LocationAlhambra , CA United States
Every Sunday morning at least 100 people gather at the Sikh Gurdwara on Chapel Avenue located near the Sprouts supermarket and condominiums of the Alhambra Place shopping center. The children in the community learn Punjabi during Sunday school, while adults prepare a vegetarian meal for worshippers after the lunchtime service and socialize in the yard.
The worshippers trickle into a room, where the priest sings a prayer, accompanied by two instrumentalists playing the harmonium, which looks a small piano, and a tabla. He sings words praising the Guru Granth Sahib, considered the final guru in this religion. A book, which contains the fundamental beliefs of Sikhism, and written by the religion’s first 10 gurus, sits on an altar, covered by a cloth adorned with yellow fabric roses. Every so often, a worshipper approaches the altar and bows down in front of it, leaving a monetary offering.
The Sikh community has been worshipping on Chapel Avenue for much of the last 40 years. Now the community faces an uncertain future, as their building of worship is expected to be torn down to make way for a new development that they were not properly informed about, according to Santokh Singh, the Gurdwara’s president.
Founded in the Punjab region of India, Sikhism promotes belief in a monotheistic God, as well as the equality of all religions and people. Sikhs engage in many practices as part of their belief system, including an emphasis on community service and not cutting their hair to show respect for God’s creation.
Sikhism is one of the youngest world religions, and the fifth largest organized religion, with around 30 million worshippers. There are about 500,000 Sikhs living in the United States, mostly in New York and California. The Alhambra Gurdwara currently serves a community of around 300 people.
Around 15 years ago, the president of the temple moved his congregation to a bigger building in Walnut, 20 miles east of Alhambra. Sikhs, in this religious community, who lived in the west San Gabriel Valley thought Walnut was too far, and asked Singh to negotiate a one-year lease and then a month-to-month lease with Herald Lau, who owns the Gurdwara building and several adjacent properties. In summer 2015, they moved back in.
The location has multiple rooms for prayer and meditation, as well as living accommodations for the priests. The commercial kitchen allow the Gurdwara to serve vegetarian meals to its regulars, and anybody else who wants to visit and worship. The Gurdwara also has dry storage, a portable kitchen and propane and would be ready to prepare and serve meals in the event of a disaster. Every month, the community prepares and serves meals on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
Singh said that the community views the building as special, since they have been able to hold on to it for so many years. “People are so connected to that building, because it’s so long that they pray here,” he told the Alhambra Source.
On June 17, 2019, a project involving 101 S. Chapel Ave, the address of the Gurdwara, came before Alhambra’s Planning Commission. Lau applied for a permit to develop the properties, including 101 to 107 S. Chapel Ave, into a 28-unit mixed-use condominium complex on the land, which would be a little over half an acre in size. Developing that parcel would mean tearing down the Gurdwara.
The city staff report for the development said the temple was vacant, and Planning Commissioner Scott Chan was also told this at the hearing, when he asked about the Gurdwara’s status. Later in the hearing, Commissioner Ron Sahu asked if the traffic study conducted around the property had included traffic from the Gurdwara when it was active. This is when Lau conceded that the Gurdwara was still active, but said that he had informed the community of the intended development, and was sensitive to the needs of the Sikh community, given how long they have been in Alhambra.
Lau has not returned multiple phone calls from the Alhambra Source requesting comment.
The Planning Commission voted 7 to 2 to approve the development. Sahu abstained over concerns with the traffic impacts and open space calculations associated with the project. Commissioner Andrea Lofthouse-Quesada also abstained because of the open space concerns. Commissioner Danny Tang was absent during the hearing.
At the end of the Planning Commission’s July 1 meeting, Linda Paquette, a friend of Singh’s and a member of the Gurdwara, reiterated to the Commission during public comment that there is indeed an active community of worship there. She also said that worshipers didn’t know about the plans the owner had for the property.
“All it would have taken was a notice posted on their door, where they go in and out and practice and pray and all of that,” Paquette said.
The only notice was around a tree on the sidewalk in front of the Gurdwara. Because many worshippers enter the Gurdwara from the back parking lot, they did not see it until it was too late.
This is what Singh told the Alhambra Source at the All India Cafe in Pasadena, which he owns and manages with his family. He said that he didn’t find out about Lau’s plans to develop the property until Paquette, who heard from another friend attending the June 17 hearing, let him know.
Singh called the city, and was told that the project had already been voted on. He has seen Lau several times since the hearing, to repair a gas line at the Gurdwara. He said that Lau had not mentioned any development project at all.
The city is required to notify all property owners of hearings for potential developments within a 300-foot radius. Since Singh rents the property on behalf of the Gurdwara, the city wasn’t required to notify him.
On Aug. 5, Paquette and Singh both sent letters of complaint to the Planning Commission, the City Council and the Department of Community Development. Paquette said that a notice wrapped around a tree was inadequate and misleading, because in cities like Pasadena, a notice on a tree meant that that tree was being removed. She also criticized the city for misrepresenting the status of the Gurdwara by saying it was vacant, and asked the city to inform them when the community had to move out.
Singh wrote about the uncertainty Alhambra’s Sikh community now faces, because of the lack of notice. “What remedy is there for us for this procedurally defective end to our Gurdwara and its meeting place and living quarters for 300 people?” he asked, telling the Alhambra Source that he wanted to let the city know “that we exist here.”
Marc Castagnola, Alhambra’s director of community development, said that planning staff generally gets their information about properties to be developed from the owner. He said that the letter merely stated the situation and that the issue is between the owner and tenant.
Paquette said that she is researching remedies for this situation, and will continue to follow up with the city.
Singh also met with Sahu, who discussed this meeting on July 15 at the Planning Commission. Sahu brought up the issue of permit applicants not being forthright about including important information concerning their projects. He noted that this can impact the Planning Commission’s decisions.
Other commissioners also brought this up as a concern, with several members advocating for the city revising its notification process, including expanding the notification radius. This also came up in the dispute over the application for the 801 E. Main Street development, which the commission eventually denied.
Planning Commissioner Scott Chan told the Alhambra Source that if he knew that the Gurdwara was still very active, he would have at least asked to delay a vote in order to find out more information. “The displacement of a community institution such as this should not have been voted on so easily that night,” he said in an email.
During the Aug. 5 Planning Commission meeting, Alhambra City Planner Scott Quyle said that staff is revamping its notification procedures, requiring project applicants to provide mailing labels not only for property owners, but tenants as well. Staff was also looking into posting four foot by six foot signs on properties so that they are more noticeable. The city is also looking into increasing the notification radius from 300 feet, which would require City Council action.
This might come too late for the Gurdwara, which would have to move before construction begins. Singh doesn’t know where they’d find a new building with affordable rent that would have the required rooms for prayer and space to prepare and serve a large amount of meals.
“It’s really scary for us,” he said.
Update on August 26, 2019: The article has been corrected to reflect that the Planning Commission vote was 7 to 2, not 8 to 2 as originally stated.