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Beth El hearing continued – again

By John Geluardi
Thursday June 28, 2001

The City Council heard from 39 speakers Tuesday during the second session of a public hearing on the controversial proposal to build a synagogue, school and social hall at 1301 Oxford St. 

At 11:30 p.m. the council agreed to continue the public hearing to a third session at a special meeting on July 16. The council has added two special meetings to its schedule, the second on July 19, in the hopes of resolving the issue before its seven-week summer recess, which begins on July 24. 

The council opened the hearing on June 5, during which nearly 60 people spoke on both sides of the neighborhood land-use issue that has attracted citywide attention. The first session of the public hearing drew so many people that about 300 people were unable to get into the City Council Chambers. The overflow crowd watched the proceedings on a television in the lobby of Old City Hall or listened to speakers that were placed outside the building. 

A representative from the City Clerk’s Office estimated there are still 40 people who have signed up to address the council, but who have not had an opportunity to do so. 

The controversy is over a proposal by the Beth El congregation to build a 33,000-square-foot facility, with 33 parking spaces, on a two-acre site that is a city landmark and has Codornices Creek running through it.  

Neighbors, organized into the Live Oak Codornices Creek Neighborhood Association, initiated the public hearing by appealing a March 8 Zoning Adjustments Board approval of a use permit for the project. 

At the July 16 meeting, the council is expected to open a second public hearing based on a Beth El appeal of a conflicting commission decision, the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s denial of an alteration permit. Without the permit, Beth El will not be able to demolish existing structures on the site, which include the former Chinese Alliance Church and some smaller structures. None of the structures are currently in use. 

LOCCNA, which has garnered the support of at least 10 environmental groups, has fought the project strenuously since it was first proposed four years ago. They contend the project is too big and will preclude daylighting of the creek, which runs across the north side of the property mostly through a culvert. They are also concerned the synagogue will cause traffic and parking problems in the quiet neighborhood.  

Beth El, which has the support of several churches in west Berkeley and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, argues that the project is respectful of the historic nature of the site and has made many design changes to assure neighbors that the creek could be daylighted in the future.  

Beth El member Harry Pollack told the council that the congregation has made at least 20 significant changes to the project at the suggestions of the Zoning Adjustments Board, the Design Review Commission and the neighbors.  

He said those changes include moving the parking lot off the culverted section of the creek to ease any possible daylighting project, breaking up the blockish design of the building and altering the height and street frontage along Oxford Street. 

Pollack said Beth El is not like the typical developer who designs the largest project possible to keep profits high. He said reducing the size of a place of worship is not the same as reducing the size of an apartment complex or an office building. 

“You can’t just lob off a few apartments or get rid of office space,” he said. “Here you’re cutting off the heart and soul of our project. We didn’t come into this with a wish list, we came in with a needs list.” 

LOCCNA member Juliet Lamont said she doesn’t agree that there have been significant changes to the project. She said the square footage of the project has been reduced by only 6 percent.  

“The original proposal was for 35,000 square feet and now it’s down to 33,000 square feet,” she sai. “Those changes are not ‘significant,’ they’re cosmetic.” 

Lamont said the congregation has yet to address any of LOCCNA’s real concerns. The neighborhood group is asking for no development on the north side of the property, so there can be a “true” daylighting project, reduced building size and limits on the intensity of use that might be expected from a building of that size. 

An alternate plan, prepared by a landscape architect hired by LOCCNA, was presented to the council during the public hearing. The plan incorporated some of the alterations LOCCNA would like to see. 

Pollack argued that to be presented with an alternate plan so late in the process was “distressing,” but he said Beth El would be willing to take it into consideration. 

Lamont also announced to the council that the Urban Creeks Council had recently received a second grant of $200,000 for removing fish migration barriers along Codornices Creek. The UCC received another $200,000 for the same project in early May.  

Lamont said the UCC would probably be willing to apply some of that grant money to a daylighting project on the Beth El site if the congregation is willing to cooperate.  

Both Beth El and LOCCNA are currently in mediation. The two sides have met with professional mediator Peter Bluhan four times and each side has met with Bluhan individually several times. Bluhan told the council the content of the meetings is confidential and he could not predict the likelihood of an agreement between the two sides. He said he hoped to have some results by July 24 when the council is scheduled to vote on the appeals.