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Los Angeles

Hancock Park Project Is Halted

Neighborhoods: City acts in long-running battle over the expansion of a house used for worship by Orthodox Jews.

June 18, 2002|LAURA LOH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles officials have halted construction work on a Hancock Park home used for services by a group of Orthodox Jews, renewing a contest between the rights of religion and the city's power to control the character of its neighborhoods that has already been heard by courts and Congress.

"It's been seven years, it'll be 70 years of fighting, but we're going to prevail," vowed Rabbi Chaim Rubin of Congregation Etz Chaim. "We're going to continue building it, and we're going to continue serving the Orthodox Jewish community."

Only a couple of walls and a partial staircase are still standing after a demolition crew--doing preliminary work to renovate and enlarge the home--was ordered to desist a week ago.

The work sparked anger among neighbors who have long resented the fact that the congregation holds services in this affluent neighborhood zoned for single-family homes.

Residents say they've purposely been kept out of the loop about the plan, which calls for a house more than twice the size of the original 3,700-square-foot dwelling. They say the congregation is trying to circumvent a lawsuit settlement it reached with the city to maintain the property as a residence, in exchange for permission to conduct limited religious activities there.

"They're putting up a synagogue in the heart of a residential neighborhood, and it doesn't belong there," said Marc Sweet, a member of the Hancock Park Homeowners' Assn.

Rubin, who owns the property, said the new structure will look like any other home in the neighborhood. He also said he is not obligated to share his plans with residents.

"Quite frankly, it's none of their business," Rubin said. "People can build homes. I could have built a 1,000-square-foot bungalow and they would have objected because it was too small.... No matter what I do, they will criticize."

Zoning conflicts involving houses of worship have arisen across Southern California in recent years. Last October, Los Angeles County supervisors approved a temporary ban on new churches in Rowland Heights at the urging of residents worried about their property values.

Rubin testified before Congress about the ongoing zoning problems, and Congregation Etz Chaim's dilemma was cited by federal lawmakers when they passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

The law prohibits local land-use and zoning regulations from substantially burdening religious practice, unless officials can show a compelling government reason for their actions. Rubin contends that the city is doing just that to his congregation, particularly with its recent cease-and-desist order.

For a quarter of a century, Rubin's father ran a small congregation out of his home in Hancock Park. When he grew too old to host the services in the mid-1990s, his son moved them three blocks away to an unoccupied house at the busy intersection of Highland Avenue and 3rd Street.

Neighbors complained about the congregation's comings and goings, as the group gradually grew to about 60 members.

To resolve the dispute, the rabbi sought a conditional-use permit for the house. He argued before the Los Angeles City Council that the congregation needed a synagogue.

Neighbors say they expected the property to be renovated, and were shocked when it was nearly razed to the ground. "It's a pile of rubble now," said Rudy Gintel, who sits on the board of the homeowners association.

The stop-work order issued June 10 states that the demolition exceeded the scope of the building permit for an addition of 4,423 square feet to the house, plus a loft and two-car garage.

The rabbi defended the demolition, saying that parts of the house were in poor condition and collapsed on their own during the dismantling of the roof and stripping of inner walls. Rubin said he again feels his congregation is being singled out and that city officials are siding with the homeowners' association to stall improvements to the property.

"It's just outrageous that the city ... after they get some vicious e-mails attacking the project, that they should send down building and safety inspectors to shut down the project," he said. "They can't tolerate us at all to exist here."

The association only wants the congregation to abide by the terms it agreed to in the settlement, said president Jim Wolf.

The city has ordered the congregation to submit revised plans before work may resume. In the meantime, services are temporarily being held at Rubin's home a few blocks away on June Street.

"The work has stopped," Rubin said. "We're not going to violate that ... but we're going to get this [order] removed as soon as possible."

It's unlikely that the synagogue's opponents will back down either. "A great many in the community would rather see it as a vacant lot than to see a religious facility there," Gintel said.

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