September 24, 2008
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.