A Superior Court judge has ruled that the West Hollywood City Council violated its own zoning codes as well as environmental codes when it approved construction of a parking deck adjacent to the Iranian American Jewish Center (IAJC) temple on the northwest corner of Crescent Heights Boulevard and Fountain Avenue.
The writ of mandate the judge issued offers a victory for neighbors who have long complained of noise coming at all hours of the night from people using the temple’s banquet facility. Residents contend that Neman Hall, the 400-person banquet hall, is effectively a commercial nightclub. IAJC, however, has claimed that activities at the banquet hall are religious in nature and therefore exempt from city regulation.
In February 2012, the council voted 3-2 to approve the controversial three-level, 100-space parking deck, which has yet to start construction and would be used primarily for Neman Hall patrons. Councilmembers Abbe Land and John Heilman voted against it.
Judge Richard Fruin ruled the council should have issued a “variance” (an exception to the zoning for the property) to approve the parking deck because the number of spaces and the setbacks (amount of space between the property line and the structure) don’t match the city’s code requirements. In order to issue a variance, many public hearings must be held.
“The ruling of the judge was that it was a backroom deal,” said Santa Monica-based attorney John Murdock who filed the lawsuit against the City Council on behalf of Jerry Ptashkin who owns the apartment building at 1341 Crescent Heights Blvd., immediately north of the IAJC parking lot. “He was much more gentle in his ruling, but that’s basically what he’s saying.”
In 2008, the city’s Planning Commission ruled a 15-foot setback was needed for the parking deck. Fruin noted that the setback requirement was not mentioned in subsequent city documents. Then at its Feb. 6, 2012 meeting, the council approved the parking deck with a five-foot setback, but didn’t offer any explanation as to how it came up with the five feet.
“The record does not present any evidence as to why a variance is not now required,” reads Fruin’s ruling, “thus the city can hardly claim ‘substantial evidence’ supports its present findings.”
“If they’re going to give them a five-foot setback, they have to explain why and do a variance,” said Murdock. “[Judge Fruin] said the city didn’t explain why, so therefore it’s void.”
The city has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision, which was issued on June 3. According to the lawsuit, the council has 180 days, after receiving notice of the writ of mandate (March 5), to meet the terms.
“The city is reviewing the decision and considering its options,” said City Attorney Mike Jenkins in a statement. Gregg Kovacevich, who works in the Jenkins and Hogin law firm, handled the case.
When questioned about the court’s ruling during Thursday night’s Planning Commission meeting, Jenkins said he will bring a resolution to “vacate” the 2012 parking deck approval to the council at its July 15 meeting. Jenkins told the commissioner the city could ultimately decide to issue the variance or amend the zoning codes and to expect the parking deck to come back before them in the future.
Fruin also ruled that the project is not exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires an environment review on issues such as noise, traffic and air quality.
Jenkins told the Planning Commission the city didn’t do a CEQA analysis because it didn’t think one was needed for “an urban area infill project.” However, Murdock said an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) will likely be needed.
While the ruling does not permanently stop the parking deck project, it does significantly delay it. An EIR typically takes nine to 12 months. Hearings before the Planning Commission and the City Council for a variance could also take a year or longer.
Calls to the temple for comment were not returned.
The temple, built in 1952 for Hollywood Temple Beth El, doesn’t meet many of the city’s current standards, but was “grandfathered in” since it predates the city’s incorporation in 1984. With its congregation declining, Hollywood Temple Beth El sold the building to the Iranian American Jewish Federation in 1998. Since then, Hollywood Temple Beth El has been renting space in the building for its religious services. In 2004, the IAJC began doing upgrades to Neman Hall to transform it from a social hall into a banquet hall.
“Neman Hall is a commercial banquet hall/event center, and the parking lot was proposed to support the tons and tons (and I mean tons) of people that partied there every single night of the week with noise continuing past 4 a.m., only to start again at 6 a.m.,” said Marla Miller, a longtime resident who lives in the adjacent 1341 Crescent Heights Blvd. apartment building. “The never-ending banging and clanking due to the insane amount of loading and unloading that was required for these nightly extravaganzas went on for 16 to 20 hours each and every day, setting-up one party while tearing down the previous night’s party.”
The city has long tried to find a way to control the noise problem. The IAJC has frequently cited the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which gives religious institutions the ability to avoid zoning restrictions on their property.
Miller contends Neman Hall hosts many events that are not religious in nature. The Neman Hall website indicates the hall can be rented for birthday parties, baby showers and anniversaries as well as weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and Jewish holiday parties.
At one point, the city proposed an ordinance requiring all religious facilities to obtain a conditional use permit to operate their banquet facilities. Other churches and synagogues in the city cried foul, saying that would punish them when the ordinance was aimed solely at the IAJC.
Because of the number of patrons at Neman Hall, the IAJC needed additional parking and tried for years to get the parking deck approved. Finally, the IAJC agreed to restrict the hours of Neman Hall to midnight on weeknights and 1:30 a.m. on weekends, in exchange for city approval of the parking deck.
Residents opposed to the project came out in force at public hearings about the parking deck. Murdock said those public comments as well as the letters and emails sent to the city about the project were instrumental in swaying the judge’s mind.
“We are not permitted under a writ of mandate to bring in new materials,” said Murdock. “We used everything that was already in the record at City Hall. That’s why they went through all those hearings. All those comments eventually made their way to court. In essence, it’s the evidence provided by the citizens that won this case.”