High School’s cafeteria.

Four community members have been selected to participate in talks with Chabad, according to community advocate Lorrie Stone, and are waiting for the next step. Cunin also confirmed that Chabad staff members will take part.

Meanwhile, Stone expressed concern by many residents dating back to 2001, when Chabad’s variance requests were approved to build the pre-kindergarten through eighth grade Bais Chaya Mushka School in the block immediately west of the proposed project.

“The zoning code exists to give us livable neighborhoods,” Stone said, adding that Chabad is not enforcing conditions that were imposed on Bais Chaya Mushka.

“All drop off and pick up is supposed to be on school grounds, but parents are totally parking on neighborhood streets,” Stone said. “They bring snacks for their children and change diapers, leaving the trash and diapers on the sidewalks.”

Cunin has recently hired a full-time professional security guard to prevent any violations. At the same time, he suggested that the diapers could also be from a neighborhood daycare facility.

Attorney Joubin Nasseri, who has volunteered to serve on the mediation committee as a community member, hopes that the two visions — that of Chabad and that of the neighbors — can be resolved.

“The bottom line is that Chabad is going to build. The question is to what degree,” Nasseri said.

Pacific Palisades Chabad preschool denied lease extension


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Public testimony was presented last night’s emergency meeting convened by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to consider Chabad of Pacific Palisades’ appeal to temporarily extend its preschool lease at Temescal Gateway Park.
Credit: Robert Garcia/The City Project

An eight-to-one vote by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Board — along with a unanimous vote by the Conservancy Advisory Board — last night soundly defeated Chabad of Pacific Palisades’ appeal to temporarily extend the lease for its preschool site at Temescal Gateway Park from September 2008 through January 2009.

The vote upheld the unequivocal denial by Conservancy executive director Joe Edmiston on June 12 to extend Chabad’s lease. It also confirmed the decision of the Conservancy in April 2007 to stop leasing the public parkland to private entities — including Chabad’s Palisades Jewish Early Education Center and Little Dolphins Preschool — and to increase public access to the park, especially for underprivileged youth from congested urban areas. The park is owned by the State of California and operated by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

A standing-room-only crowd of several- hundred people, some of them waving signs reading “Public Lands in Public Hands,” attended the spirited and occasionally divisive emergency meeting held on Monday evening, July 7, at the park’s Conference and Retreat Center off Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades.

During the three-hour meeting, public testimony was heard from supporters of the Conservancy, from environmental and educational groups using the park for educational and recreational activities for low-income and at-risk children, and from representatives and friends of Chabad.

“We found a new location in January,” Rabbi Zushe Cunin, executive director of Chabad of Pacific Palisades, told the group. “We had every reason to believe we wouldn’t need an extension.”

Cunin reiterated Chabad’s offer of a $250,000 bond to secure their word and to guarantee departure from the park premises by January 31, 2009.

Additionally, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, father of Zushe Cunin and president of Chabad of California, the parent organization, invited 3,000 inner-city children to Chabad’s Camp Gan Israel in Running Springs for four days, all expenses paid, to provide them with an even more authentic outdoor experience.

“I will give you my cell phone number,” he said.

But others, such as Robert Garcia, executive director of City Project, while lamenting a situation in which “child is pitted against child,” spoke in opposition to renewing the lease and to privatizing Temescal Gateway Park. Working with 20 organizations, including Anahuak Youth Association and the National Hispanic Environmental Council, City Project supports public access to parklands for all.

“Equal access to public resources means, under California law, the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures and income,” said Garcia, pointing out that Pacific Palisades has 404.83 acres of parks per thousand residents, compared to .66 acres in East Los Angeles.

And while Chabad supporters stressed that the school is using less than half an acre in a 140-acre park, the Conservancy’s Edmiston said that the park is predominately covered by chaparral, while Chabad’s site, which includes three trailers and a fenced-in field, occupies one of only two flat, grassy spots in the park that can accommodate large groups of children.

“It’s a zero-sum situation. If you have trailers there, you’re not going to be able to have kids playing there,” he said.

Amy Lethbridge, in charge of education for the Conservancy, told the group that more experiential programs have been planned for the coming year, including additional contracts with Los Angeles Unified School District to bring out more kids.

“I need space to serve the very programs the park was purchased to serve,” she said.

Chabad’s attorney Benjamin Reznik, a partner at Jeffer, Mangles, Butler and Marmaro, lamented that the issue is being framed as “us versus them, private versus public.” He stated that Chabad didn’t anticipate the delay on their new site and is asking only for a temporary extension.

“Whoever’s out there saying that what we’re asking is to take over the park is being, I think, very mean-spirited,” he said.

Chabad had been renting space for its preschool at several locations in Temescal Gateway Park since 2008. But the lease, which stipulated it could not be “extended or renewed under any circumstances” and which was itself a one-year extension of a previous one-year non-renewable lease, ended on June 23.

Chabad found a new location in January, signing a three-year lease on a 3,000-square-foot vacant building located on private property off Los Liones Drive, adjacent to a Getty Villa service road and to property owned by the Mormon Church and below a ridge of expensive homes in the Castellammare Mesa area of Pacific Palisades.

But strong opposition by the neighbors and a claim by the Getty that Chabad does not have the right to access the property via its service road have delayed the project. Additionally, the Mormon Church has denied entry through its property.

Chabad is exploring all options for accessing the building and is encouraged by the recent discovery of an overlooked legal document allowing a potential public street to be constructed that would lead directly to the building’s entrance. Chabad is also planning to file for a conditional-use permit in the next 10 days and has agreed not to open the preschool until all conditions have been met. But whatever happens, the preschool will not be ready for September occupancy.

After Chabad’s request to extend the lease was denied by Conservancy executive director Edmiston on June 12, Chabad approached Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to intercede.

A letter from Mike Chrisman, secretary of the State of California Resources Agency, on June 26, responding for the governor, provided Chabad with guidelines to “help resolve this matter in a way that makes sense for Chabad, its neighbors, and the [Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy].” After Chabad formally appealed, Conservancy chairperson Ronald Schafer called the emergency meeting.

But Monday night’s vote dashed any hopes for a resolution favorable to Chabad. Currently, the preschool is holding its six-week summer program at Palisades Elementary School, as it has every summer, and it is looking for a temporary location.

Still, Chabad will open its doors for the fall session on Sept. 4, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin guaranteed at the end of the meeting.

“We will have a proper preschool,” he said. “We will not let the children down.”

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.