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.

Mayor: Building inspectors need better training, sensitivity to block another Yom Kippur showdown


One year after an emotional incident in which city building inspectors sought to halt Kol Nidrei services for Orthodox worshippers at a Hancock Park service, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has followed up with a report with recommendations designed to increase sensitivity and prevent future problems.

The confrontation at the Yavneh Hebrew Academy in the Hancock Park area outraged the Orthodox community and its political supporters.

Triggering the incident was a series of anonymous phone calls from a neighbor of Yavneh, alerting the city Department of Building and Safety (DBS) to a probable violation, on Yom Kippur, of restriction governing the hours that Yavneh could use the facilities.

At 8 p.m., while Rabbi Daniel Korobkin was conducting Kol Nidrei services for some 200 worshippers, two inspectors walked into the lobby and told startled congregants that they had to vacate the premises immediately.

When told that worshippers would leave only if carried out by force, the inspectors left and the services continued.

The roots of the incident lay in a contentious nine-year feud between some residents of the upscale Hancock Park neighborhood and an influx of strict Orthodox families.

Villaraigosa, together with city councilmen, felt the heat from both sides and the mayor asked the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom “to independently review, pro bono, the events that occurred on Sept. 21, 2007…and to make recommendations.”

In a letter yesterday (Sept. 23) to DBS general manager Andrew A. Adelman, obtained exclusively by The Journal, Villaraigosa cited 12 findings and recommendations by the law firm and asked for a response by Nov. 7.

In general, the report found that DBS had not singled out the Orthodox community as such, but called for an improved inspection process within DBS, and better communications with the city planning department and with institutions, such as Yavneh, operating with certain restrictions under a conditional use permit.

Specifically, the report recommended continued “awareness seminars” for inspectors at the Museum of Tolerance, supplemented by a “cultural diversity” program, in addition to the following points.

Training to avoid conflicts while conducting building inspections.

Review of the policy under which DBS accepts anonymous complaints.

Avoid interrupting cultural or religious events.

Institutions operating under conditional use permits to appoint community liaisons, who would be notified of complaints before city officials take action.

Korobkin, the Yavneh spiritual leader, said he was very pleased with the mayor’s recommendations and that the fault for last year’s incident lay mainly in the way DBS was structured, as well as a certain lack ofsensitivity.

There is no chance that last year’s incident will be repeated, he said. For one, Kol Nidrei falls on a weekday this year, which allows for extended operating hours.

Korobkin also asserted that relations between Yavneh and its neighbors had improved over the last 12 months and that complaints came mainly from a hard core of seven to eight residents.

But future relations between Yavneh and the Hancock Park Homeowners Association, which includes a fair number of Jewish families, will bear watching.

No spokesperson for the homeowners was immediately available, but in the past they have persistently accused Yavneh of violating the terms of its conditional use permit and have initiated a number of court actions.

Although Yavneh is not located within his district, City Councilman Jack Weiss has been a vocal champion of the religious school.

He said that in the dispute, “justice is on the side of Yavneh – it’s not even close.”



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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.

City Voice: Yaroslavsky takes on developers in push for affordable housing


In defending middle-class neighborhoods, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is taking on an issue that reaches to the heart of Los Angeles’ ethnic, political and class divide.

All those matters are involved in a dispute over a new city development ordinance that eases restrictions on big residential buildings in such areas. This ordinance was passed to meet the requirements of a 2005 state law ordering cities to allow more dense development to create housing.

The question of preserving middle-class neighborhoods while also building affordable housing affects a huge part of Los Angeles, from the dense and impoverished Latino neighborhoods of Central Los Angeles to middle-class Jewish areas in West Los Angeles and the western San Fernando Valley. It includes the Jewish neighborhoods of Fairfax and Pico-Robertson as well as multiethnic Venice, long targeted for heavy development.

Yaroslavsky, once a Los Angeles city councilman, surrendered his role in city affairs when he was elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1994. As a council member, he had been co-author of a successful ballot measure that scaled back development in residential areas. The measure, Proposition U, co-sponsored by the late Councilman Marvin Braude and passed in 1986, was a successful effort to outmaneuver the land developers and their lobbyists who, then as now, have huge clout at City Hall. The measure reduced density by limiting the size of many business and residential projects. Supervisors don’t have power over development within cities, so Yaroslavsky’s election to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors should have taken him out of the game.

