For more than 60 years, a weathered two-story stucco building on Fairfax Avenue in West Hollywood has served as the home of the Crescent Heights United Methodist Church.
The church has taken on a new, high-profile role in the two years since West Hollywood incorporated. In a city where meeting space is often in short supply, the church building has become an unofficial town hall, used as a polling place during elections, a headquarters for an influential tenant activist group and an assembly hall where theater troupes and a variety of self-help organizations often congregate.
But the more the building has been used, the more controversy it has generated. Church leaders now fear that a growing furor could force the disbanding of the 73-year-old congregation.
Landlords have been angry ever since church officials decided more than a year ago to rent out offices to the Coalition for Economic Survival, a politically powerful tenant activist group. Three of West Hollywood's five City Council representatives are longtime members and leaders of the coalition.
Neighbors blame the church for parking shortages on nearby streets during weekly meetings of a 150-member Alcoholics Anonymous group.
Over the past four months, the landlords and neighbors have joined in an unlikely alliance, urging the Planning Commission to oust the tenant coalition from its offices and force the church to provide adequate parking. Although the commission has refused to evict the coalition, it is expected to decide at its weekly meeting tonight whether to enforce strict parking requirements.
Last December, the commission ordered church officials to provide 44 more parking spaces or evict Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Church officials are expected to tell the commission tonight that additional parking can't be found. The church has nine spaces.
Pastor Marian Stump said a decision in favor of the landlords and neighbors could force the church to close. "It's a real matter of survival to us," said Stump, who has been head of the congregation for the past year.
"The (alcohol and narcotics) groups give us donations of about $3,000 each week for their use of the building," Stump said. "That compares with the $500 a week we usually get from the congregation. We'd have to close without those funds."
Stump said the church congregation has dwindled over recent years to about 60 people, but only 20 or 30 show up for Sunday services. In addition, the church also receives nominal donations from a 90-member Korean United Methodist congregation that uses the building on Sundays. "They would also be displaced if we closed up," Stump said.
The controversy has its roots in the long-standing feud between West Hollywood's large tenant population (more than 85% of city residents are renters) and its landlords. More than a year ago, John Parks, a real estate broker and landlord organizer, decided to press the city government to evict the Coalition for Economic Survival from its headquarters in the church.
Parks wrote a letter to the city government insisting that the coalition was a political action committee conducting illegal commercial activities in a residentially zoned area. "There's a real principle at stake," Parks said recently. "Would the city government look the other way while a political machine violates city law?"
Larry Gross, the executive director of the coalition, saw Parks' move as harassment. "It is typical landlord vengeance," Gross said. "It's a direct attack on us. The landlords knew we were responsible for pushing the (city's) rent control law, so I guess they had the notion that if we weren't here any longer, their troubles would disappear."
City officials rejected Parks' complaint, ruling that the tenants group was not conducting commercial activities in the church and had the right to remain there. But by the time that decision was made, a new element was introduced into the growing dispute.
Parks, who also owns a five-unit apartment building on Orange Grove Avenue, a block away from the church, alerted neighbors to the church's attempts to win a conditional-use permit from the city. Stump said she had been told by city officials that the church needed the permit to continue providing its facility as a meeting place for AA and other groups.
For years, neighbors said, they have been forced to tolerate traffic jams whenever the alcohol and narcotics rehabilitation groups meet. When neighbors learned that the church needed an official city permit, they saw their chance to act.
Julie Claxton, who lives in a six-unit condominium complex on Orange Grove, had grown tired of seeing her guests unable to find parking spaces on nights when AA met. Claxton knocked on her neighbors' doors, taking an informal survey to find out if they, too, wanted changes.