Museum of Tolerance OKd--With Conditions
The city Planning Commission has approved the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s proposed Museum of Tolerance on Pico Boulevard but imposed an unusually high number of conditions to lessen the impact of the four-story building on a nearby residential neighborhood.
Most of the differences between area homeowners and the Wiesenthal Center had been thrashed out in a year of informal talks organized by Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, but the commission resolved some points on its own at its Thursday session.
“The bottom line is that we tried to balance the competing interests and came up with a pretty fair solution,” said commission chairman Daniel Garcia. “This is one of the most restrictive series of conditions we’ve ever laid down.”
Garcia said the site at 9760 W. Pico Blvd.--in an area with a three-story height limit--is “not the best of all sites for the location of a museum that should and will have a great deal of prominence.”
However, he said, the 32 conditions imposed by city staffers were “sufficient to minimize the intrusive effects.” He also said the commission took into account the fact that most of the property is already zoned for commercial use.
The outstanding issue Thursday was how and when the Wiesenthal Center, named after the Nazi hunter, would be able to use a garden area that is intended to serve as a buffer between the museum and the neighborhood of single-family homes to the south.
The neighbors wanted to ban public meetings in the garden unless a majority of the homeowners approved, while the center wanted unlimited use of the garden with 10 days notice.
In the end, the commission decided to allow the center to hold two outdoor sessions a year and to use loudspeaker equipment, but only for 90 minutes during each session and never in the evening or on Saturdays.
The commission also rejected a proposal to increase the size of the museum’s auditorium from 325 seats to 350 despite the center’s willingness to add extra parking.
“I thought it was kind of bad form to add 25 more seats at the last minute,” Garcia said. “It was thrown in, and they didn’t get it.”
Despite these restrictions, Rabbi Meyer May, executive assistant to Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the center, said he is happy with the commission’s decision to grant a conditional-use permit for the project.
“It’s a tremendous day for the Museum of Tolerance in that we know the project will be a reality and it can be a reality on the present site,” he said.
“The conditions were not terribly onerous and we have agreed only on those things that we can accept. By and large, the negotiations with the neighbors were held in good faith.”
Plans call for the $20-million museum, funded in part by a $5-million state grant, to serve as a memorial to the millions of Jews and others who were killed by Nazi Germany. It will also include a reference to the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turkey during World War I.
James Conkey, project manager for the museum, said that he, too, was pleased with the commission’s action, but that the twice-a-year limitation on garden use would be a hardship for the center, which has attracted several world-renowned speakers in recent years.
Appeal Called Unlikely
“Now to say that if we have three of these people in one year we can’t have one of them speak to a big crowd or use the outside area for more than an hour and a half is extremely over-restrictive,” he said. He also said that the 350-seat figure had been included in plans since the project was first drawn up.
Still, he said, the center is not likely to appeal to the City Council, even though limits on working hours and requirements for workers to park elsewhere will add at least $100,000 in overtime and other costs to the project’s final tab.
“We’ve got the results we want,” he said. “It’s just that these conditions are a little overbearing. We’re doing everything the homeowners want, everything short of not building the museum, that is.”
Susan Gans, president of the Roxbury Beverwil Homeowners’ Assn., said she is disappointed that the group failed to block the project or to see it scaled down to fit on a portion of Wiesenthal Center property already zoned for commercial use.
Still, she said, “I think the center is probably unhappier about the conditions than we are.”
She said the association may remove some of its objections if all goes well during the first two years of the museum’s operation, after which the commission will review the situation.
“Hopefully, we won’t have a horrible time like we’ve just undergone,” she said. “We’ll be able to review things based on actual experience. If more stringent conditions are warranted, hopefully they can be imposed, and if it turns out we overreacted in the first instance, then perhaps some of the conditions could be lifted.”
The homeowners were afraid that the museum, which is scheduled to open in two years, would attract traffic, pose security problems, ruin the view, generate noise and exacerbate parking problems.
Garcia, however, said the square footage of the building was not unusual or overly dense for the site.
While the top floor will violate an existing three-story limit, the end result would be “no greater imposition in terms of impact than a three-story building that spans the entire block,” he said.
Also, he said, there are much taller buildings already in place a few blocks away on Pico Boulevard.
Ginny Kruger, a Yaroslavsky aide who pushed the two sides toward agreement after the councilman objected to the center’s original plans, said the final plan includes a provision for the fourth floor to be set back 30 feet from Roxbury Drive and 15 feet from Pico Boulevard.
After the scheduled ground-breaking this fall, construction hours will be limited. And once the museum is open, its hours will be restricted and bus routes and parking facilities will be provided to minimize congestion.