But in 2005, the Legislature passed and the governor signed the measure designed to stimulate housing construction. It did this by telling cities to put aside zoning and other planning limitations if developers agree to include some low- and moderate-priced apartments in their projects.

Los Angeles and other cities were required to implement the state law with their own municipal ordinances.

Even though he was a supervisor with no jurisdiction over the matter, Yaroslavsky, a Los Angeles resident who has retained a strong political following in the city, stepped into the negotiations over the proposed implementation ordinance. He persuaded City Council members to modify the proposal. The council and Yaroslavsky agreed on modifications designed to limit teardowns of apartments in residential neighborhoods and other steps to preserve such communities.

With those modifications, the Los Angeles City Council recently passed and the mayor signed the ordinance implementing the state law. Under the ordinance, the city permits a builder to go 35 percent over zoning limits if 11 percent of the units are set aside for low-income residents or 30 percent are moderately priced.

But Yaroslavsky still was not satisfied. He objected to giving developers permission to build larger structures if they include low- and middle-income units. This, he said, was a bonus for developers. “L.A. doesn’t need to offer development bonuses allowing taller and bigger buildings” to create more affordable housing, Yaroslavsky wrote in a Sunday Opinion article for the Los Angeles Times. But with the state law and the city ordinance implementing this practice firmly in the books, there doesn’t seem much Yaroslavsky can do now, short of starting an initiative campaign.

His entrance into the fight has prompted speculation that he is interested in running for mayor, an office he sought years ago when he was in the council.

CityBeat’s Alan Mittelstaedt asked Yaroslavsky about the speculation after the supervisor discussed the development controversy at Emma Schafer’s Public Affairs Forum, a monthly gathering of political and government insiders.

“If I were running for mayor, you’d know about it.” Yaroslavsky said. “Most of the talk about me running for mayor has been emanating out of City Hall from people who are trying to marginalize some of these policy issues by reducing them to political tiffs when, in fact, they’re substantive policy issues. I’m not going to keep my mouth shut when I see my neighborhood affected by what the city does. And as a former city councilmember, I’m not going to sit back quietly and watch 20 years of my work product dismantled without a fight. This has nothing to do with running for office.”

Advocates of more affordable housing say the state and city laws are needed by neighborhoods such as Pico-Union and MacArthur Park just west of downtown Los Angeles, where Latino immigrants, some here illegally, crowd into old apartments and live in incredibly bad conditions. Those walking from Langer’s parking lot to the restaurant for a pastrami sandwich may not know they are passing through one of America’s most densely packed slums.

These same advocates say the council’s decision to ease development restrictions will make affordable housing available throughout the city. Some Pico-Union and MacArthur Park residents could then afford to move westward or into the San Fernando Valley.

This possibility complicates the dispute, however, bringing in issues of race and class.

Although the demographics of parts of Los Angeles, such as the San Fernando Valley, are changing, much of Los Angeles remains segregated by race and income. Building low-income units in West Los Angeles and the West Valley would change the pattern. Poor Latino immigrants could move into Fairfax and Pico-Robertson.

The politically correct news media and political community do not mention this aspect of the dispute, but it’s important.

But it is also important to consider the desires of middle-class L.A. residents to preserve neighborhoods that are part of the fabric of Los Angeles.

This dispute will be a big factor the city election in 2009 when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to seek a second term. Right now the mayor is playing both sides of the issue.

He favors more housing construction, especially of the affordable kind. He’s developer friendly, approving of the commercial and residential units that were going up around the city at a brisk rate before the credit crisis slowed construction.

But Villaraigosa has also become an advocate for neighborhoods and has worked hard to strengthen his ties with Jewish communities around the city.

I would be surprised if Yaroslavsky runs against him. He can remain supervisor until 2014 when term limits force him out. Supervisors run virtually unopposed. Why give up a low-stress job for the heat of the mayor’s office?

But Villaraigosa, even without strong opposition, will have to contend in his re-election campaign with the powerful forces shaping the dispute over neighborhoods and development.

