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Last-minute compromise on Beth El plan

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Thursday July 26, 2001

The City Council was poised early Wednesday morning to render a decision on a land use issue that had bitterly divided two communities in north Berkeley when the opposing sides announced a last-minute compromise.  

At issue was a proposal by the Beth El congregation to build a 32,000-square-foot synagogue, school and social hall on a two-acre site at 1301 Oxford St. The size of the project was bitterly opposed by neighbors and environmentalists who argued it would damage Codornices Creek, neighborhood tranquility and historical elements of the property. 

After the compromise was announced, Beth El member Harry Pollack drew laughter from councilmembers and from the approximately 100 people packed into the council chambers by quipping “Nothing to it.” Pollack was understating the laborious planning process that included hundreds of hours of commission meetings, public hearings and a marathon mediation process that was ongoing right up to midnight Tuesday when the council was prepared to settle the controversial issue by vote. 

Mediator Peter Bluhon said the negotiations took place in several rooms in the Old City Hall while the council was considering other items on its agenda. He said he received approval from the two opposing parties just minutes before he was to address the council. 

“After eight weeks of diligent, hard work on the part of all the parties, the mediation has successfully yielded an agreement,” Bluhon read from a one-page, handwritten agreement upon which the ink was still drying. “The parties concur that this design, if implemented and managed properly, can create an attractive, functional facility for Beth El, ensure managed parking and leave open the possibility for future creek daylighting.” 

When Bluhon announced the compromise, the council, which had heard an estimated 18 hours of comments during two public hearings, seemed relived they would not have to decide the controversial issue. 

The council contracted the services of Bluhon in early April in the hopes of finding resolution prior to having to vote on the issue. Bluhon said this was one of the tougher mediations he has worked on. 

“For me, at the outset, I found there was a significant level of distrust, greater than most projects I’ve ever worked on,” he said. 

But he said over 300 hours of meetings in the last few weeks and the good will of both parties resulted in a compromise. 

The relieved Council thanked the mediator and praised the efforts of the opposing sides for working to reach an agreement. Councilmember Miriam Hawley, who represents the proposed project’s district, said the compromise was “a testament of the good will of everybody involved.” 

Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek thanked both sides for working so hard and said she thought of the two groups when she read an article about military spending, which was justified by bitter, unresolved conflicts around the world. 

“They are going to spend $345 billion on the military and such a small amount on education and real social needs,” she said. “It made me think of you working so hard to make a community and this is what you call community.” 

The changes to the project include a reduction in the social hall and other sections of the building of approximately 1,500-square feet, a rearranging of parking places to ensure the possibility of daylighting the culverted section of Codornices Creek and a shift of structures away from Oxford Street. The congregation also agreed to limit the attendance of social hall functions to 180 people instead of 200. 

Neighbor Philip Price cautioned the council that the agreement was conditional and there were still issues to be worked out. But he said he was heartened by the results of the mediation.  

“I’m somewhat astonished we have an agreement we can all endorse,” he said. “We had to find an area of agreement the size of a dime and we found that dime.” 

Pollack said the new design would not put a crimp in temple, social and school functions. “But on the other hand, it does allow for a reorganization of the traffic flow and more open area on the north side.” 

The council approved the newly forged agreement contingent on review by planning staff and the continued agreement of the two parties. 

Bluhon said the neighbors and environmentalists want further assurances the creek will be restored for possible re-establishment of steelhead migration and Beth El wants protection from future lawsuits. 

Councilmember Polly Armstrong said she hadn’t sleep well the night before in anticipation of voting on an issue with such strong feelings on both sides. But she said she appreciated the unique regional nature of the disagreement. 

“No one moves to Berkeley by accident. We didn’t come here for the domestic tranquility,” she said. “I won’t soon forget the rational, sensible people who came to Council meetings dressed as fish.”