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Beth El decision set for Tuesday

By John GeluardiDaily Planet staff
Saturday July 21, 2001

The City Council closed the last Beth El public hearing Thursday and is set to render a decision Tuesday night on what has been called the “most important land use issue in more than 10 years.” 

By Thursday, when the council closed the final hearing, they had heard from 170 people during two public hearings at five different sessions including two special meetings.  

The council’s decision will end the city’s oversight of the two-year application process that has resulted in the involvement of the council, three city commissions, a host of private consultants and hours of city staff time.  

The process has also resulted in the sharp division of two Berkeley communities. 

While the council’s decision Tuesday will end the city’s involvement with the issue, it may not be the last word. According to a City Council agenda report for a closed session meeting on Thursday, both sides of the contentious issue have threatened legal action. 

The controversy has been over the Beth El congregation’s proposal to build a 32,000-square-foot synagogue, school and social hall at 1301 Oxford St. The congregation has been using a facility two blocks away on Vine Street for over 50 years. 

Members say the current facility was built for 250 families and the congregation, which now has a membership of 600 families, needs to expand. Beth El has the support of several west Berkeley churches and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson.  

The project has been opposed by a group of neighbors organized as the Live Oak Codornices Creek Neighborhood Association. LOCCNA members say they do not oppose Beth El developing the site but think the current design is too large and will negatively affect traffic and parking in the neighborhood.  

Neighbors have also stressed the project, as planned, will preclude opening up a culverted section of the Codornices Creek, which runs across the northern third of the property. 

The Friends of Five Creeks has recently received $400,000 in two separate grants to begin Codornices Creek restoration projects. 

LOCCNA has also raised concerns because of the 2.2-acre is a city historical landmark. It was once a part of the 800-acre Napoleon Byrne Estate and Byrne’s mansion was located on the property until 1987 when it was demolished after two fires severely damaged the structure. Despite the loss of Byrne’s former home the site was reaffirmed as a landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1992. 

Berkeley’s first recorded African Americans residents, freed slaves Pete and Hannah Byrne, lived on the estate in the 1860s. 

LOCCNA has the support of nine environmental organizations including the Golden Gate Audubon Society, the International Rivers Network and San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club. 

On Thursday councilmembers asked for clarification of several issues that were raised during the public hearings. Planning department staff will provide the council with any lingering questions at Tuesday’s meeting before the vote.  

The city attorney asked the council during the meeting to only discuss issues related to the historic resources of the site and the Environmental Impact Report. Council was cautioned about discussing issues related to the design of the project because private mediator Peter Bluhan is currently working with both parities in an attempt to find a compromise before Tuesday’s vote. 

“We plan to be working every hour until next Tuesday in the hope of finding a compromise,” Bluhan said. 

The status of the mediation is uncertain because Bluhan and the two parties have refused to divulge any issues related to their discussions. 

Mayor Shirley Dean asked for clarification on some last minute testimony about the structural security of the creek bank. 

Councilmember Linda Maio was concerned about whether the amount of parking on site would be sufficient to accommodate Beth El members and guests. She also asked for clarification on the number of events Beth El holds each year and how they would impact the neighborhood. 

Councilmember Dona Spring, who is undergoing surgery the day before Tuesday’s meeting, took the opportunity to make some comments about the proposal in case she is unable to speak via telecommunication on Tuesday. 

Spring said she has concerns about the level of noise created by activities at the synagogue, parking issues and how the historical aspects of the property were treated in the Environmental Impact Report. She said she hoped a better compromised could be reached through mediation. 

“This is the most important land use issue Berkeley has faced in more than 10 years,” she said after the meeting. “I hope through friction and tempering we’ll get a jewel of a temple.”