Heschel Day School West gets OK, but future still looks clouded


After a protracted and often contentious battle, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School West got the green light in late November to build a permanent school on a bucolic, 72-acre site adjacent to Agoura Hills when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved its application for a conditional-use permit.

A final consent hearing will be scheduled as soon as the draft document outlining more than 29 conditions and modifications is finalized, according to Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose Third District governs the now-vacant parcel nestled in a rolling meadow abutting the Santa Monica Mountains, just north of the Ventura Freeway and east of the Chesebro Road exit.

“We have imposed conditions on this school that we have never imposed on any other school,” Yaroslavsky said. For example, Heschel must contribute approximately $3.5 million for traffic mitigation and comply with stringent fire, safety, noise and community compatibility requirements.

However, instead of rejoicing and preparing to kick off a new capital campaign to fund the project, Heschel West faces continued opposition from the city of Agoura Hills, which will shoulder the traffic and safety burdens of the new school but lacks direct jurisdiction over the neighboring unincorporated land.

Additionally, Heschel faces a possible lawsuit from the Old Agoura Homeowners Association, representing the nearby community of about 420 families, which wants to protect its equestrian way of life and which has fought the project since the beginning.

“Arduous is the word,” said Heschel West board member Rick Wentz, who is in charge of land entitlements, in describing the drawn-out battle.

Wentz has been involved with the project since before the land was purchased in 1997 for $1.6 million by a group of Heschel West families. Since then, he said, the school has spent more than $2 million on consultants, studies and entitlements. In addition, he and other school representatives have also looked at hundreds of alternative properties over the last eight years, none of them acceptable.

Heschel West was founded in 1994 with 14 kindergarten students. Today, the school serves 199 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade on its crowded temporary campus off Liberty Canyon Road. Its middle school, currently merged with Kadima Hebrew Academy, is housed on Kadima’s West Hills campus.

According to Wentz, the school has fully complied with all environmental and zoning requirements, including the legal restrictions of the North Area Plan, which regulates development within much of the unincorporated area of the Santa Monica Mountains.

“All the issues raised by our opposition have all been looked at and addressed and approved by neutral officials charged with the protection of public health and safety,” Wentz said.

Additionally, the school has made concessions to meet the community’s concerns about safety, traffic and quality of life.

The new school, consisting of nine permanent buildings that will eventually house up to 750 students in grades pre-kindergarten through eight, will be built on 14 acres. Another 29 acres will be dedicated permanently to the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority to protect the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Corridor.

The school itself will be set back 300 feet or more from the nearest private property line and is designed to blend in with the aesthetics of Old Agoura, with buildings no more than two stories tall and residential rather than institutional in appearance, with wooden siding and gray shake roofs. Overall, the school is adopting an equestrian theme, designating street names such as Oak Lane and Sycamore Circle, planting natural shrubs and oak trees and putting in a split-rail fence.

In addition to appearance, traffic is another major concern to the city of Agoura Hills and to the Old Agoura Homeowners Association. But both Wentz and Yaroslavsky stress that Heschel will be accessed directly off the Ventura Freeway’s Chesebro exit, alleviating most of the traffic through Agoura Hills.

The school is also committed to paying millions of dollars toward traffic mitigation, including installing a traffic light or a roundabout right at the off-ramp adjacent to the school’s Canwood Street entrance. That determination will be made by the state Department of Transportation, and without approval for either, the school will be limited to 391 students.

Fire is also an issue, especially in terms of evacuating the Old Agoura community and all its animals in an emergency, a difficult and laborious undertaking. However, Wentz said the school is ameliorating the situation in several ways.

First, the school’s landscaping, made up of different zones of plants with different burning capacities, will be designed to slow down a fire.

Second, while advance notice is generally given to evacuate in case of fire, the school will contain a “shelter in place,” a large concrete area with oxygen and other supplies, where students and staff can wait out the fire if necessary. “It’s much safer to go to shelter in place than try to evacuate in cars,” Wentz said.

And with the school constructing a new entrance road off Canwood, adjacent to the freeway exit at Chesebro, as well as an emergency exit that connects farther north off Chesebro, the school is, in effect, creating an additional exit that Old Agoura residents can use in the event of fire or other emergency.

