Neighbors May Fight Retirement Home on Temple-Leased Land

Times Staff Writer

Saying that a Jewish group leased more surplus Pierce College land for a temple than it needs, Woodland Hills residents have balked at plans to turn most of the site into a 303-apartment retirement complex.

Homeowners said they do not object to a 5 1/2-acre temple on what used to be a college alfalfa field next to their neighborhood. But they said they oppose development of a multiple-story apartment project on the remainder of the 17 1/2-acre parcel.

An Encino reform Jewish congregation, Shir Chadash, leased the property 19 months ago from the Los Angeles Community College District. College officials said they decided to lease the land because it was separated from the main Pierce campus and the deal would give the district an infusion of cash.


The 420-family congregation was the only bidder when the site was put up for grabs. The group agreed to pay $3 million to use the land for 75 years and plans to spend another $3 million to build its religious facilities.

Whole Parcel Unneeded

Congregation leaders said they fell in love with the site--on the east side of the West Valley Occupational Center, between Victory Boulevard and Calvert Street--even though they didn’t need the whole parcel.

“We only need 5 1/2 acres for the temple,” said Gary Riches, a developer and a congregation member who is helping to plan the temple. “We took a gulp and a large financial obligation. Now, what do we do with the other 12 acres?”

Riches and other Shir Chadash leaders revealed their long-range plans to about 165 Woodland Hills residents Wednesday night at a meeting at Calvert Street Elementary School, next door to their leased land.

They said they decided on the retirement home concept becauses it will help remedy a shortage of housing for senior citizens in the West San Fernando Valley without causing traffic problems. Profits from subleasing the land for the retirement project would be used to help pay the lease costs, they said.

The apartments would be built and operated by Retirement Inns of America. That firm has built 750 units in Fullerton and in the San Francisco area and is planning a similar number of retirement apartments in other cities, said Jeffrey Jones, a development consultant for the company.

The Woodland Hills project would cost about $17 million, Jones said. Rent, which would include meals, would range from $1,700 to $2,500 a month, he said.

Temple leaders pledged that the 2- and 3-story apartments would be separated from the neighborhood by landscaping and other buffers. They said the 3-story units would be away from the neighborhood and next to the occupational center.

Many Are Skeptical

Many of those who listened to an hourlong slide and videotape presentation were skeptical, however.

Several complained that delivery trucks servicing the retirement project’s central kitchen and laundry areas would disrupt the 30-year-old neighborhood surrounding the project on three sides.

Others asserted that tenant traffic will cause congestion and that frequent emergency ambulance sirens will keep the neighborhood awake at night. They urged Shir Chadash leaders to build single-family homes instead of rental units.

“I think there was general support for the temple itself,” said meeting moderator Robert Gross, a vice president of the Woodland Hills Homeowners Organization. “But I heard some serious concern about the multifamily part of the development.

“They told us they really only wanted to lease enough land for the temple, but the college district said you take it all or nothing.”

Gross said the homeowner association will not take a stand on the proposal until those who live next to the site have a chance to study refinements to the development concept.

“It’s a lame idea” to build senior-citizen housing on the land, said Sjean Beaird, who lives across the street from the property. “It’s a great idea to be doing things for the elderly, but this isn’t the place.”

On Thursday, Shir Chadash representatives promised those modifications will continue. But they said substitution of about 60 single-family homes for the apartments is not feasible because houses on leased land would be difficult to sell.

Riches said the congregation will file next week for a Los Angeles zoning change to allow the development to proceed. The alfalfa field is zoned for low-density agricultural and residential uses.

Rabbi Steven Jacobs denied that his congregation made a mistake by committing itself to more land than it needs--and to the $3 million in lease payments it must complete in three more years.

“I don’t think we blundered at all,” Jacobs said. “We had a dream . . . we wanted to build a community of diversity.”

In time, Jacobs predicted, Woodland Hills residents will come to see that the project “is in the best interest of the community and us.”