Tuesday, November 23, 2010
C.A. Rejects Bid to Demolish Historic Santa Monica Apartments
Panel Nixes Exemption Claim by Religious Group That Bought Property in 2005
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday rejected a religious organization’s bid to demolish the historic Teriton Apartments in Santa Monica, ostensibly to develop housing for Jewish refugees from Iran and Iraq.
Div. Three said an exemption from historic preservation standards for religious groups did not apply because the 60-year-old comlex had always been a commercial enterprise, both when Or Khaim Hashalom purchased it in 2005 and at the time the organization sought the exemption.
The Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office, which has fought the group’s plan, has previously claimed that the corporation falsely claimed to be a religious organization in order to defraud tenants, many of whom are elderly and disabled.
Chief Deputy City Attorney Alan Seltzer told the MetNews that his office was pleased with the decision, and said the court correctly applied the California Supreme Court’s construction of the statute setting forth the exemption, Government Code Sec. 37361(c). He declined further comment.
Santa Monica attorney Rosario Perry, who represents Or Khaim, disputed any assertion that his client was not a legitimate religious organization, calling it a “red herring.” He said he expected to seek review by the California Supreme Court.
Designed by architect Stanford Kent and built in 1949-1950, the property is a 28-unit rent-controlled garden-style apartment. It consists of two to three stories arranged in a pinwheel plan around landscaped courtyards, and is named after the twin daughters—Teri and Toni—of initial owner Edgar M. Hillman.
Proponents argue that it has historical and architectural characteristics that exemplify post-war modern vernacular architecture with elements of the Modern International style. They note the influence of Gropius and Le Corbusier’s Quartiers Modernes, the building’s high structural integrity and well-preserved condition, and that the complex is one of only two buildings remaining in Los Angeles exhibiting the unique serpentine or pinwheel design.
The City of Santa Monica did not designate the property as a landmark until November 2006, following a series of events triggered when the complex’s previous owner, Teriton Investors LLC, sold it to Or Khaim Hashalom and applied for a permit to demolish it.
The group, which did not officially incorporate as a not-for-profit religious corporation until January 2006, did not mention its religious aims during a November 2005 before the City’s Landmarks Commission, and withdrew the application after the commission continued the matter to its next meeting.
The commission designated the property as a landmark one year later following a public hearing after Or Khaim Hashalom renewed its push to demolish the complex and announced its plan to build housing for refugees. The corporation later indicated it also wished to build a synagogue.
Or Khaim Hashalom—which had submitted a notice in August 2006 seeking an exemption from the city’s ordinances under Sec. 37361(c), which applies to noncommercial property owned by a religious organization—appealed to the City Council. When the council upheld the designation, the group sought a writ reversing the decision, but Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant ruled that the exemption did not apply because the property was not “noncommercial” when the group sought the exemption.
The Court of Appeal agreed with that determination in an opinion by Justice Richard D. Aldrich. Noting that the property “has been a commercial, for-profit apartment building since it was built” and had never been used for religious purposes, he wrote that the “clear implication” of case law and the statute’s legislative history was that, in order to qualify for the exemption, “the property must be ‘noncommercial,’ i.e., used for the religious institution’s mission and not for profit, before the religious institution seeks to invoke the exemption.”
In an unpublished portion of the opinion, Aldrich rejected Or Khaim Hashalom’s contention that provisions of the City’s Landmark Ordinance were unclear, concluding it was only subject to “a reasonable scrutiny,” rather than heightened scrutiny as the group argued. He also said that substantial evidence supported the landmark designation.
Perry took exception to the unpublished portion of the opinion.
Commenting that there was generally a “race” between developers who seek permits and preservation proponents who seek landmark status, he said it was unjust that an organization seeking a permit “can be stymied by a city declaring the property to be a landmark beforehand” after the city “holds up” the permit process.
Presiding Justice Joan Dempsey Klein and Justice H. Walter Croskey joined Aldrich in his opinion.
The case is Or Khaim Hashalom v. City of Santa Monica, B212733
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