Agoura Hills City Manager Greg Ramirez remains concerned that parents will still converge on the school to pick up their children, despite having a shelter in place and a police guard at the school’s entrance.

“They all have to get on the freeway or cross the bridge at Chesebro,” he said.

Despite concerns regarding fire and other safety issues and despite having to work through the Board of Supervisors, given the land’s location in unincorporated Los Angeles County, Ramirez said that city officials have been recently feeling more comfortable that their concerns are being taken seriously both by the Board of Supervisors and Heschel representatives.

“We’re never going to get what we would like, but that’s part of life,” Ramirez said.

Hancock Park Infighting Escalates


Update September 25, 2007: City Building & Safety inspectors briefly interrupt Kol Nidrei services at Hancock Park shul.

Smoldering tensions between the Orthodox community and other Hancock Park residents, many of them also Jewish, are heating up anew, as a battle over neighborhood architecture has divided along lines of religious affiliation.

Residents of the upscale neighborhood are weighing whether it should become a designated Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ), which would establish a process of scrutiny for any changes to the outside of homes. Opponents of the measure are mostly Orthodox Jews, who own an estimated 20 percent of Hancock Park’s 1,250 homes. A decision on this issue will be made by the City Council with neighborhood input, perhaps as early as this summer.

The latest battle comes nearly a year after Orthodox Jews and other residents faced off in an ugly election for control of the neighborhood council, when competing accusations of corruption and religious bias tore apart the community.

But even as halting peace efforts are under way to heal those wounds, the HPOZ fight is once again pitting Jew against Jew and neighbor against neighbor.

Proponents say the neighborhood needs to become an HPOZ to protect the 1920s and ’30s Spanish, Tudor and Mediterranean revival mansions from aesthetically dubious remodels that tamper with the historic look of the neighborhood. They also say it would improve property values. Opponents say the measure would infringe on homeowners’ rights, make improvements too costly and cumbersome and thereby hurt property values.

The fight is playing out on the wide, winding streets of this urban oasis, where orange anti-HPOZ signs and green pro-HPOZ signs have sprouted on impeccably landscaped lawns.

In the middle of the night on April 2 and 3, about 200 pro-HPOZ signs were uprooted and carted off, according to Jolene Snett, who is heading up the preservationist effort. Opponents say many anti-HPOZ signs have also been stolen.

At a March public hearing before Los Angeles’s Department of Planning, about 300 people came to voice their support or opposition to the ordinance. Nearly all of the measure’s opponents, including all of the speakers for the opposition, were Orthodox.

On May 11, the city’s Planning Commission will meet to hear a report on the public hearing, take recommendations from staff and hear more public comments. The Planning Commission will then send a recommendation to a subcommittee of the City Council, and the full council will have the final vote on whether to adopt an HPOZ ordinance for Hancock Park. That vote is expected over the summer.

The Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, the Hancock Park Homeowners Association, The Los Angeles Conservancy and Councilman Tom LaBonge all have gone on record supporting a HPOZ for Hancock Park. The opposition is headed by the Hancock Park Residents Association, founded several years ago by Orthodox activists Michael Rosenberg and Stanley Treitel to fight against the HPOZ.

Preservationist Snett estimates that about 80 percent of Hancock Park residents support the HPOZ, while Treitel calls it a toss-up.

If established, control of the HPOZ board, which reviews proposed changes to property, would fall directly into the hands of local residents. The board would be made up of five members, three of whom live in the area, and some would have expertise in architecture or construction. Board members are appointed by the mayor, the area’s City Council member and the Cultural Heritage Commission, with the input of the local neighborhood council.

The grass-roots nature of the issue has made it tinder for the ongoing religious flare-ups in the neighborhood.

Some vocal Orthodox Jews say HPOZ is one in a long list of issues — from opposing synagogues to giving Jewish schools a hard time — whereas established neighbors have worked to keep the burgeoning Orthodox community at bay.

“The Orthodox typically have large families and want to be able to make these homes useful with expansion to accommodate the families, and they are concerned that that they will be stopped from doing this,” said Fred Gaines, an Encino lawyer who is representing a group of Orthodox residents opposed to HPOZ.

