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Commission turns down Beth El report

By John Geluardi Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday March 07, 2001


A barely recognizable Landmarks Preservation Commission took three actions on the proposed Beth El project months after the commission was hobbled by accusations that four of its  

members have a conflict of interest related to the proposal. 

When the LPC meeting was convened on Monday night there were five fresh faces on the dais. The four commissioners whom the city attorney has said have a conflict of interest regarding the Beth El project have been given leaves of absence by the councilmembers who appointed them. Substitutes were named in their places. A fifth substitute was appointed for Commissioner Robert Kehlmann who is on vacation. 

The commission took action on three issues related to the Beth El project. The first was not to approve the Final Environmental Report (5-2-2), the second was not to approve an alteration permit allowing the demolition of the existing structure, the former Chinese Alliance Church (6-2-1) and the third was a list of suggestions for the redesign of the project (6-0-3).  

Beth El will likely appeal the commission’s decision not to approve the alteration permit to the City Council. 

The Beth El congregation has proposed the development of a synagogue and school on a two-acre site at 1301 Oxford St. The site is registered as a local historic landmark because it was Berkeley’s first home of freed slaves, The Napoleon Byrne family. A 1985 arson fire destroyed the Byrne Mansion. 

City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque said in her Oct. 30 opinion that four commissioners, Becky O’Malley, Carrie Olson, Lesley Emmington-Jones and Doug Morse – all either board members or paid staff of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Alliance – had a conflict of interest because of a letter written by BAHA that criticized the Beth El project’s Environmental Impact Report. 

Since Albuquerque issued her opinion, the four commissioners refused to recuse themselves from issues related to Beth El and have been fighting one another, rather than addressing the city’s landmarks issues. 

Three of the commissioners filed suit Monday in the state Court of Appeal against the city, asking a panel of judges to reinstate them to their full powers on the commission. 

The substitute commissioners are Keith Miller, Daniella Thompson, Patricia Duncan-Hall, Patricia Dacy and Jill Johnson.  

The substitutes were required by the city to study the volumes of written documents on the issues discussed Monday night and to listen to all the tapes of hours of discussion and testimony related to the items on the agenda. 

All substitutes were asked by Planning and Development staff at the beginning of the meeting if they had familiarized themselves with all the documents and all said they had. 

But Beth El Congregation members remained skeptical of the substitutes’ ability to familiarize themselves with a complicated issue that has been working its way through city approval channels for two years. 

Beth El member Harry Pollock used the Yiddish word “misugas,” which means craziness, to describe the way the commission has functioned in the months since Albuquerque released her opinion. 

“We are the victims of this craziness,” Pollock said and then addressed the substitute commissioners whom he said were unprepared to make any decisions on the project. “What each of you needs to do is look into your own hearts and determine if you have enough information to make a decision tonight.” 

Members of the Live Oak Codornices Creek Neighborhood Association, which has opposed the project, disagreed with Pollock. LOCCNA member Juliet La Mont said the substitute commissioners asked very informed questions and probably were more familiar with the issue than some of the commissioners who have been on the commission all along. 

“Their position is especially interesting since Beth El had no complaints about the five new board members on the Zoning Adjustments Board since December,” she said. 

The Beth El project is also being considered by the ZAB on which five members have been replaced for various reasons at different times over the last four months. The ZAB has approved the Environmental Impact report for Beth El’s proposed project and is currently hearing details of the project in order to consider a use permit.