Late-night parties at new Beth El bad for neighbors
By Susan Schwartz
I am a member of Congregation Beth El, and I live across the street from the synagogue’s proposed new site at 1301 Oxford Street. I look forward to the Congregation’s move.
Living next to Live Oak Park, as I do, I enjoy the sounds of celebration and a sense of closeness to vital urban institutions.
However, I am concerned that present plans do not also offer reasonable protections for the peace and quiet of neighbors. They offer half–truth and misstatement instead.
An example is the recent Notice of Decision and proposed Use Permit, which state that Beth El is compatible with the neighborhood and will cause no additional burdens. Why?
Since Beth El now is only a few blocks away, the neighborhood “has been, and is currently, subject to any impacts caused by the anticipated level of Beth El’s activities” and on Fridays and Saturdays, “the facilities are usually empty by 10 p.m.”
But this is not true, as the same document makes clear. In place of its long–established 10 p.m. closing time, Beth El and the city propose 11 p.m. closing except on Sundays. On Mondays through Thursdays, activities would be generally limited to classes, meetings, and religious services, but on weekend nights the facility would be rented out for members’ private parties – something that does not happen now.
Beth El particularly expects income from members’ Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties, large catered dances for 13–year–olds and adults with live bands or disc jockeys, at which kids do not stay indoors and do not leave quietly. (I have hosted two and seen many.) Given the numbers of kids at Beth El and the results of polling parents (including myself), Beth El’s new facility would be rented out for these parties on a majority of weekends.
This nighttime party rental would be a major addition to Beth El’s present schedule of year–round nursery school with enrollment about 60; after–school and Saturday religious school with more than 100 kids per day; Sunday morning teen program with enrollment over 260; summer camp for 300 children; potlucks; carnivals; bazaars; kids’ social evenings and overnights; adult classes, lectures, and social activities; and planned new activities including wedding receptions and after–school and vacation day care. Beth El also plans outdoor private social activities, apparently with no limits on hours or amplified sound.
In addition to the major new party–rental facility and later closing, the proposed use permit sets opening hours at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. Saturday and Sunday – an hour or more earlier than at present.
No Berkeley school, community center, or religious institution in a single–family neighborhood has such hours and such a level of activity seven days a week.
Even the Julia Morgan Center, which combines school and performance center on busy College Avenue, has a use–permit ban on private parties.
Beth El’s hours and rules of operation are particularly important because this use permit will be the first under the federal Religious
Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, passed in fall 2000. Under this law, government may not discriminate against an institution because it is religious – for example, setting stricter zoning rules or shorter hours than are allowed for schools or community centers.
Government also may not discriminate among religious institutions. This is important to more than we few neighbors. If Beth El can operate from 7 or 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. and rent out its facilities for large private parties right next to homes, so can any other group calling itself religious, anywhere in the city.
Berkeley should ask the following questions (all apart from Beth El’s obvious right to hold religious services on the rotating Jewish calendar): Does any institution, no matter how meritorious, require hours that barely give neighbors time for sleep if they time it just right? (Bedroom windows are above any sound walls, and walls won’t muffle traffic, car doors slamming, and people talking on the street. Nor will Beth El’s 32 parking spaces, many unlikely to be used because they are tandem, accommodate crowds
of the size these activities attract.)
• Could not the synagogue give its neighbors one morning’s rest – opening at 10 a.m. on Sundays, like Live Oak Recreation Center?
• On Sunday evenings, when Beth El now has no activities later than 6:30 p.m., could it not be gracious enough to close at 7 p.m., leaving parking and quiet for the long–established chamber–music concerts at the Berkeley Art Center, in Live Oak Park across the street?
At the coming City Council meetings, we will learn the answers.