There is considerable support for the current plan for a new Beth El Synagogue on the site at 1301 Oxford St. Two large and important constituencies, however, believe that the plan can still be improved.
Advocates of urban creek restoration see the riparian corridor running through the site as an irreplaceable ecological resource. Another constituency, which advocates historic preservation, asks us to celebrate the remaining artifacts and significance of the site as the founding location of the Berkeley’s African-American community.
Reverend Dr. Marvis V. Peebles of Liberty Hill Baptist Church pointed out in January, that a large crosssection of faith communities in Berkeley “are enthusiastic about Beth El’s plans to build on the site where Berkeley’s first free African-American citizens lived and worked on the estate of Napoleon Bonaparte Byrne. It seems very appropriate that this land should house an institution that supports the aspirations of all people to become everything their creator intended them to be.”
The older structures can be removed. But thorough historical documentation is needed before any such action is undertaken.
The early uses of the site – the first farm in Berkeley and the home place of Berkeley’s first free African-American citizens, should be appropriately memorialized in the new building design.
The northern section of the property is part of a continuous green corridor created by Berkeley’s strongest and most daylighted creek, Codornices. The Joint Watershed Goals, passed by Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond, the East Bay Regional Park District, and the University of California in 1995, mandate the daylighting of the culverted section – removing all underground pipes and obstructions to fish and animal migration.
Many neighbors and highly respected architects, landscape architects, and planners, members of Berkeley Design Advocates, have come up with schematic plans for restoring the creek.
Nationally known creek restorer, Dr. Ann Riley, initially hired by Temple Beth El, pointed out that in daylighting the creek, the vital biological corridor around it should also be restored. She suggested that the restoration and maintenance of the creek should be an ongoing public responsibility and the Temple relieved of the burden.
The current plan shows a road and parking over the culverted section, which would prevent the creek from ever being daylighted. A suggested alternative, to put the road and parking in the midst of an oak grove to the north of the creek, would make it impossible to restore the riparian corridor.
There is, however, a win-win solution. The Temple could sell or grant an easement to the City for the unbuildable land over the culverted creekway and along its north bank and use the funds to build underground parking.
Funds for restoration of creeks and creekside habitat and for acquisition of recreational land are available from various sources – CALFED, Proposition 13 Regional Water Quality Control Board Watershed grants, Proposition 12 Wetlands Riparian Funding, and National Marine Fisheries Service support among others.
The restoration of the Codornices biological corridor would serve the Temple and neighboring community as a wonderful spiritual, educational, and recreational resource.
The restoration of natural systems is a most profound act of historic preservation – a sacred consecration that Temple Beth El could cherish.
A viable plan, for which the Council could grant unanimous support, would satisfy all the stakeholders.
Creative resolution of the conflict over this site would be a tremendous victory for the synagogue and the city as a whole. Let the healing begin.
Carl Anthony and Karl Linn are friends and colleagues who have worked together for social justice and the restoration of inner-city environments for over 40 years. Their respective communities, African-American and Jewish-American, have contributed much to the strength, vitality, and diversity of American life, so richly present in Berkeley’s civic culture.