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Debate Rages Over Church Expansion

Development: A nondenominational group wants bigger headquarters in Mt. Washington. It has reduced its plans, but opponents say the project is still too big.


A major reduction in a church's controversial $40-million proposal to expand its headquarters in Mt. Washington has done little to dampen passions over the plan for the hilly enclave northeast of downtown Los Angeles.

A debate over the proposal has raged for several years, since the nondenominational Self-Realization Fellowship said it would seek a conditional use permit to expand its headquarters at the old Mt. Washington Hotel, which it acquired in 1925.

Supporters say that the church is a good neighbor and that its expansion would not harm the community's character. Opponents say the expansion project would be too big for a hilltop area of only 8,000 residents.

As emotions have risen, some neighbors have even stopped talking to one another.

With a voluminous environmental impact report already approved by city planners and the proposal facing a public hearing in May, the tenor of the debate has gotten nastier.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 7, 2001 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 5 Metro Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Church expansion--A story Tuesday on plans by the Self-Realization Fellowship to expand its headquarters in Mt. Washington misspelled the name of the group's founder, Paramahansa Yogananda.

A circular with a likeness of the group's founder, Paramanhansa Yogananda, and claims of "100 years of [the fellowship's] expansion" has offended church members. It was drawn by a local artist who opposes the expansion.

Some contend there is an anti-religious undercurrent to the controversy.

A splinter group of expansion opponents has broken away from the main opposition organization with 300 members, because it says the group, called the Conditional Use Permit of 3880 San Rafael Ave.--Analysis, Negotiation, Dissemination & Enforcement Roundtable, or CANDER, doesn't speak forcefully enough.

Meanwhile, leaders of the round table say the church is exerting undue influence by hiring a former campaign aide to outgoing Councilman Mike Hernandez to lobby for the project at City Hall.

An advisory group of Mt. Washington residents set up last year by Hernandez stopped meeting recently after it failed to reach consensus on the project's substantive features. The nine members did agree on some general conclusions, including that the project should be reduced in size.

The group's meetings "showed how polarized we are," said Julian Donahue, one of two round table representatives on the panel.

Hank Shaeffer, a Self-Realization Fellowship member and employee who was on the panel, struck a brighter tone. "We did our best," he said. "I don't think it was a waste of time."

The original proposal called for adding a museum, office space, classrooms, counseling offices, underground parking and more living quarters for cloistered monks and nuns. All the additions would be built on the group's current 12.5-acre site.

The church, which was founded in 1920, espouses India's philosophy of yoga and its tradition of meditation. Calling the Mt. Washington headquarters its "mother center," the church maintains 500 centers in 54 countries.

The group wants to reinter the remains of founder Yogananda, who died in 1952, at the headquarters. His remains are at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale.

Late last year, the group decided to scale back the expansion by an estimated 24% because it decided it could make do with less space for the 120 monks and nuns who live and work there.

Church spokesman Miles Hyde said the decision was based on discussions the group had with residents and others. It wasn't a response to the vocal protests from expansion opponents, he said.

Scaled-Back Plan Called Still Too Big

Round table members and others complain that the proposed expansion is still too big. For example, in talks within Hernandez's advisory group, round table representative Donahue said that even though the plans would be scaled back, they would still require 239,000 square feet, far more than the 146,000 square feet allowed under a city-approved guide for the headquarters.

Opponents say the church should prepare a new environmental impact report to reflect the cutbacks. Otherwise, they say, there is nothing to preclude the church from eventually going forward with its original proposal.

Expansion supporters said work on a new report would add years to the debate.

Other areas of disagreement, including increased noise and traffic resulting from the construction, have not been resolved.

The plan to reinter Yogananda's remains at the headquarters is likely to draw considerable attention at the May public hearing before a city hearing officer.

"It's been a persistent goal since he died to bring him back to Mt. Washington," Shaeffer said.

Some opponents say the increased visitor traffic at any shrine for the group's founder would overwhelm the area's maze of narrow streets. Still others, like Donahue, say the idea might work if a shuttle system was started.

Because the fate of the plans will probably be determined by the 15-member City Council, the expansion is a hot topic for candidates running in the April 10 primary election to succeed Hernandez, who represents the area and cannot run for reelection because of term limits.

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