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Zoning board OKs Beth El permit

By John Geluardi Daily Planet Staff
Saturday March 10, 2001

After three and one-half hours of debate the Zoning Adjustments Board approved the use permit for a controversial, 33,000-square-foot synagogue and school at 1301 Oxford St. 

The ZAB approved the permit after midnight by a vote of 5-3-1. Boardmembers Gene Poshman, Carrie Sprague and David Blake opposed the permit and new member Corey Alvin recused himself from the vote because he did not know enough about the complicated project to make an informed vote. The project has been on the ZAB’s agenda for each of its meetings for nine months. 

The ZAB approved a 33,000-square-foot structure as well as 32 surface parking spaces. The original plan called for a 35,000-square-foot structure and 35 parking slots. 

ZAB Chair Carolyn Weinberger said the board had spent a lot of time on the project because of its controversial nature. 

“There was a lot of public concern and comment on the project,” Weinberger said. “We wanted to go over all the information we received to fairly weigh whether there were detriments and if so, what could be done to mitigate them.” 

Just prior to the vote, Commissioner Blake criticized the congregation for using political influence during the approval process. 

Beth El member Harry Pollock, who declined to comment on Blake’s  

statements, said the congregation is happy with the approval of the use permit and looked forward to getting the building permit approved. 

“This is a great moment for our congregation and the Jewish community,” he said. “It's also a win for our city, because the ZAB's decision will allow Beth El to go on serving people in need in this community for years to come.” 

Beth El has sponsored a variety of homeless and education programs in Berkeley. 

The project is opposed by the Live Oak Codornices Creek Neighborhood Association, which has argued that the structure is too large and that synagogue activities will cause parking and traffic problems in the neighborhood. They also say a proposed 32-car parking lot will make it difficult to daylight a culverted section of Codornices Creek that runs through the northern section of the property. 

In addition, the property is a Berkeley historical landmark and opponents have said the Environmental Impact Report for the project did not properly take into consideration its historic value. 

“This project simply does not take into consideration the historical significance of this site.” said LOCCNA spokesperson Juliet Lamont. “And I think its interesting that the ZAB never discussed the recommendations that the Landmarks Preservation Commission submitted to the board.” 

On Monday the LPC voted not to approve the Environmental Impact Report for the project and denied an alteration permit. They also sent ZAB a series of suggestions for consideration including concerns about the size of the structure and the possibility that a dwelling on the east side of the property may have been occupied by freed slaves while the Byrne mansion was being built.  

Napoleon Byrne was a former plantation owner who came to Berkeley from Missouri and built a mansion on the site in 1868. Then mansion was destroyed by fire in 1985. The EIR does not address the possibility that the remaining dwelling is historically significant. 

LOCCNA spokesperson Juliet Lamont said that it was “horrific” that during the hours of deliberation Thursday night the board never discussed the suggestions from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. 

“It suggests there is a problem in the governing of this city and it will likely come back to haunt some elected officials in the next election, which is a good thing,” she said. 

Beth El members argue the activities at the school and synagogue will have minimal impact on the neighborhood and they intend to restore an exposed section of the creek by stabilizing its banks and planting native vegetation. 

Members said they will maintain many elements of the property that are reminders of the Byrne era such as landscaping and portions of a wall and gate that still exist on the property. 

The most controversial moment of the night was a speech by Commissioner Blake just prior to the board’s vote. Blake suggested the congregation had exercised political power to get the project approved. “I believe this project was approved because of who it is rather than what it is,” he said. 

Blake also criticized the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ferenc Raj, for reminding the board at a Nov. 9 meeting that it was the anniversary of “Kristallnacht” or The Night of Glass.  

On Nov. 9, 1938, shortly after the Nazis took power in Germany, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels made an anti-Semitic speech that resulted in 24 hours of looting and violence. Dozens of Jews were killed and as many as 30,000 were arrested. Thousands of Jewish businesses and synagogues were destroyed. It is widely believed that the violence signaled the beginning of the Holocaust. The violence was called The Night of Glass because of the piles of glass in the streets from the thousands of broken storefront windows. 

Blake, who is Jewish, said the comment was a gentle way of reminding the board that its members could be considered anti-Semitic if the permit wasn’t approved.  

“Beth El lost all credibility with me when he made that comment,” Blake said. 

Pollock said he had no comment on Blake’s remarks. 

Lamont said Blake’s comments were accurate. “It was a great speech,” she said. “It encapsulates exactly what’s going on with this project.”