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Alhambra Revokes Approval For Condo Project At Worship Site After Outcry From Sikh Community

Alhambra Gurdwara president Santokh Singh speaking before the city planning commission public hearing Monday. (Aaron Schrank )
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Plans to demolish Alhambra's Sikh gurdwara are off the table for now.

On Monday night, months after initially approving a condo project that would have razed a religious temple and displaced a religious community of hundreds, the city's planning commission narrowly voted to revoke approval.

The decision came after hours of public testimony from Sikhs who've gathered and worshiped at the temple on and off over the past 43 years.

"The gurdwara is the type of community center that's hard to find these days," member Prabhjyot Singh Dhillon told commissioners. "It's a place you find babysitters. It's a place you get married. It provides a lot more value than a condominium project ever could, and we ask that you reject this."

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In June, when property owner Herald Lau got his permit approved to develop several properties on Alhambra's Chapel Avenue into a 28-unit mixed use condo complex, the planning commission's staff reports repeatedly stated that the Sikh gurdwara building was vacant, according to city documents.

On Monday, 5 of 9 commissioners said they might not have approved the project had they known it was home to a vibrant religious community.

"We rely on people being truthful when they come and provide testimony in the city of Alhambra," said commissioner Ron Sahu. "We don't make them swear on the bible or put them under oath. We are operating an honor system. When that is even remotely compromised, a majority of commissioners felt that that is not conducive to good policymaking."

Lau, for his part, said he was honest with city officials and that city staff made a mistake when labeling the temple "vacant."

Back in August, members of the gurdwara said they did not get proper notice of the proposal to demolish their place of worship, and asked for it to be reconsidered. They said the only notice was attached to a tree on a sidewalk in front of the gurdwara, but that worshippers enter from the back parking lot and didn't see it in time to weigh in.

In October, the Alhambra City Council ordered the planning commission to hold Monday's public hearing.

The building in question first became a gurdwara in 1976. In 2005, the temple's president sold it to Lau for $625,000 and moved the congregation to a larger space 20 miles east in Walnut. But Alhambra's Sikhs remained attached to the old building, and began renting the space from Lau again beginning in 2015.

Sikh worshippers gathered for prayer at the Alhambra gurdwara. (Courtesy Alhambra Gurdwara)

The gurdwara is a gathering place and spiritual home for more than 300 people, according to members. There are regular Sunday gatherings and prayer, and meditation rooms are open to Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike. There's a commercial kitchen used to serve free vegetarian meals, a Punjabi language school, and living accommodations for several priests.

Dozens of local Sikhs of all ages lined up at the public hearing to tell commissioners about the history and community life of the gurdwara, many inviting the commissioners to pay a visit.

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Kiran Dhillon's family has been attending the gurdwara since before she was born. She was the first student at its Punjabi language school, and is now a volunteer Punjabi teacher at the same school, teaching her own children.

"I came not knowing any of the letters of the Punjabi alphabet, and by the time I had left, I was able to read from the Guru Granth Sahib, which is our holy book," Dhillon told commissioners. "I urge you to see the gurdwara as we all do. It's not just a building, but sacred ground, and a place that we all call home in our hearts."

Sikhism is the fifth largest organized religion in the world and one of the newest major religions. Just last month, Sikhs worldwide celebrated the 550th birth anniversary of Sikhism's founder, Guru Narak, including hundreds at the Alhambra Gurdwara.

There are about half a million Sikhs living in the U.S., mostly in New York and California. There are about a dozen gurdwaras spread across Southern California.

Scores of Alhambra Sikh families showed up at a public hearing to try to save their sacred space. (Aaron Schrank )

A handful of public commenters spoke in support of Herald Lau's project, including his attorney, architect and development partners.

Lau said he never told the city the gurdwara was vacant, suggesting city staff were to blame for the error.

"I have no reason to lie about this to get through the approval process," said Lau. "It's about the merit of the project. I am one of those builders you want to have in Alhambra because I build good stuff."

Lau also said when he leased the gurdwara space to the Santokh Singh and the Sikh community 4 years ago, he warned them he might build on the property within a couple of years.

Alhambra planning commissioners debated for several hours whether their initial approval was influenced by any fraudulent claims by Lau. Commission president Allan Sanchez defended Lau, and framed the issue as a landlord-tenant dispute.

"If the Sikhs are so attached to the temple, why would they allow it to sell?" Sanchez said. "It's unfortunate there were so many missed opportunities to gain clarity on this issue. But, where in the record can I find the misrepresentation, where the applicant said either orally or in writing that the property is vacant? It's not there."

Property owner Herald Lau defended his plans for a condominium project on the gurdwara property. (Aaron Schrank )

Four members, including Sanchez, supported a motion of no fraud in the application process that would have allowed the approval to stand. But the other five members passed a motion to the opposite effect, revoking the building permit.

"Whether it's through poor notification or misrepresentation, I feel like we've been largely complacent in unraveling a community," said Andrea Lofthouse-Quesada, who voted to revoke Lau's permit.

With his community's displacement deferred, Alhambra Gurdwara president Santokh Singh says he hopes to be able to purchase the building from Lau or find another way to stay in the space.
"The problem is if the gurdwara moves from here, the Sikh have to leave," Singh said. Just like a fish cannot live without water, the Sikh cannot live without the gurdwara."