April 13, 2006
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.