To David Rubin, chairman of Yeshivat Yavneh, a 450-child day school in Hancock Park, the issue is trust.

“Although I support the concept of preservation, I don’t support the process of local empowerment on this issue in our community,” Rubin said. “We can’t have an HPOZ controlled by a small group that has developed a double standard.”

Rubin says neighbors are much tougher on Yavneh than they are on Marlborough School, a private girls’ school in the area.

Neighbors say Marlborough is a 120-year-old school that was grandfathered in, and that Yavneh is simply expected to adhere to conditions it accepted on moving to the neighborhood in 1999.

Those conditions were brought to a Zoning Board hearing in City Hall on April 6, at which Yavneh requested permission to erect an 8-foot perimeter fence for security, and to change the terms of who can pray in the school on Saturdays from only students and their families to include alumni, board members and others associated with the school.

The Hancock Park Homeowners Association opposed both requests, which would change the school’s original conditional use permit. The zoning board is expected to hand down a decision by late April.

The us-versus-them atmosphere in Hancock Park has been festering over the past decade. Residents have been locked in a 10-year legal battle over a synagogue built on a residential lot at the corner of Highland Avenue and Third Street, which neighbors say violates local zoning laws. Congregants argue religious freedom allows them to pray in the new building, which they constructed after tearing down a home.

Snett, the preservationist, hopes that the city’s decision on the HPOZ can be separated from the religious disputes and seen for what it is: an effort to preserve the architecture of a beautiful and historically significant neighborhood. She is banking on the preservation plan, to be put together by the city, which allows residents to individualize the terms of an HPOZ.

But the preservation plan won’t be presented until after the city council approves the HPOZ, and opponents are skeptical.

“It is unfortunate that rather than sit down and compromise, there is an insistence to keep pushing forward and having a situation where neighbor is pitted against neighbor, and the city will end up in litigation,” said Gaines, the attorney for the opponents.

Shul’s Stormy Saga


With its prominent location at one of Hancock Park’s busiest intersections, at Third Street and Highland Avenue, Congregation Etz Chaim’s boxy, domed building constantly reminds area residents of a decade of ongoing tensions.

The current focus of the dispute is a lawsuit that has reached the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Neighbors sued in 2003, saying the congregation skirted due process and violated local zoning laws when it razed a 3,600-square-foot home and built an 8,200-square-foot structure with a main sanctuary, a library and a mikvah (ritual bath) in the basement.

But the conflict has even deeper roots, to when the congregation still met at the June Street home of Rabbi Chaim Rubin. Even then, neighbors contended that the daily and Shabbat services violated residential zoning laws. Then, in 1995, Congregation Etz Chaim moved from Rubin’s house, where it had been meeting for 30 years, since his father founded the congregation, to the house on Highland Avenue. In 1996, after the city, at the behest of the neighbors, tried to prevent the congregants from holding services on Highland Avenue, Etz Chaim sued the city in federal court for violating its religious freedom.

The zoning board, city council and federal court all ruled against Etz Chaim. But the shul got an 11th-hour reprieve by citing a federal law, enacted in 2000, that exempts religious institutions from local zoning. The city and Etz Chaim then entered into a settlement, permitting worshippers in the building. The pact also allowed for limited renovations that would retain the structure’s residential look.

In 2002, the congregation razed the 3,600-square-foot home. The city obtained a temporary stop-work order, saying the demolition and new construction violated the settlement, but courts later lifted that order. The congregation moved forward with the $1 million project, erecting its 8,200-square-foot structure, which its leaders say was designed to blend in with other homes – a claim some neighbors find laughable.

That brings matters to the current lawsuit, which is awaiting a trial date before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2003, the League of Residential Neighborhood Associations, composed of area residents, formed to sue Etz Chaim and the city. In the suit, residents assert that the settlement itself was illegal – that it went around city procedures designed to include neighbors in such decisions, since zoning laws should have forbidden the congregation from meeting in that location.

Meanwhile, the city also sued the congregation, saying the new construction violated the settlement agreement. That suit is also before the Ninth Circuit.

