Undercurrents

Temple Tantrum

Watching the Hollywood City Commission is like sitting down to tea with the Mad Hatter; gibberish is table talk, sense doesn't make any, and time seems stopped at six o'clock. That's when the 12-hour discussion of a zoning issue began September 12. Twelve hours. Zoning. Four hours into the madness, Undercurrents was convinced it had fallen down a rabbit hole somewhere between the parking lot and city hall.

At issue was whether Chabad Lubavitch should be allowed to establish a new synagogue in two small, single-family homes it owns on 46th Street in Hollywood Hills. The simple answer is no: The homes don't meet the city's own rules for granting an exception to the zoning code. The houses and lots are too small, and there's not enough room for parking. These are facts, not opinions, and they are the reasons why the Hollywood Community Planning Department recommended against allowing Chabad to open its shul.

That should have been the end of the story. But in Wonderland it was only the beginning.

In May the city's Board of Appeals and Adjustments gave Chabad its exception. As board chairman Ron Ishman explains to Undercurrents, in Hollywood rules aren't really rules. "To me it comes down to common sense," says Ishman. "In most cases the strict enforcement of our city's rules is too harsh. To us that's a real problem."

So the board disregarded the planning department's recommendation and OK'd the temple -- not an unusual scenario, as it turns out. The board disregards staff recommendations 93 percent of the time, according to planning director Jaye Epstein.

Hollywood commissioner Sal Oliveri challenged the board's decision in June, sending the matter to the full city commission last week. It's a quasi-judicial matter, meaning the commission heard testimony and acted more like judges than legislators. That's when things got strange.

On the night after the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, 250 people jammed commission chambers. The crowd was about evenly divided between Hollywood Hills residents and temple supporters. Hollywood police chief James Scarberry opened the proceedings with a call for civility and a threat to the indecorous. "I have increased the police presence specifically for this item, and I hope their intervention will not be necessary."

It wasn't, but the room was tense. Both groups cheered like college basketball fans at the Final Four each time their respective side made a point. The sight of sharply dressed Lubavitcher men with peyots (sideburn curls), yarmulkes, and full beards high-fiving one another is one Undercurrents will not soon forget.

Richard Doody, the attorney representing Hollywood's planning department, tried reasoning with the six commissioners on the dais who could vote. (All seven were present, but Oliveri couldn't cast a ballot because he challenged the board of appeals' decision.) "The [zoning] criteria are at issue here," Doody said. "Those are the only things at issue. This is not a First Amendment issue. There is nothing in federal or state law that precludes a city from regulating where a house of worship can go."

But the city commission was having none of that. Keith Wasserstrom wondered why a house wouldn't make a fine temple, because -- he said -- from the street no one would be able to tell it was a temple anyway. Beam Furr suggested that because people learn at temples, perhaps the city should consider it an educational facility. Someone on the dais -- Undercurrents couldn't keep track of the lunacy -- noted that daycare facilities are allowed just about anywhere. The point? There was no point.

Meanwhile Chabad's lawyer, Alan Koslow, kept referring to a mystery zoning rule -- he called it "criteria E" -- that allows commissioners to do whatever they want. Even the city planning director, Epstein, was stumped by that one.

In the back of the room, Hollywood's $50,000-a-year lobbyist, Bernie Friedman, paced like an expectant father. He distributed sign-in cards to Lubavitchers so they could testify before the commission and whispered advice to Koslow, his colleague at the law firm of Becker & Poliakoff.

It is certainly coincidence that time and again, when Friedman would leave the council chambers, a phone on the dais in front of Wasserstrom or Furr would ring. And no doubt it's a fluke that said council members would suddenly have a question for a witness, so Undercurrents won't bother to point that out. And a city lobbyist investing so much time and effort to defeat a recommendation from the city planning department might raise questions in the real world, but down here in the rabbit hole it plays just fine.

For a while Undercurrents was able to maintain a tenuous grip on reality. Then Commissioner Cathy Anderson opened her mouth, and the room began to spin. Anderson, whose thick black glasses dominate her face like the Cheshire Cat's grin, was outraged that Epstein found fault in Chabad's plans yet hadn't voiced objections to halfway houses full of "drug addicts and sex offenders" in other parts of Hollywood. "The city staff has never stepped forward to require that any of these criteria be met for those places," Anderson said.

The Lubavitchers cheered. Epstein wrapped himself in a thin cloak of reality, which in Hollywood is small comfort indeed. "Those places don't require special exceptions," he responded, sounding more than a little perplexed.

At 6:30 a.m., after dozens of public speakers on both sides had vented spleen, the commission voted 5-1 to give the Lubavitchers one year in the houses/temple. After that, their special exception expires, and ostensibly they must clear out. Or apply for a renewal. Neither side clearly won or lost, yet the issue was resolved. Sort of. At least for now. Curiouser and curiouser.

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