Down and Out in Beverly Hills?

Developer Ronald Weiner predicts that about 95 percent of tenants in his proposed senior-housing project would be Jewish.
Ronald Weiner sits on a bench in a serene Beverly Hills park on a perfect, sunny day, filled with rage and frustration. He’s shaking, his fingers tremble, and his voice cracks with every other sentence.

The source of his anger is the city in which he sits. For the past year, Beverly Hills has thwarted Weiner’s efforts to build a large senior-housing project on property he owns.

On April 30, the city’s Planning Commission refused to grant Weiner a Conditional Use Permit (CUP), which would enable him to build a 67-unit, four-story building on a quiet street lined with condos, small homes and apartments.

The commission cited the project’s excessive height and density and its lack of an adequate service alleyway and parking as the reasons for the rejection. “It was turned down because it was out of scale for the neighborhood,” commission head Ruth Nadel told The Jewish Journal.

Mention those reasons to Weiner, and he looks fit to explode. “Smoke screen!” he says. What the city is doing, he claims, is finding ways to keep much-needed senior housing outside its limits. “Beverly Hills is a city with 22 percent seniors [about 8,000], without a single senior-retirement home,” says Weiner. “They’ve constantly found ways to deny [senior-housing] projects.”

Weiner and his architects maintain that a three-story design could not accommodate the gardens, communal and recreational spaces necessary in such a project. Furthermore, he can’t understand why, after spending 3 1/2 years and $17,000 in city review fees, his project, which was approved by city fire, building and traffic inspectors, would be suddenly denied.

And, so, the battle between the wealthy Malibu-based developer and the bureaucracy of the Land of 90210 has turned murky, nasty and personal. Both sides expect the showdown to take place at the Sept. 3 City Council meeting, when city planners and angry Arnaz Drive residents will confront Weiner and his not-too-shabby group of supporters, ranging from eminent gerontologists to tenants-rights activists to at least one Jewish group. Given the makeup of the city’s senior population, says Weiner, “the building would probably be 95 percent Jewish.”

Weiner says that he spent 3 1/2 years and $150,000 developing plans for his property at 143-149 Arnaz Dr., two blocks east of Robertson Blvd. and a half block north of Wilshire Blvd. He funded a three-volume, 600-page study — headed by architect Victor Regnier, with input from Jon Pynoos, professor at the USC Andrus Gerontology Center — which spelled out the ideal site, design and programming for a senior “congregate care building.”

As designed by noted architect Stephanos Polyzoides — whom the city itself employed to help redesign its downtown core — Weiner’s project features an airy dining room, kosher kitchen, exercise room, numerous gardens and terraces, a beauty salon, physicians office and other public spaces clustered along with spacious one- and two-bedroom apartments. Amenities include daily social activities, exercise classes, Shabbat and Jewish holiday services, and excursions– all at a location within walking distance to businesses, bus stops and shopping. Few housing options such as this exist for senior Westside residents, Pynoos wrote in a June 24 letter to the planning commission, and “virtually none” exist in Beverly Hills.

“This is a very good project for us,” says Shahrokh Keywanfar, a representative of the Iranian Jewish Senior Center. He expects many Iranian Jewish seniors to be among Weiner’s first customers.

Monthly rates at such facilities, which include maid service and three daily meals, typically begin at around $3,000.

Planning officials suggest that numbers like that are the real reason for Weiner’s senior crusade. But Weiner insists that his interest in providing housing for the elderly developed after he found himself taking care of a longtime friend, Leah Feingold, who had trouble finding a suitable place to live. Besides, says Weiner, his property is zoned for luxury condominium development, which could be just as lucrative. In response to a planning commission request that he set aside at least three units for low-income seniors, Weiner pledged to set aside 20.

Still, residents of Arnaz Drive have loudly protested Weiner’s project. “He’s going to ruin this street,” one Israeli-born man, who declined to give his name, told The Journal. Weiner’s plan calls for razing the four separate apartment buildings that now occupy each of the lots and, in their place, constructing a single four-story building. Residents fear that the building, which will abut Wilshire Boulevard office towers on the south and a quiet pocket park to the east, will bring more traffic and strain services such as sewer lines. What Weiner calls “NIMBY-ism at its worst,” commissioner Nadel calls “the democratic process.”

Nadel points with pride to the city’s 150-unit low-income senior-housing project on Crescent Drive, built on prime city-owned land adjacent to the business triangle, as evidence of their interest in serving seniors. She says that one other senior-congregate-housing project, on Clark Drive, is currently under consideration.

That’s not enough, says Herm Shulz, another Weiner supporter. “Crescent Drive took years and years to get,” he says. “Nothing preceded it, and nothing may come after it.” The 75-year-old head of Concern for Tenants Rights of Beverly Hills has accused city officials of finding any excuse to shoot down senior-housing projects. Weiner can “call their bluff” and modify the project dimensions, says Shulz. “But that’s not the real reason for their denial. They want to put seniors in the commercial zones.”

The lack of adequate housing for seniors, which Nadel and Arlington acknowledge is a crisis “for the whole Westside,” means that longtime Beverly Hills residents often need to leave their community when they can no longer live by themselves. “A lot of our seniors have to go to L.A. to find a place to live,” says Keywanfar.

Neither side knows which will emerge victorious from this week’s de novo hearing in council chambers. Earlier this year, the council overturned the commission’s approval of a construction project on Tower Drive that inspired a public outcry spearheaded by the actor Jack Lemmon.

