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JewishJournal.com

October 18, 2007

Museum of Tolerance faces fight with neighbors over expansion plans

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community_briefs/article/museum_of_tolerance_faces_fight_with_neighbors_over_expansion_plans



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Google Earth photo shows the Wiesenthal Center complex, left center, south of Pico Blvd. between Roxbury Dr. and Castello Ave. On left side is the Museum of Tolerance and memorial garden, and on right the Yeshiva of Los Angeles. Owners of adjacent family homes oppose the center's expansion plans.


The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which has been battling for more than three years to construct a $200 million center in Israel, is facing another emotional building controversy, this one in its own backyard.

The proposed Center for Human Dignity in the heart of Jerusalem is opposed by two Palestinian advocacy groups, which claim that the complex would sit atop a historic Muslim cemetery. The legal confrontation has been hanging fire in the Israel Supreme Court for the last 18 months.

Back home, the neighborhood conflict is just beginning, although its roots go back a long way. Foremost at issue is an expansion of the Wiesenthal's famed Museum of Tolerance, which has some neighbors up in arms.

Plans call for the addition of a two-story, 45-foot-high building at the museum's southern end, including an indoor cafe and a roof garden on top, taking up almost all the space of the present memorial garden.

Opponents in the residential area surrounding the museum and the adjoining Yeshiva of Los Angeles (YOLA) on three sides object that the memorial garden was specifically designated as a 100-foot buffer zone to shield residents from the noise, parking and other problems attendant to a heavily visited museum and a boys high school.

Neighbors were first notified of the expansion plan on Sept. 29 through a mailing from the City Planning Department, which announced an Oct. 24 public hearing at City Hall. Two activists are now scurrying to organize community opposition. They are Susan Gans, an entertainment lawyer, and Daniel Fink, a physician. Their first job was to plow through a 75-page description of the planned changes.

Among other proposals, the Wiesenthal Center wants to transfer the two top stories of the school's west wing to the museum's jurisdiction, rent museum facilities for events by outside organizations, lengthen operating hours to 10 p.m. or midnight, add a side street entrance to the museum, adjust public parking and lift restrictions on construction hours.

All of these "outrageous requests," claimed Fink, violate the restrictions agreed to by the yeshiva and the museum in the original conditional-use permits. If carried through, he said, the changes would diminish the homeowners' quality of life and property values through increased noise, traffic, loud school sports, trash on streets and lawns and, at worst, bomb threats, demonstrations and street closures.

Gans and Fink are now circulating a petition among their neighbors urging city authorities to deny all of the Wiesenthal Center's requests and to charge the institution with violating its current conditional use permit.

Fink summarized his objections in one quip: "In Jerusalem, they want to disturb the bones of dead Muslims, and here, they want to disrupt the lives of living Jews."

The block-long museum/YOLA enclave lies on the south side of Pico Boulevard, between Roxbury Drive and Castello Avenue.

To the west, east and south of the complex stand 144 single-family homes in a neighborhood informally known as North Beverlywood. Gans estimated that up to 95 percent of the residents are Jewish, ranging from secular to Conservative, with a sprinkling of Orthodox families.

Most of the homes were built between 1944 and 1946, and their average worth now is around $1 million. The demographics skew toward an older population, quite a few in poor health, which makes it harder to mobilize them, said the two activists.

The relationship between the Wiesenthal Center and its neighbors has seen its ups and downs over some 30 years, although it has not reached the level of acrimony, for instance, between the Orthodox community of Hancock Park and its neighbors.

Nevertheless, the dispute goes as far back as 1977, when the City Planning Commission approved a 10-year plan for the yeshiva, followed in 1986 by protracted negotiations on the size and operations of the Museum of Tolerance.

New friction arose between 1994 and 1999, but for the last eight years, relations have been relatively smooth, though Gans complained about tight security measures when foreign dignitaries, such as the late Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, visit the museum.

"Streets are blocked off, sharpshooters are stationed on roofs, helicopters fly overhead and secret servicemen knock on your door," she said.

Another neighbor, Sydney Cetner, protested bitterly in a letter: "This was a good residential neighborhood for 45 years, a wonderful place to live. In the last few years, it has become a busy commercial area, with traffic, buses, noise, litter and some very rude students."

In effect, noted Fink, "The Wiesenthal Center is trying to revoke all the provisions it agreed to in the conditional-use permit 20 years ago."

He also finds it difficult to figure out the relationships and legal responsibilities between and among the parent Wiesenthal Center, YOLA and the museum, which he likens to a shell game. An effort, however, is under way to realign the relationships among the organizations.

The case for the museum and school is represented by Susan Burden, the Wiesenthal Center's chief financial and chief administrative officer, and by Psomas, a land-use consultant that compiled the 75-page project description.

Burden, who even unhappy neighbors describe as responsive and respectful, said that the museum, now 15 years old, is bursting at the seams, must keep up with advances in museum standards and is handicapped by restrictions on the use of present facilities.

To bring the Museum of Tolerance up to speed, it has embarked on an internal facelift, designated Phase 1, which includes complete remodeling of the present theater and improvements of the multimedia center and exhibition areas.

Phase 2 consists of the expansion proposals now in contention, including the café and kitchen on the second floor of the museum addition and cultural and catering events on the first floor. The budget for the two phases combined stands at $28 million to $30 million, Burden said. She acknowledged that there was some inevitable friction with neighbors, often caused by buses bringing in some 800-1,200 students daily from Los Angeles County schools to visit the museum.

In addition, the 185 ninth-12th grade boys at the yeshiva may not always contain their exuberance in outdoor games.

Burden said that she personally follows up on each complaint, but that the actual volume is quite low, running at five to six a year. She spoke to The Journal from Israel at about 1 a.m. her time, where she is working on the legal complications holding up construction of the Center for Human Dignity in Jerusalem.

Kathy King, entitlement planner for Psomas, responded to Fink's complaint that the museum had pulled a "Pearl Harbor" on residents by giving them barely three weeks to get their act together before the Oct. 24 hearing. Fink asked for a postponement, which was rejected because the Wiesenthal Center opposed it.

King said that the hearing was only a preliminary step and that additional arguments could be filed with the City Planning Commission, which will likely not consider the case until just before or after the December holidays. Its decision is not expected for another three to four months.

If either party is dissatisfied with the decision, it can appeal to the Los Angeles City Council and if still unhappy, take the case to court.

Over the decades, the Fifth District's former city councilmen, Zev Yaroslavsky and Michael Feuer, were deeply involved in forging compromises between the Wiesenthal Center and residents. It's now the turn of the area's present councilman, Jack Weiss.

Treading a careful middle line, Weiss said in a statement from his office that he "is supportive of the Wiesenthal Center's mission and efforts, but he does understand the concerns of the neighbors and is encouraging the Wiesenthal Center to address the issues that are raised."

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