Etz Chaim, for its part, is arguing that the settlement is valid, that it did not violate the settlement and, that, in any case, federal law exempts it from zoning regulations.

 

A School or a Shul?


Administrators at Yeshivat Yavneh knew that the “No Trespassing” signs wouldn’t go over well with neighbors, especially the ones who used to run their dogs on the plush green stretch that fronts the Third Street main entrance to the Orthodox day school.

But about two years ago they felt they had no choice.

Neighbors had been seen standing outside of Yavneh on Shabbat videotaping everyone who entered, to see whether Yavneh was violating permit stipulations limiting who can pray there on Saturdays. The videotaping was an affront both to the school’s religious sensibilities and to its sense of security.

To neighbors, the “No Trespassing” signs are yet another indication that the school has no desire to fit in.

Yavneh moved into the Tudor estate, which formerly housed the Whittier Law School, in 1999. The school has about 400 students in preschool through eighth grade, and insists it has worked hard to foster a good relationship with neighbors. But things have soured in the last few years, as Yavneh tests the strict limitations of its conditional-use permit.

One clause in that permit states that Yavneh may hold prayer services for its students as part of their religious education. Yavneh interpreted that to mean that the school could hold Shabbat services, on the weekend, for students and their families.

Neighbors say Yavneh has, in effect, established a full-service congregation — one that serves more than just students and their immediate families.

Yavneh maintains that nearly all of the 100-150 people who attend services on a regular Shabbat are students and their family members. At the same time, however, the school plans to request a permit change also allowing board members, alumni and others associated with Yavneh to daven there, but to cap the total number at 300. The current permit does not stipulate a limit. In addition, Yavneh will ask the Zoning Board to approve an 8-foot perimeter fence for general security in this post-Sept./11 world.

The Hancock Park Homeowners Association has come out against these requests, asking that Yavneh meet the original permit conditions.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, the head of Yavneh, is meeting regularly with neighbors, part of a conciliation effort by both sides.

 

Zoning Snafus Keep New JCC Empty


Flashback to last fall, the opening ceremony of YESOD, a first-of-its-kind Jewish community center in the heart of St. Petersburg. This three-story modern stone-and-glass building — built by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) with funds raised primarily from North American federations and private donors — was pitched by the JDC as the new heart of the St. Petersburg community.

Now, four months after the impressive opening ceremony that brought together JDC leadership from New York and Israel, North American donors and local community leaders, the center is fully built — but stands empty.

The center is also the focus of criticism from some of its would-be occupants, who say that they haven’t been kept in the loop about planning the center from the beginning, that its opening has been delayed and that they are unsure about when they will be able to move in.

For its part, the JDC says that the delays are a result of bureaucratic snafus in obtaining zoning approval, and that it plans to move local Jewish organizations into the building later this month. JDC also wants to make the building economically self-sufficient; sources suggest that the project has stalled because JDC is also looking for commercial tenants to help achieve this goal.

YESOD, a bright and open space, is similar to state-of-the-art JCCs in cities across North America. It has space to house half a dozen Jewish organizations, a gym, a concert hall and a kosher cafe.

Although hailed as a landmark space uniting under one roof many Jewish organizations that have been scattered around the city, the center was received with mixed feelings by community leaders.

At the time, some criticized the JDC for organizing the center from afar and of not bringing the local bodies into the organizational process.

When the center held its ceremony, with Jewish federation guests from North America in attendance, its administration hoped that it would be ready for operation by the end of the year at the latest.

But the center is still not open.

“Everything has stalled and it is not certain when and how we are going to move,” said Leonid Kolton, director of St. Petersburg’s Hesed Avraham welfare center, which provides food and other services to Jewish elderly.

The JDC-run Hesed Avraham gave up some of its space in anticipation of the September move — space that it will need in its more active winter months. Hillel’s predicament is more serious: the student group’s lease is ending at the end of the month.

In an e-mail message, Jonathan Porath, JDC’s country director for Russia, said Hillel will move into the JCC before the end of the month.

But according to Leonid Smirnov, director of JDC in St. Petersburg, the finished building is still going through the lengthy process of receiving final approval from the zoning commission.

