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Neighbors oppose Museum of Tolerance expansion

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Lest she forget, the tattooed A-11150 on Frances Simon's left arm reminds her of the hardships she endured as a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz, Ravensbrück and Malchov.

Lest others forget, she has often taken friends and relatives around the corner to the Museum of Tolerance, which challenges visitors to confront bigotry and to comprehend the Holocaust.

What she can't abide, however, is the museum's plan to dramatically extend its hours and replace a Holocaust memorial garden with multistory reception and banquet space that could accommodate hundreds of guests until as late as midnight six nights a week.

"The traffic, noise and music would disrupt the neighborhood," said Simon, 83. "It's like dancing on the dead people's memory."

Despite such criticism, the project has support from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, local rabbis, many residents and Councilman Jack Weiss, whose district includes the Pico Boulevard institution. But long-running disputes over the museum's operations, coupled with concerns about the expansion, have pitted neighbors -- many of them Jewish -- against Rabbi Marvin Hier.

Tagged last year by Newsweek magazine as the most influential rabbi in America, Hier is founder and dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, named for the famed Nazi hunter. The museum is the center's educational arm, each year welcoming more than 300,000 visitors.

Hier wields considerable political power, counting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger among his friends and donors.

Opponents contend that Hier is pushing hard to propel the project through the city approval process before Weiss leaves the council in June.

"The [center] is making a desperate grab to railroad this project through the planning process," said Susan Gans, an entertainment lawyer who has led the opposition.

Susan Burden, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's chief administrative and chief financial officer, countered that the museum has always had a much broader mission than teaching about the Holocaust.

"The museum's real purpose is to challenge visitors to stand up to hatred," she said. The museum features exhibits about slavery, bullying and genocide.

"We're bursting at the seams," she said. "We've had to turn people away because we didn't have the space."

The expansion would allow the building to accommodate as many as 800, well above current levels. (The museum initially hoped to accommodate 1,200 guests at a time, but Burden said it reduced the number after neighbors complained.)

The expansion and additional revenue from events, Burden said, would enable the museum to serve double the current number of annual visitors.

The 28,000-square-foot expansion would bring the museum to about 97,400 square feet. That includes a 7,153-square-foot wing of the adjoining Yeshiva University of Los Angeles Boys High School, a private Jewish school that is connected to the museum by a bridge. (Although the center long advertised the museum as having 80,000 square feet, Burden said an architect's analysis for the environmental report computed the size at about 69,500 square feet.)

Neighbors have other worries. The project does not provide for any new on-site parking beyond the 200 or so existing spaces; rather, event attendees would be encouraged to park nearby and walk or ride shuttles to the museum. Residents say the available parking would be woefully inadequate for big events, and some fear that guests would snag precious curb parking on neighborhood streets.

In addition, the current mandated 100-foot noise "buffer" on the museum's southern end, the site of the memorial garden, would be shortened to 20 feet.

Gans said that setback was negotiated in 1986 as the "quid pro quo" for allowing the museum to have a fourth story, exceeding the 45-foot height limit.

As for neighbors' concerns about late-night revelry, Burden said the center plans to install 4-inch-thick glass so that noise would not escape. "You're not going to have people having wild parties here, just like you don't have wild parties at the Skirball" Cultural Center, she said.

At a Feb. 18 hearing, Gans and other opponents plan to argue against the museum's efforts to change zoning and loosen conditions that were designed to protect the community.

Opponents also plan to object to what the city's draft environmental impact report, released in November, regards as "significant and unavoidable" effects, among them increased traffic and the stark visual contrast with the area's single-family houses. One portion of the planned addition, which would feature a cafe and enclosed rooftop garden, would rise to 63 feet.

Critics were dismayed to learn Friday that city planners had posted the final EIR, less than a month after comments on the draft document were due. In the final report, the center proposes that the city immediately allow the museum to extend its operating hours and rent space for private events, an idea that opponents vow to fight.

What's at stake, Gans says, is the quiet, pleasant character of her small West Los Angeles community, just west of the Beverlywood neighborhood.

"If this project is approved, I won't be able to have barbecues or sit in my backyard with a cup of coffee and a book," she said of her house, which is in the midst of an extensive remodeling. "I'll never know what big event the museum will be holding."

Opponents have succeeded in getting the ear of at least one high-profile supporter: U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Although the California Democrat initially wrote a letter of support for the project, she has reconsidered because of neighborhood unease. "She believes the leadership of the museum must work with the city and the community to resolve concerns," said Gil Duran, a Feinstein spokesman.

Gans and other neighbors say they admire the museum's mission. Over the years, however, several have written or called to complain about what they view as violations of the conditional-use permit that has governed the museum since it opened in 1993.

After learning in late 2007 about the expansion plans, Gans distributed "Stop the Museum of Tolerance Expansion" signs, many of which still dot the neighborhood. On Roxbury Drive, along the museum's western side, a large banner blares: "SHAME. . . . Help us protect the memories of the Holocaust and Armenian genocide victims/families. . . . It is intolerable to have weddings, parties and bar mitzvahs at a Holocaust museum."

Also troubling to some immediate neighbors is that YULA plans to seek city approval for its own 17,122-square-foot expansion, which also would require major changes to existing conditions. The enlargement would include a new gym and library and "a Beit Midrash addition (religious study hall)," according to a May 2008 document submitted to the city.

Opponents, noting that the Jewish Journal lists the school in its "congregation directory," say they suspect the yeshiva intends to hold bar mitzvah and wedding services, with guests then walking next door for the parties.

Few details about the yeshiva project have emerged, and David J. Nagel, the school's president and board chairman, did not return calls seeking comment.

If the museum and the yeshiva get the city's OK, Gans said, "the burden on this neighborhood is going to be huge."

"It will symbolize what's going on in the city," she added, "a complete lack of compliance with zoning laws designed to protect communities."

martha.groves@latimes.com

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