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Mount Washington Church Drops Expansion Bid

July 12, 2001|GEORGE RAMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Self-Realization Fellowship, a meditative religious organization that has been headquartered at a former hotel on Mount Washington since 1925, announced Wednesday that it was dropping its controversial plan to expand its central offices in that northeast Los Angeles community.

The decision ends a four-year fight over the proposal, which would have been voted on later this year by the Los Angeles City Council.

In a two-page news release, the church said it was withdrawing the plan because it did not enjoy widespread support in the hilltop enclave of 8,000 residents about four miles from downtown. Opponents said the expansion was too big and would change the area's bucolic character because of many expected visitors, especially if the expansion included a new mausoleum for the church's founder.

"We reached the decision to withdraw our application after very careful consideration," Brother Brahmananda, a church spokesman also known as Charles Woll, said in the release. "We hope that this is a catalyst to promote greater harmony within the community."

The church, which was founded in 1920, sought to add 206,000 square feet for a new museum, additional office space, classrooms, counseling offices, underground parking and more living quarters for its cloistered monks and nuns.

It also sought to reinter there the remains of founder Paramanhansa Yogananda, who died in 1952. His remains are at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale.

Opposition was such that signs reading "Stop SRF Construction" started appearing on the hill, urging opposition to the project. A rival homeowners group was formed last year because some of its members felt frustrated that the venerable Mount Washington Assn., the longtime community organization, was neutral about the project.

Opponents were overjoyed when they heard of Wednesday's announcement.

"We're pleased that the SRF has seen the light that we have seen for so long," said Mount Washington resident Dan Wright, who heads an opposition group.

Louis Mraz, another opponent, said, "I'm a skeptic. I'm not averse to helping monks and nuns, but not at the expense of moving dirt in my community. This is not an area for a business, a convention center or a mausoleum."

The church, which espouses a traditional Indian philosophy of yoga and meditation, last year scaled back its original proposed expansion by about 24% in square footage, in hopes of getting city approval.

That, however, did not stem opposition when the proposal came up for two days of hearings in mid-May before a zoning administrator.

A long parade of speakers criticized the plan as being akin to putting two large home-improvement stores on a residential lot. A church splinter group, which opposed the moving of Yogananda's body because it feared losing access to it, also objected to the plan.

City zoning administrator R. Nicolas Brown was in the process of gathering more information before issuing his ruling on the application for a conditional use permit to allow the expansion work. That process now stops.

In an interview, Brahmananda, the church spokesman, said the decision to withdraw was made within the last two weeks in view of the opposition at the public hearings.

"We came to the conclusion that we could go ahead and push things, but that very likely would not be worth what we put into it," the spokesman said.

The decision to scrap the proposal does not rule out a future attempt to expand. But for now, the church spokesman said, the fellowship will concentrate on being a good neighbor and continuing its church work. The group was widely appreciated for its elaborate annual Halloween festival, but the event was canceled last year because of chronic complaints about illegally parked cars and other neighborhood problems.

Asked whether Wednesday's announcement was influenced by a recent article in the New Times Los Angeles alleging that Yogananda, a professed celibate, might have fathered a son, church spokeswoman Lauren Landress emphatically said no. She added that the story was not true.

The area's newly elected city councilman, Ed Reyes, said he was caught off-guard by the church's decision. In the recent election campaign, he said he quickly learned the proposal's intricacies because it was a hot-button issue.

Reyes, who was neutral on the expansion, said the church's decision to withdraw its plan could help soothe ruffled feelings among many area residents.

"It provides us with an opportunity to bring together all the folks who have been basically fighting over this issue," he said. "That's important for our families and our children."

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