November 22, 2006
Santa Monica apartment building at center of battle receives ‘landmark’ status
Residents vs. the Rabbi?
The 7-0 vote at the commission's regularly scheduled Nov. 13 meeting at Santa Monica City Hall marked a victory for tenants of the 28-unit, three-story garden apartment in their very public battle with a nonprofit religious organization, Or Khaim Hashalom, which purchased the building in April.
The seven commissioners, sitting on a dais below the city motto, "Populus felix in urbe felici," "a fortunate people in a fortunate city," also maintained that the Teriton met five of the six criteria used to determine a building's landmark eligibility. While only one must be met to qualify as a city landmark, the Planning Division had previously found none applicable.
On Oct. 31, Or Khaim Hashalom filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city of Santa Monica and the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission, naming all seven commissioners as defendants. The organization claimed that landmarking "substantially burdens" its religious exercise granted under the First Amendment and under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The attempt by Or Khaim Hashalom to stop the Landmarks Commission from considering the Teriton's landmarking was rejected by the U.S. District Court Nov. 9. Or Khaim Hashalom, which was incorporated in January and whose name means Living Light of Peace, wants to raze the building, which was built in 1949, in order to construct up to 40 units, plus a synagogue, to resettle refugees from the Middle East, according to its spiritual head, Rabbi Hertzel Illulian. At the meeting, Roxanne Tanemori, city associate planner, presented an overview of the building's architectural and historical significance, based on a 32-page landmark assessment report complied at the city's request by historic resources consultant, PCR Services Corp.
"Based on the research and evaluation of the property ... staff concludes that the multifamily property ... is not eligible for city landmark designation," she read to the commissioners and about 30 people in the audience, many of them Teriton tenants.
The residents were also afforded an opportunity to speak.
"It is painful to think about what used to be and what is no more ... this latest evaluation from PCR is inaccurate and incomplete," said tenant Christie Savage.
Kit Snedaker, who has lived in the building since 1979, was puzzled by the architectural assessment.
"It seems to me the consultant wrote the whole thing from home," she said.
Only one person, Seong Kim, an attorney from the Century City office of Steptoe and Johnson, which has filed a lawsuit against Santa Monica on behalf of Or Khaim Hashalom, spoke in opposition to landmarking.
"This process, even actually considering whether to landmark this building, is an illegal act under this Government Code," he said, referring to California Government Code Section 3736 (c), which allows organizations to alter or destroy historical buildings under certain circumstances, such as economic hardship or hindrance of religious mission.
The commissioners, all of whom had personally inspected the Teriton, also voiced their opinions.
Commissioner Ruthann Lehrer, an architectural historian, said, "I don't think they correctly apply our criteria," referring to PCR Services Corp.
"It's apparent [the Teriton] is not easy to access and understand, because it's such a pure, rigorous example of the style of international design principles, without any embellishment...." she elaborated.
Others spoke of the building's unique L-shaped courtyard, of architect Sanford Kent's reputation and his atypical pinwheel footprint and of the Teriton's location as a gateway to the San Vicente Courtyard Apartment Historical District.
Only one criterion, the building's identification with historical personages, escaped approval. All agreed that Betty Friedman, a former resident and the sister of the Flex-Straw inventor, didn't qualify as historically prominent.
Roger Genser, art historian and Landmarks Commission chair, complimented both the tenants and the commissioners.
"In six years on the commission, I don't think I've ever heard such eloquence about modern architecture," he said.
The controversy over the Teriton (see "Fate of Santa Monica Apartment Building Embroils Rabbi and Residents in Legal Battle," The Jewish Journal, Oct. 27, 2006) began when a "notice for demolition permit" was posted on the lawn on Nov. 10, 2005. That move, because the building is more than 40 years old, triggered an investigation into possible landmark status.
Or Khaim Hashalom planned to file an appeal with the City Attorney's Office regarding the landmark designation, according to attorney Rosario Perry, who vowed "never to leave" as counsel to the religious nonprofit.
The appeal, according to city of Santa Monica attorney Alan Seltzer, must be filed within 10 days of the Nov. 13 Landmarks Commission meeting. A public hearing must then take place within 45 days of that filing, with only one 30-day continuance allowed.
In the last few years, according to commission chair Genser, four or five buildings have been designated landmarks against the recommendation of the Planning Division staff. Of those, only two have been overturned. In total, about 70 buildings in Santa Monica have been voted city landmarks.
Currently, according to Perry, Or Khaim Hashalom is settling needy people in Teriton apartments as they become vacant. He said three units are currently occupied by such people. Tenant Snedaker said she has heard that one unit is supposedly occupied by two Talmudic students. However, "these are invisible students," she said. "We never see them coming or going." She said she is unaware of other new tenants, poor or otherwise.
Illulian , Or Khaim Hashalom's spiritual leader, did not attend the meeting but said in response to the commission's decision, "It's not as easy as I thought. We leave it in the hands of God to help us to be successful in everything good we are trying to do."