Center’s growth pains residents

Times Staff Writer

In the 14 years since it opened, the Museum of Tolerance has become an international sensation, attracting millions of visitors with its message of compassion and mutual respect.

But to Sharron Lerman, who lives two blocks away, the Pico Boulevard landmark has become something more: a bad neighbor.

Lerman and other homeowners complain about tour buses rumbling through their neighborhood, visitors taking valuable parking spaces, and police occasionally blocking access to streets when dignitaries visit.

Now Lerman and about 100 of her neighbors are trying to stop the museum from enclosing its open-air memorial plaza to build a two-story cultural center with a cafe and rooftop garden -- a complex that could be rented out for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other private functions.

The longtime neighbors are pressing their campaign against the museum’s owner, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the organization named for the famed Nazi hunter.


Most of those fighting the plans are Jewish, and many are museum members. They say they support the museum’s mission to educate people about intolerance and hate but object to plans they believe would further spoil the peace and quiet of their West Los Angeles neighborhood.

The expansion would require a loosening of conditions imposed by the city from the museum’s beginning to protect the community.

Among the changes: Operating hours would expand significantly, keeping the museum open until midnight for private affairs that are now prohibited. An existing cafe for museum patrons would be opened to the public. And a 100-foot buffer separating the museum from homes -- an area now occupied by the memorial plaza -- would be reduced to 20 feet.

“They don’t care about us as neighbors,” said Lerman, a museum member who has lived nearby for 41 years. “Very insensitive.”

Museum leaders, who enjoy the backing of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other political heavyweights, say they have done everything possible to reduce the effects on neighbors. They say they have stationed extra security staff outside the museum, for example, and passed out fliers reminding bus drivers to stay off neighborhood streets.

The city has also posted signs barring buses from Roxbury Drive and Castello Avenue next to the museum.

But museum executives acknowledge that buses continue to travel on the two streets -- in violation of the museum’s operating permit.

“We don’t want to be disrespectful of our neighbors,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center. “We’re not perfect.”

Hier said the proposed cultural center was necessary to raise revenue and to accommodate the phenomenal growth of the museum, which has gained a global reputation for its exhibits and educational programs about the Holocaust, extremism, diversity and other subjects that have attracted an estimated 4 million visitors since 1993.

“Cultural institutions must be allowed reasonable growth,” he said. “We can’t stay where we are in the same amount of square footage. It’s a very modest addition.”

The 13,500-square-foot cultural center would fit within the existing footprint of the 80,000-square-foot museum. The facility also would annex about 7,400 square feet from an adjoining private Jewish high school for exhibits.

Museum Director Liebe Gest said enclosing the memorial plaza would reduce museum noise. She said private functions would not be held in exhibit space devoted to the Holocaust and other sensitive subjects.

“This will always be the Museum of Tolerance. It is not a place where wild parties and carnivals will take place,” said Gest, who lives within walking distance. “It will never lose the character and the mission for which it was created.”

Museum supporters believe that the problems of trash and noise cited by opponents may be caused by the Jewish high school.

Besides Schwarzenegger and Villaraigosa, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Los Angeles Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman and Howard Berman have declared their support for the expansion in letters to the city Planning Department.

City Councilman Jack Weiss testified on the museum’s behalf last month before a department panel. Weiss voiced skepticism about the possible problems for the neighborhood and said the museum’s benefits far outweighed its shortcomings.

“They have done literally a world of good, and any smart city would be lucky to have them and nurture them,” Weiss said. “It would be perverse public policy to punish them now for their enormous success. Good public policy will nurture their future success at healing the world.”

Hier and other museum proponents say it is but a handful of activists who are trying to derail a project that enjoys significant community support. Museum officials say they have received more than 460 supportive letters.

The opposition is led by residents who have waged similar fights in the past to place limits on the museum and the high school next door.

Entertainment attorney Susan Gans and physician Daniel Fink, a museum member, say the expansion will effectively undo regulations the community brokered to protect their quiet enclave. They point, for example, to the 100-foot buffer the Wiesenthal Center agreed to in exchange for permission to add a fourth story, in excess of local height limits.

Gans and a core of other opponents recently collected 70 signatures on a petition calling for the city to reject the museum’s proposal. Virtually every household they contacted opposed the project, they said.

“We made a deal in 1986. We sat in a room for a year and negotiated,” Gans said. “All of the problems have gotten worse. There is nothing more we are willing to give up.”

Gans and Fink were among more than 50 homeowners who showed up last week at a community meeting at Hamilton High School. One at a time, residents ticked off their problems with parking, buses, noise and trash.

Eric Maman, whose home is about 100 yards from the museum, said the area was becoming a commercial zone. “We all stand to lose big if the museum gets its way,” he said.

Opponents say they will continue fighting as the museum’s plans head to the Planning Commission early next year.