A controversial plan to build a new Sikh temple on North Vermont Avenue in the Los Feliz area won approval Tuesday from a key Los Angeles City Council committee but also elicited warnings that the Sikhs must strive to be better neighbors.
The Planning and Environment Committee unanimously approved a conditional-use permit for the Sikh Study Circle to replace its existing run-down facilities on the southeast corner of Finley Avenue with a $1.5 million, marble-covered and domed temple and an underground parking garage.
The matter was appealed to the committee by residents of an adjacent 24-unit condominium building at 4614 Finley Ave. Those residents complained that the Sikhs have brought noise and parking problems to the area and said they fear that the bloody conflict between Sikhs and Hindus in India in recent years could make a new temple a target for violence.
Taking those complaints into account, the three committee members adopted several conditions for the Sikh project. Those include requiring soundproofing for windows, an eight-foot-high fence around the property and a ban on outdoor cooking and gatherings.
"I think, with these conditions, we can resolve most of these complaints," said Councilman Michael Woo, in whose 13th District the temple is situated.
But Woo had a warning for the Sikh officials, who wore brightly colored turbans at the City Hall hearing. "There are things you can do to be a better neighbor," Woo said, including keeping the area around the temple cleaner and quieter. He added that, if complaints continue after the temple is built, he will consider moving to sharply limit the hours the temple can be open.
Councilman Hal Bernson agreed, saying: "The right to practice a religion should be encouraged, but it should not pose a hardship on the community around it."
Full Council Vote
The matter is expected to go to the full council for a vote Wednesday. Because it is in Woo's district, his approval of the project will likely mean a favorable vote. The temple plan won similar support from the city Planning Commission in November.
After the committee vote on Tuesday, condominium owners' spokesman John Cohagan, said his organization, the Los Feliz Imperial Assn., will have to meet to discuss any further opposition to temple construction.
Herjinder Singh Malhi, former president of the Sikh Study Circle, conceded that there had been some fistfights at the temple last year, spurred by an internal election dispute. But he told Woo on Tuesday that the dissension is gone and he promised the committee there would be no repetition of the incident. "We are a peace-loving people," he said.
Malhi also said that the political disputes involving Sikhs in India have cooled since the assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by Sikhs in 1984. Los Feliz residents said they were frightened by rallies at the temple that year celebrating Gandhi's death and, earlier, protesting the raid she ordered on the Sikh's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Punjab, to oust Sikh radicals.
The Sikh temple on North Vermont Avenue has been housed since 1969 in a former restaurant, which now has several building and safety-code violations. A separate house to the rear serves as a residence for the priest and a Sunday school. Both buildings will be demolished to make way for the new temple.
The Sikhs promised to follow the committee's instructions and said that construction of the new temple and a garage with 86 parking spaces will ease many of the problems. Now, as many as 300 worship at the temple and there are only seven parking spaces on the property.
The Sikhs follow a 500-year-old, monotheistic religion which combines elements of Hinduism and Islam. Traditionally, Sikh men are forbidden to cut their hair or beards; religiously observant men wear turbans and an iron bracelet and carry a small ceremonial dagger in their belts.
In another matter, the Planning and Environment Committee voted Tuesday to recommend new zoning for the Silver Lake-Echo Park district. The zoning cuts in half population growth that would have been allowed under a previous proposal.
City planners estimate that 81,000 people live in the district now. The new zoning and accompanying amendments to the district's General Plan will allow construction to increase population to about 96,180. That growth would be a 2% increase over what is allowed in the existing General Plan but half of what planners proposed in July.
Almost identical new zoning was recommended in October by the Planning Commission, which now must review the changes made by the council committee. City planners described most of those changes as small.