Saturday, February 10, 2007

Smells like an onion ...

From: Los Angeles Daily News

NORTH HILLS - The Onion is peeling.

The Sepulveda Unitarian-Universalist Society, long a voice for peace and against war, is at war with itself.

The society - recognizable by its bulbous sanctuary - voted last fall to sell about half its property to a developer of senior artist colonies. The congregation's board and minister envisioned harmony between young and old and a solution to the Onion's dire finances.

With only 96 members and 4.84 acres on Haskell Avenue, Meta Housing Corp.'s offer to pay at least $3 million for the Onion's parking lot and vacant land behind it seemed like a perfect fit.

"I wasn't looking to be rescued," said Gloria Burr, congregation president. "I was looking to do something that would fulfill a vision - to help others and to utilize the land."

But after the congregation voted 36-15 to approve Meta's offer last October, a few members took a closer look.

They didn't like what they saw.

The contract allows Meta to decide whether to enact Plan A on 2.4 acres or Plan B on about 2. Plan A would absorb the entire parking lot and force the Onion to build a new one on the front lawn.

Opponents also worried the construction of about 130 apartments would drag on for years and disturb their spiritual lives.

"We were simply aghast at the amount of land that was being taken by Meta, and we felt the Congregation was not allowed to be aware of this when the vote was take(n)," Ida Hurt, who has attended since 1966, wrote in a letter to the board. "Now that we have read the contract, we consider it completely one-sided and unfair."

That led to another congregational meeting on Sunday, when members voted 39-30 against the contract.

"Quite frankly, I'm not only not optimistic it will go through," board member Don Ordway said of the development he supported. "I'm not optimistic the congregation will survive as anything more than a shadow of what it is."

Uncertain future

It's unclear what will happen next. Burr, a 26-year member, warned the congregation that breaking its contract could result in penalties of $250,000 - something the Onion can't afford.

"They did not rescind the contract," said the Rev. Bob McDill, the congregation's minister. "They cannot. The contract has been signed. It is a done deal."

Meta has been widely recognized for its senior-housing developments, particularly the award-winning Burbank Senior Artists Colony, which landed laudatory New York Times coverage in September.

Thirty percent of those units are designated as below market, which appealed to McDill and the Onion's board. So did the idea of encouraging artistic expression of aging minds and the aesthetic pleasantry of Meta's landscaping.

"The toughest first battle we had - who knows what the next will be - was the idea of whether the congregation wanted to sell their valuable piece of property," said Meta President John Huskey. "We were able to convince them at least some of our mission is to provide activities that will keep people healthy longer."

Huskey was unaware of the turmoil being caused by the land sale.

The strife has spread into spirituality. McDill's reaction to last Sunday's vote has opponents of the land sale complaining that the minister, a retired Presbyterian pastor used to more top-down church governance, is ignoring the pleas of the people.

"He was the king of the roost in his last church and everybody had to do what he said," said Mike Dickson, the Onion's newsletter editor. "But it's not that way in the Unitarian Church, where the people decide."

Several moves

The Onion traces its history to 1943, when a small group of religious free-thinkers met in a Van Nuys house. The United Liberal Church of the San Fernando Valley moved several times before buying ranch property at 9550 Haskell Ave.

In 1964, architect Frank Ehrenthal, who had slept for two weeks in the homes of the congregation's members, completed a truly unique sanctuary - large and round, with no corners where people could hide, and a tall, pointed roof.

"The Onion is not a building, but a state of mind, a philosophy of life, an attitude toward people," Muriel Lustica wrote in a short, comb-bound history of the early years.

Unitarianism and Universalism both came to the United States in the 1700s with those who settled in New England.

Those churches considered themselves descendents of Protestantism but with profound doctrinal differences: They believed in God but not the divinity of Jesus and in the salvation of all humans, regardless of their saviour.

As the liberal religions, which merged in 1961, spread across the country, they increasingly sloughed their Christian roots. Places like the Onion associate no more with Christianity than with Hinduism and Humanism. That's why it is a society, not a church.

With some 220,000 American members, the religious movement has been famous for its social activism - for fighting slavery and opposing the Vietnam War, for promoting suffrage and advocating gay rights.

In 1970, when students at University of California, Los Angeles, and California State University, Northridge, were prohibited from inviting William Kuntsler - a virulent anti-war protester who defended the Chicago 8 - to speak on campus, the Onion offered its arena.

Eleven years later, the North Hills congregation decided to spend $2,800 needed for a new roof to instead qualify a state ballot initiative calling for a "freeze" on basing U.S. nuclear missiles in Europe.

Membership, though, has been dwindling for years, down from 220 two decades ago.

The landscaping also has seen better days. The lush green lawn and beautiful flowers pictured on the "Save Our Onion" badges have browned and wilted.

"We don't have money to fix the sprinklers and we can't pay for the water," said McDill, a part-time staffer. "And the gophers are having a field day."

The Onion lacks air conditioning and hot water, and the religious education facilities are dismal, something the board hoped to solve with the influx of Meta's money.

"Unitarians are famous for splitting or going to another church," said Art Dell, a 81-year-old former congregation president. "And there probably will be some of that now, no matter what happens."