The release of a Final Environmental Impact Report has done little to deter what promises to be a long battle pitting the Congregation of Beth El against neighbors and environmentalists.
Neighbors said the Final Environmental Impact Report, which was released on Oct. 20, is a poorly prepared document that does little to address their concerns about the development. Members of Beth El said they are pleased overall with the report and that it shows the current proposal is workable.
The report was commissioned by the city and paid for by the Congregation of Beth El. The purpose of the report is to provide information about potential environmental effects of the project according the standards of the California Environmental Quality Act. The report is also required to make suggestions on how developers can avoid adverse environmental effects.
The report, which was prepared by Pacific Municipal Consultants of Sacramento, was released in two stages. The Draft Environmental Impact Report was reviewed by all concerned parties, who were then invited to make comments and raise concerns about the report to the consultant.
The consultant then evaluated and addressed those concerns in writing after which the report was released again as the Final Environmental Impact Report.
“There were no surprises or concerns in the FEIR, in fact what’s remarkable is the FEIR found no significant unavoidable impacts,” said Congregation member Martin Dodd.
Neighbors said the report fails to live up to CEQA requirements because it did not present a reasonable range of possible alternatives. “It dismissed the idea of building an underground parking lot as too expensive without providing reasonable estimates,” said Juliet Lamont a member of Live Oak Codornices Creek Neighborhood Association, which has collected over 2,300 signatures on a petition and enlisted the support of a variety of environmental groups including the Sierra Club, Urban Creeks Council of California and Friends of Five Creeks.
“We are not against Beth El building here,” Lamont said, “but we want a smaller project and we want them to stay away from the creek,” Lamont said.
Dodd said they have worked very hard to have as little impact on the site as possible and the FEIR shows they were successful. He said building a underground parking lot would not only drastically raise construction costs but it was uncertain what effect digging out so much earth would have on the creek.
The Beth El congregation purchased two acres at 1301 Oxford St., in 1997 with the intent of constructing a synagogue and school on the park-like setting to accommodate its burgeoning congregation. The site was formerly the home of the Alliance Chinese Church.
The Congregation proposed a single 35,000-square-foot structure that would include a temple, school and nursery school.
There was immediate resistance from neighbors and environmentalists, who cited a variety of issues. Chief among them are concerns about parking and traffic, damage to Codornices Creek which runs through the property one third above ground and two thirds underground and that the proposed development is just too large.
The Temple is currently located a few blocks away at Arch and Vine streets. Temple members said the 600 family congregation has outgrown the 50-year-old facility, that was built for 250 families.
Beth El has proposed a 35,000-square-foot development that would include a sanctuary with seating for 350 people, a social hall, school and nursery school. To ease traffic and increase safety for parents dropping of young children at the school, the design calls for a driveway with an entrance on Oxford Street that will allow cars to drop off passengers and then park in one of 35 on-site parking spaces or drive back out onto Spruce Street.
Temple members said regular activities at the site would be Saturday morning services for 100-200 people, religious classes for 325 students, half attending twice a week on different days and a nursery school operating five days a week for 60 tots.
The 300-foot section of Codornices Creek is generating the most concern. Common wisdom among environmentalists is that it is best to “daylight” or open up culverted creeks and allow them to run above ground in a natural course which facilitates wildlife and allows for better flood prevention.
The creek runs from the hills through the flatlands and into the Bay.
Opponents said if the proposed development is constructed, daylighting the creek would be impossible because the 35-car parking lot would be directly over the culverted section of the creek.
Dodd said daylighting the creek doesn’t make sense because the setback lines from the creek would change requiring the structure to be much taller. In addition he said 300 feet of open creek at the bottom of a deep ravine would be dangerous for children attending the school.
“If the creek were to be exposed it would effectively mean your couldn’t build on it,” Dodd said.
The location was formerly the site of Napoleon Boneparte Byrne’s home. He was one of the city’s first settlers and his home and the surrounding area was designated a historical landmark by the city. However, the home was extensively damaged by fire in the 1985 and demolished in 1988. However, the Landmarks Preservation Board reaffirmed the site as a landmark on Nov. 19, 1990 two years after the Byrne’s home was demolished.
The next step in the process is a meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Nov. 6, in which they will make a recommendation on the historical aspect. Then the Zoning Adjustments Board will review the FEIR for approval on Nov. 9.
Lamont said no matter what happens this project is going before the City Council. “I can guarantee you the neighbors will appeal an unfavorable decision by ZAB and I’m willing to bet Beth El will do the same,” she said.