At the second hearing in a week on a project to build a 35,000 square-foot synagogue and school for the Congregation Beth El at the Napoleon Byrne landmark site at 1301 Oxford St., friends and foes of the plan went before the Zoning Adjustments Board Thursday to formally comment on the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Report.
Project consultants will consider the comments given Thursday, those presented at the Monday evening Landmarks Preservation Commission public hearing and comments written by Sept. 8. They will address the comments in a Final EIR. The Planning Commission will rule on whether the Final EIR is adequate. The decision can be appealed to the City Council.
ZAB Chairperson Carolyn Weinberger urged speakers to focus on aspects of the draft EIR that they thought were positive, or facets that needed improving.
The project brings benefits
Buzz Yudell, the project’s architect, said that the model of site answered four key issues revolving around the project.
“It provides for good traffic flow, it restores Codornices Creek, there is open space parking and fits into the neighborhood scale,” he said.
But Boardmember Gene Poschman recalled when the previous owners, the Chinese Christian Missionary Alliance Church, were denied by the ZAB a permit for a small school and 21 parking spaces in 1992.
“We just want consistency,” said Allan Gould, of the Live Oak Codornices Creek Neighborhood Association. “My main concern is putting a parking lot on Codornices Creek.”
Historic status raises questions
Monday, Landmarks Commission members said the draft EIR was inadequate. They said the EIR would have had to show that the Byrne site was not a historic resource under the California Environmental Quality Act. They said the EIR failed to analyze appropriate alternatives.
Landmarks Commissioner Carrie Olson said that the site is considered a historic resource because it was landmarked in 1975, and re-affirmed to be a historic resource without structure by the Landmarks Commission in 1990.
The Byrne mansion, built in 1868, was partially destroyed by a fire in 1984. Another fire a year later damaged the mansion further, and the house was razed in 1988.
In 1990, the site was removed from the National Register at the request of the Chinese Christian Missionary Alliance Church. That same year, Olson said, the Landmarks Commission surveyed the site and found that it was still had historic resource status without structure. It remains on the state and city historic resource list.
Olson said that the draft EIR didn’t reference the original 1975 document declaring the site a landmark or the subsequent 1990 documentation, nor did it address alternatives for building on the site.
She added that it didn’t include the full impact the building would have on the historic resources, such as the historic gate leading to the property, a cast-iron fence and a small concrete wall along Oxford Street, certain trees on the property and Codornices creek.
The draft EIR states that the “original nomination (for landmark status) indicated that the resource listed in the register was the building itself.” And it says that the overall standard for integrity is that a property must retain “the essential physical features that enable it to convey its historic identity.”
Since the property owner asked for it to be removed from the National Register in 1990, and the eligibility requirements for the national and California register are nearly identical, the removal of the grounds from the National Register strongly implies the site’s ineligibility for the California register, the EIR says.
Nonetheless, in the city, and in the state, the site is considered a landmark.
In considering landmark status, Olson said the Landmarks Commission “generally think of more than a building, we think of its setting on the land.”
Congregation says process moving forward
The congregation took the Landmarks Commission decision with a grain of salt. Harry Pollack, a past president of Beth El and a volunteer with the congregation said that there are many complexities involved, and he’s happy the application is at this point.
“There were many productive comments at the (ZAB) meeting. People made suggestions about the good things and the areas that need improvement (in the draft EIR),” he said. “I’m sure the consultants and the staff will deal with these appropriately.”
Pacific Management Consultants drew up the draft and will work on the Final EIR. The city selected PMC, but Beth El picks up the tab for the work.
Pollack said that the congregation outgrew its 50-year-old building on Vine Street about a dozen years ago, and that the site at 1301 Oxford is “the perfect fit.”
“There just isn’t enough room for our many programs,” he said. “We have to double-up and triple-up our classrooms.”
The proposed building would have space for 650 families. There is room only for 250 families on Vine Street. It would include a sanctuary, a chapel, a social hall, 14 classrooms, a 7,500 square nursery school and administrative offices.
The creek’s health must be addressed
Critics of the project say that the site not only is of historical significance, but the resultant traffic, noise and parking problems will be detrimental. And they say that it will compromise the ecologically sensitive Codornices Creek greenbelt corridor.
The current plan for the site calls for building a driveway over a culverted part of the creek. But speakers before the ZAB called for the creek’s restoration.
Project opponents say the city has an obligation to protect the creek under Berkeley’s Creek Ordinance of 1995.
One of the goals of the ordinance is the “restoring of creeks by removing culverts, underground pipes and obstructions to fish and animal migration,” it says.
According to the UC Berkeley biologist Tom Dudley and members of Friends of Five Creeks, Codornices Creek is a spawning and rearing habitat for the Steelhead trout, and the fish currently exist in population levels high enough for spawning and rearing. The Steelhead trout is federally listed as a threatened species.
Ann Riley, of the Waterways Restoration Institute said that full restoration and daylighting of the culverted section of the creek at the site would provide “maximum environmental benefits for the creek...(and) this channel configuration would also be suitable for fish passage.”
The LOCCNA says that they have proposed alternatives to current plan, such as underground parking. They contend that the planned 35 spaces are not nearly enough for 650 families.
Opponents say that despite repeated requests from the community for changes, the project remains nearly identical to the plan Beth El drafted more than two years ago.
Pollack contends that though the creek wouldn’t be daylighted, the draft EIR shows that the creek “would be in much better shape with our project.”
He added that one of the key issues is that the ZAB will have to grapple with is that a project of this size requires balancing a variety of facts.
“We own the land and we have an obligation to follow the rules of the city and not harm the neighborhood,” he said. “These are difficult complicated matters and we want to work hard to be good neighbors.”
“It’s painful for everyone that there are any bad feelings, but we’re trying to minimize that,” he said.