If the council turns down the project, Weiner — with no small sense of vengeance — says that he intends to build his legally allotted 37 units of luxury condos on the site, setting aside 20 percent of them for low-income tenants. Under state mandate, the city would have to subsidize these seven units. If that plan works, the city will end up paying $1.7 million to support seven tenants, “when it could have housed 80 seniors at no cost to itself,” says Weiner. Earlier this week, the city attorney called for an immediate meeting with Weiner when he was apprised of the plan.

Though he says that the effort has left him “emotionally battered” and resulted in two hospital stays, Weiner has made good on his promise to make his crusade equally public. “We just want to fill a need that’s out there,” he says.

Pushing Each Other’s Buttons


Predictably, it happened again. Conservative and Reform Jews choseto demonstrate their right to worship at the Kotel in their way, menand women together. This time, however, the worshipers had officialclearance. But their permit did not help. Sadly, but alsopredictably, Orthodox Jews prevented them from praying in their way.Passions flared. The scene became ugly. Religious extremists,unconcerned about Torah prohibitions against striking another person,became violent. Hurt and humiliated, the non-Orthodox worshipers wereforcibly removed by the police. And, of course, the media had beenprepped. The cameras were ready. They captured the tears of thevanquished and the jeers of the violent. The angry scenes wereflashed across the world.

Effective Demonstration

I do not doubt that the only motive of most of the Reform andConservative worshipers was to experience Tisha B’Av in the precinctsof the Temple, whose destruction they had come to lament.

But I do have a sneaking suspicion that the organizers of theservice had something else in mind also.

I am a veteran of political demonstrations. During the apartheidera in South Africa, I learned how to get the most attention for thestruggle against racism. I simply had to figure out which buttons topush in order to enrage the other side and make it react violently.It was easy to do. It transformed the demonstrators into innocentvictims, and their attackers (usually the police) into vicious thugs.The media was always advised that a good story was in the making.Sympathy for the victims and odium for their powerful attackers wereinstantly seen on television screens around the world. Obviously,these tactics served a holy purpose — the eradication of anauthoritarian, intolerant and evil system.

Which Orthodox buttons did the Conservative and Reform workers atthe Kotel push? What irreconcilable principles were at stake?

Principles in Conflict

The non-Orthodox worshipers asserted two principles by coming tothe Kotel to pray in their way. They wished to demonstrate thatJudaism’s holiest site belongs equally to all Jews, that it is not anopen-air Orthodox synagogue. They also wished to demonstrate thattheir mode of worship is as valid as gender-separated Orthodoxprayer.

Their Orthodox opponents were motivated by equally powerfulprinciples. Worship in the ancient Temple had always beengender-separated. In the 30 years since the liberation of the Kotel,this ancient tradition had been honored. The insistence on mixed,egalitarian worship in the Kotel precincts was regarded as no less anact of chutzpah than would be the forcible intrusion of asimilar group into an Orthodox synagogue for non-Orthodox worship.

These were the buttons. These were the principles. All theingredients for a good television story were present.

Tisha B’Av Tragedy

The violence at the Wall could not have come at a worse time. Thenews of the battle between the Jews in Jerusalem broke while I wasteaching my congregants the Talmudic account of the destruction ofthe Second Temple. The Talmud asserts that the destruction was theresult of causeless hatred between the Jews of that generation. Is itnot tragic that hatred should characterize the contemporaryobservance of Tisha B’Av? Have we learned nothing from our history?

The Talmud also records a dispute between a certain RabbiZechariya and the Sages. Under normal circumstances, both parties inthis dispute would have agreed that the imperatives of the Torah areabsolute and that there is no room for compromise on halachicprinciple. But, on this occasion, the Sages felt that even venerableprinciples should be compromised for the sake of the common good.Rabbi Zechariya refused to allow the Sages to take the initiative inbending the law to save the Jewish people. The Talmud records thathis insistence on placing principle above peace caused the Temple tobe destroyed and the Jewish people to be exiled.

Alternative to Confrontation

We have witnessed the bitter consequences of the refusal tocompromise this Tisha B’Av. Neither side would budge. Like adysfunctional family, each pushed the other’s buttons, and theconflict escalated.

May I suggest a workable compromise. The southern section of theKotel has been newly excavated and is the site of a beautifularchaeological park. There is no tradition of gender-segregatedworship there. It is far from, and out of the line of vision of, thefar more numerous Orthodox worshipers at the other end of the Kotel.Bat mitzvah services are already held there. It could easily bededicated for Conservative and Reform prayer. All Jews could worshipG-d in their own denominational way.

Am I optimistic that this kind of solution will be acceptable?Although it makes sense, I do not believe that it will happen.Demonstrators have more to gain from political conflict than fromspiritual tranquillity. Confrontation alone will keep the strugglefor denominational acceptance alive and in full view of unhappy Jewsaround the world.

Therefore, I predict that there will be more confrontations, morevictims and more violence.

But I am hoping against hope that I am wrong. The Jewish peoplecannot afford to relive the Tisha B’Av experience. The State ofIsrael cannot afford more wrenching conflicts. The Jewish Diasporacannot be made to stand up against the Jewish State. Perhaps saner,gentler counsel will prevail and an intelligent compromise will beoffered and accepted.

Abner Weiss is rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation of BeverlyHills.

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