Pacific Palisades Chabad preschool denied lease extension

The Jewish Journal, Los Angeles/July 8, 2008

An eight-to-one vote by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Board - along with a unanimous vote by the Conservancy Advisory Board - last night soundly defeated Chabad of Pacific Palisades' appeal to temporarily extend the lease for its preschool site at Temescal Gateway Park from September 2008 through January 2009.

The vote upheld the unequivocal denial by Conservancy executive director Joe Edmiston on June 12 to extend Chabad's lease. It also confirmed the decision of the Conservancy in April 2007 to stop leasing the public parkland to private entities - including Chabad's Palisades Jewish Early Education Center and Little Dolphins Preschool - and to increase public access to the park, especially for underprivileged youth from congested urban areas. The park is owned by the State of California and operated by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

A standing-room-only crowd of several- hundred people, some of them waving signs reading "Public Lands in Public Hands," attended the spirited and occasionally divisive emergency meeting held on Monday evening, July 7, at the park's Conference and Retreat Center off Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades.

During the three-hour meeting, public testimony was heard from supporters of the Conservancy, from environmental and educational groups using the park for educational and recreational activities for low-income and at-risk children, and from representatives and friends of Chabad.

"We found a new location in January," Rabbi Zushe Cunin, executive director of Chabad of Pacific Palisades, told the group. "We had every reason to believe we wouldn't need an extension."

Cunin reiterated Chabad's offer of a $250,000 bond to secure their word and to guarantee departure from the park premises by January 31, 2009.

Additionally, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, father of Zushe Cunin and president of Chabad of California, the parent organization, invited 3,000 inner-city children to Chabad's Camp Gan Israel in Running Springs for four days, all expenses paid, to provide them with an even more authentic outdoor experience.

"I will give you my cell phone number," he said.

But others, such as Robert Garcia, executive director of City Project, while lamenting a situation in which "child is pitted against child," spoke in opposition to renewing the lease and to privatizing Temescal Gateway Park. Working with 20 organizations, including Anahuak Youth Association and the National Hispanic Environmental Council, City Project supports public access to parklands for all.

"Equal access to public resources means, under California law, the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures and income," said Garcia, pointing out that Pacific Palisades has 404.83 acres of parks per thousand residents, compared to .66 acres in East Los Angeles.

And while Chabad supporters stressed that the school is using less than half an acre in a 140-acre park, the Conservancy's Edmiston said that the park is predominately covered by chaparral, while Chabad's site, which includes three trailers and a fenced-in field, occupies one of only two flat, grassy spots in the park that can accommodate large groups of children.

"It's a zero-sum situation. If you have trailers there, you're not going to be able to have kids playing there," he said.

Amy Lethbridge, in charge of education for the Conservancy, told the group that more experiential programs have been planned for the coming year, including additional contracts with Los Angeles Unified School District to bring out more kids.

"I need space to serve the very programs the park was purchased to serve," she said.

Chabad's attorney Benjamin Reznik, a partner at Jeffer, Mangles, Butler and Marmaro, lamented that the issue is being framed as "us versus them, private versus public." He stated that Chabad didn't anticipate the delay on their new site and is asking only for a temporary extension.

"Whoever's out there saying that what we're asking is to take over the park is being, I think, very mean-spirited," he said.

Chabad had been renting space for its preschool at several locations in Temescal Gateway Park since 2008. But the lease, which stipulated it could not be "extended or renewed under any circumstances" and which was itself a one-year extension of a previous one-year non-renewable lease, ended on June 23.

Chabad found a new location in January, signing a three-year lease on a 3,000-square-foot vacant building located on private property off Los Liones Drive, adjacent to a Getty Villa service road and to property owned by the Mormon Church and below a ridge of expensive homes in the Castellammare Mesa area of Pacific Palisades.

But strong opposition by the neighbors and a claim by the Getty that Chabad does not have the right to access the property via its service road have delayed the project. Additionally, the Mormon Church has denied entry through its property.

Chabad is exploring all options for accessing the building and is encouraged by the recent discovery of an overlooked legal document allowing a potential public street to be constructed that would lead directly to the building's entrance. Chabad is also planning to file for a conditional-use permit in the next 10 days and has agreed not to open the preschool until all conditions have been met. But whatever happens, the preschool will not be ready for September occupancy.

After Chabad's request to extend the lease was denied by Conservancy executive director Edmiston on June 12, Chabad approached Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to intercede.

A letter from Mike Chrisman, secretary of the State of California Resources Agency, on June 26, responding for the governor, provided Chabad with guidelines to "help resolve this matter in a way that makes sense for Chabad, its neighbors, and the [Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy]." After Chabad formally appealed, Conservancy chairperson Ronald Schafer called the emergency meeting.

But Monday night's vote dashed any hopes for a resolution favorable to Chabad. Currently, the preschool is holding its six-week summer program at Palisades Elementary School, as it has every summer, and it is looking for a temporary location.

Still, Chabad will open its doors for the fall session on Sept. 4, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin guaranteed at the end of the meeting.

"We will have a proper preschool," he said. "We will not let the children down."

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