Local Jewish organizations should be able to move in at the end of January and “general activity” in the building should begin in the late winter or early spring, Porath said. Meanwhile, the amount that local groups will be expected to pay in rent is still unclear.

There are indications that the nonprofit tenants, St. Petersburg Jewish organizations, will need to pay rent for space in YESOD to cover its costly maintenance. Local Jewish leaders worry that the groups will be expected to pay commercial rates that some organizations cannot afford.

Smirnov says such criticisms and fears are unwarranted because most of the organizations relocating to YESOD are funded by the JDC and thus the JDC would just be paying itself.

“We are not interested in transferring money from one of our pockets to another,” he said.

Financial details are still being worked, out, JDC’s Porath said. According to Leonid Kolton, the overall situation puts a stain on JDC’s image and could even damage the structure of the Jewish community.

The JDC’s Smirnov says any large-scale operation spanning almost four years and involving the transfer of many organizations to a newly constructed building will inevitably run into difficulties and complications.

Added Joshua Berkman, a JDC spokesman: “JDC and its partners built YESOD to serve as a first-class facility where Jewish life in St. Petersburg can continue to flourish. Rest assured, we will do everything we can to make sure the organizations that are driving this historic Jewish rebirth can make YESOD their home.”

No Guests Allowed


Three little words.

That’s what makes the difference between a religious school and a synagogue, as recently defined by the Los Angeles Central Area Planning Commission.

The five-member Planning Commission, responsible for zoning decisions in Hollywood, Hancock Park and other neighborhoods, made its decision Aug. 28 in a hearing regarding Yavneh Hebrew Academy.

In April, Yavneh had submitted an application for a number of changes to the K-8 school’s zoning conditions, including adding a ninth grade for girls and allowing prayer services Saturday mornings. In June, after consulting with nearby residents, traffic consultants and architects, Associate Zoning Administrator Dan Green approved all but one of Yavneh’s proposed changes. The request “to authorize Saturday prayer for students, parents, relatives and other guests” was denied.

“I have no objection to immediate families…[but] ‘and other guests’ means open to the general public,” Green told the Planning Commission. “The school requested changes not necessary for the educational instruction, making it more like a synagogue.”

Allowing the public to worship at the school, he said, would require a separate application, though with a religious institution like Yavneh, “it’s probably a fair assertion that there’s some gray area here,” he said.

Religious institutions often run into problems when they seek to offer prayer services to the public. In Yavneh’s own Hancock Park neighborhood, the tiny Congregation Etz Chaim, a shteibel, has fought for years for the right to offer services in a single-family home purchased for that purpose.

But the solution for Yavneh has been easier. Since the June denial of the request for Saturday services, Yavneh eliminated the three words, “and other guests,” from its application for the appeal. Proponents of the school’s request argued that, as a religious Jewish school, prayer is a regular part of the curriculum, and prayer on Saturday is an extension of the curriculum, rather than the legally different “additional use.”

“It is ironic that we begin our day each weekday with prayer, but on Saturday, the Sabbath … we are not allowed to hold prayer,” Rabbi Moshe Dear, headmaster at Yavneh said.

Neighbors’ concerns focused largely on additional noise and traffic that might be caused by services. These issues were adequately addressed by the school, since no one attending a service at Yavneh would drive on Shabbat.

Hancock Park resident Ed Kazir, speaking in opposition to the request, told the Planning Commission that with “seemingly innocuous words, Yavneh has sought to convert the school into a school and synagogue.”

But James Wolf, president of the Hancock Park Homeowners’ Association, later emphasized, “This is a land use issue, not a neighbors issue.” The Homeowners’ Association supported the school’s request for religious services on Saturdays, once the “other guests” phrase was removed from the request.

Following the hearing of neighbor’s concerns, Planning Commission vice president George Luk made a motion that Yavneh’s revised application be accepted. The motion passed.

B.J. Kirwan, a lawyer from the firm of Latham & Watkins, representing the Yavneh, succinctly explained the situation: “Yavneh’s original request was to include invited guests. The neighborhood thought that sounded like opening a synagogue. So Yavneh scaled back its request to only Saturday morning services for family. As a school, it is important to meet the neighborhood at least halfway.”