Tenants Banking on City

Monday, December 8, 2008
Kevin Herrera
Santa Monica Daily Press

A synagogue is planning to displace dozens of tenants here so it can demolish what may be a historic, 28-unit apartment complex and replace it with a combination of subsidized housing and high-end condominiums for Jewish refugees persecuted in the Middle East.

Tenants of Teriton Apartments, many of whom are seniors, learned about the plan last Friday during a contentious meeting with property owners Or Khaim Hashalom, an alleged non-profit, religious organization that is requesting City Hall make a determination as to whether the complex should be considered a historic landmark.

If so, Or Khaim Hashalom would be prevented from demolishing it and from evicting tenants, something which would create a significant financial hardship for the group and deprive it of full use of the site, said members of Hashalom's executive committee, some of whom were dressed in traditional Hasidic garb - long black suits and wide-brimmed hats - with fluffy beards and dangling sideburns.

"If we are not allowed to demolish the building, then we are stuck with what we have today, which is an annual loss of $500,000 a year," said Rosario Perry, a real estate and land-use attorney in Santa Monica who is representing Or Khaim Hashalom in the development process.

"Because of complex zoning and rent control laws, there is no way that we can meet our goals without demolition and reconstruction," Perry said. "We need to add more units and secure some public financing just to break even. That's our goal."

Or Khaim Hashalom would like to build 38 to 40 units, including some for sale, a temple for worship and possibly a day-care center, Perry said.

The Teriton, designed by architect Stanford Kent in 1949, is comprised of two, low-rise, high-density buildings centered around an L-shaped courtyard known as "garden style" architecture, a popular form that offered inexpensive housing for the working class and became just as emblematic of early 20th century Los Angeles as bungalows or Spanish Colonial Revival homes.

The building is situated in a potential historic district known as the San Vicente Courtyard Apartment Historic District. It has been surveyed by City Hall three times in the last 25 years, and will be reviewed again as city preservationists look to update the citywide historic resources inventory, said architectural historian Jennifer Hirsh, who was hired by Or Khaim Hashalom to provide an assessment of the property, located at 130-142 San Vicente Blvd.

In her report, Hirsh said the apartments do not appear to be eligible for landmark designation, but further research is needed to judge the significance of the building as it relates to Kent's overall work.

"In addition, research is needed on how the work of Stanford Kent fits into the development of Santa Monica and the Los Angeles region," Hirsh wrote.

Faced with the possibility of losing their homes, tenants were visibly upset with Or Khaim Hashalom members. Many resented the fact that the organization wanted to kick them out to make room for Jewish refugees, a clear act of discrimination, tenants and others at the meeting said.

Patricia Hoffman, who is not a tenant but is opposed to the project, said when she first moved to Santa Monica, there were restrictive, racial covenants preventing those of the Jewish faith from purchasing homes in certain neighborhoods. Today, those same blocks are filled with people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds.

"To create property with religious covenants is reprehensible," Hoffman said.

Risa Freeman, a tenant who just moved to the Teriton after being evicted from another complex being converted into condos, said she cannot understand how a religious organization can justify evicting seniors and other tenants on fixed incomes who only survive because of the low rents provided by rent control. If they are forced to move, they'll face a steep increase in housing costs.

"I'm Jewish," Freeman said. "I go to synagogue. I partake some of the same traditions as you do and just don't see how you can do this. You shouldn't be evicting people from their homes."

Rabbi Hertzl Illulian said the congregation felt sympathy for those affected and has agreed to help with relocation for long-term tenants.

"By no means do we intend to take the health of people or create hardship," Illulian said. "I wish so much that there was so much land, enough for everybody. We really feel bad. We are human beings like you. We all want family. I feel your pain. It bothers me. I wish there was another way."

A few in the audience believed the synagogue is a front for developers looking to capitalize on prime real estate and rising condo prices. The belief was fueled by the executive committee's refusal to answer any questions about the history of Or Khaim Hashalom or whether there are any other parties involved with the project.

"We are not here to answer those questions," Perry said several times as audience members tried to dig for more information.

Illulian said Or Khaim Hashalom is a legitimate, Jewish organization that helped transport roughly 1,000 Jewish refugees to the United States using student visas in 1978 during the Iranian revolution. With the current crises in the Middle East, Illulian said it is even more important to find a safe haven for those Jews living in a war zone.

At the conclusion of the meeting, which occurred earlier than expected because of the executive committee's observance of Shabatt, the weekly day of rest in Judaism, Or Khaim Shalom's leadership voted to file with City Hall a summary of hardships and an objection to the granting of landmark status. The issue is before the Landmarks Commission, which must review any permits for demolition.

The vote seemed to have been decided before the meeting began, leaving tenants disenchanted.

"This was a complete waste of time," several Teriton residents said as they left the meeting. "They're going to do what they want, regardless."

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