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Report gives Beth El favor

John GeluardiDaily Planet Staff
Saturday November 11, 2000

Zoning Board yet to make decision 


In a packed Council Chambers, the Zoning Adjustments Board heard sharp criticism and high praise of the Final Environmental Impact Report for the proposed Beth El synagogue and school in north Berkeley. 

While the FEIR concluded that there were no environmental problems in the development of the site that could not be corrected, it will be up to the ZAB to take a position approving or turning down the document. The ZAB heard public testimony, but took no vote at the Thursday night meeting and has until mid-January to certify the document. 

Beth El members argued for certification of the report while members of Live Oak Codornices Creek Neighborhood Association claimed the document was seriously flawed. 

Both sides were given 45 minutes to make comments. 

ZAB must certify the FEIR as complete and adequate prior to approving the 35,000-square-foot project proposed for a 2.2 acre site at 1301 Oxford St. 

The 660-page FEIR, prepared by Pacific Municipal Consultants of Sacramento, examined potential impacts in three categories: parking and traffic in the immediate neighborhood, possible damage to Codornices Creek and whether historical aspects of the site would be altered. 

The opposition to the project has generally focused on potential parking and traffic problems and what they say will be damage to the creek which runs through the property, partially exposed and partially through a culvert. 

Another function of the FEIR was to analyze possible alternatives to the proposed plan. Such alternatives could include different building designs, parking schemes and even other locations. 

Beth El member Martin Dodd said the report concluded the project would have no significant impact on the site and LOCCNA members did not raise any substantial arguments in opposition to the document. 

“I did not hear anything that struck me as sufficient reason for ZAB not to certify,” Dodd said. “I think Michael Issel (a ZAB board member) said it all when he asked ‘how perfect does this have to be?’” 

Environmental attorney Ray Gorman, hired by LOCCNA, disagreed. Gorman focused his comments primarily on what he described as the failure of the FEIR to adequately provide alternatives to the proposed plan. 

He said the FEIR did not consider a smaller project nor did it consider alternate locations. “This is the worst alternatives section I’ve ever seen,” Gorman told the board. 

He said the consultant should have provided analysis of possible locations in Kensington and Albany but no farther. 

Dodd said he was offended at the idea the congregation, which has been in Berkeley for 50 years, would leave the city. “Besides, we don’t have another site, we bought this one two blocks from where we’re at now.” he said. 

LOCCNA member Juliet Lamont said she was most concerned about the report’s failure to analyze the possibility of a smaller project. “The one thing people in the neighborhood have been asking for since the project was first proposed was not addressed at all,” she said. 

Dodd said that currently the synagogue and school, located at 2301 Vine St., have a variety of classes and events in addition to the temple’s religious meetings. He said while there are usually not large numbers of people in the facility at any one time, it has become difficult to schedule rooms . 

Lamont, an instructor at UC Berkeley, said they could figure out how to do with less room. “They do it all the time at the University where they have a shortage of classrooms,” Lamont said. “You just get creative and stagger, overlap and rearrange. I guarantee you if they have to do it they’ll be able to do it comfortably.” 

Landmarks Commissioner Becky O’Malley spoke to the board about the FEIR in an “uncommitted” capacity – neither as a proponent or an opponent. She said the FEIR had failed to meet California Environmental Quality Act requirements by not analyzing the site as an historical resource despite its status as a city landmark. The area was part of the 1860’s Napoleon Boneparte Byrne homestead, the first settlement in Berkeley. 

O’Malley and four other commissioners created a controversy last Monday at a Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing when they refused the city attorney’s advice to disqualify themselves from commission proceedings involving the Beth El project. The city attorney said their role as directors or staff of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, which had taken a position on the Beth El Draft Environmental Report, created a conflict of interest. 

The meeting came to an abrupt end before the LPC could vote on a recommendation about the Beth El project for ZAB’s consideration. 

Dodd said he is puzzled by the brouhaha over the historical aspect of the property. He said two years ago, BAHA presented Beth El with a list of the remaining historical elements on the site, which included the west entry gates, a small shack, a retaining wall and some landscaping. 

“We recognize it has historical significance,” Dodd said. “And we’ve essentially agreed to do what they’ve asked us to do.” 

Zab chairperson, Carolyn Weinberger said the board will try to make a decision about the report’s certification by the next meeting, but she was quick to point out that the deadline for the decision is Jan. 21. 

For information about the date of the next Zoning Adjustments Board discussion on Beth El, call the Planning and Development Department at 705-8110.