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Beth El synagogue-school compromise called ‘miraculous’

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Saturday September 15, 2001

After a contentious two-year land-use battle, the City Council approved a “miraculous” compromise between a coalition of environmentalists and a group of neighbors that opposed a proposal to build a synagogue, school and social hall at 1301 Oxford St. 

In one vote Thursday evening the council certified the Beth El Congregation project’s Environmental Impact Report, overturned the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s vote against an alteration permit and approved the project’s use permit. The actions clear the way for groundbreaking on the 30,000-square-foot project, which Beth El members say will likely take place next year. 

The City Council was minutes away from voting on the divisive issue at its July 24 meeting when mediator Peter Bluhon, of the Bluhon Planning Group, presented the council with a single, well-worn, piece of paper which contained a tentative compromise and the still-drying signatures of the opposing sides. 

The mayor and each of the councilmembers said they were relieved they did not have to settle the issue that had engendered such strong feelings on both sides and threatened to divide the community for years to come.  

Both sides agreed to finalize the language of the compromise and return after the council’s summer recess for formal approval. 

The council agreed to the formal compromise Thursday by an 8 - 1 vote with Councilmember Kriss Worthington voting in opposition. Worthington said he wanted to support the compromise but could not because he still has reservations about the EIR.  

“I thought the mediator did a phenomenal job and the two sides deserve enormous praise for being able to come together on an agreement, but unfortunately the city process for Environmental Impact Reports is not adequate,” he said.  

The Live Oak Codornices Creek Neighborhood Association opposed the project, which will be built on an unoccupied two-acre lot in a quiet residential neighborhood. They argued that it was too large and would permanently preclude the possibility of daylighting Codornices Creek, which runs across the north side of the property, partially through a culvert. 

Because of concerns about the creek, LOCCNA garnered the support of local and regional environmental groups.  

Beth El members argued the project was taking up even less space than zoning laws permitted and that they needed all of the proposed square footage to accommodate a congregation that had grown out of its present site at 2301 Vine St. 

Since July 24, the two sides reached a compromise, which includes an overall reduction to the size of the project by 2,000 square feet, the inclusion of a public overlook near the creek and a change in the location of the main gate. 

Because of Beth El’s long history of local community involvement, the congregation was widely supported by a number of local religious organizations. 

LOCCNA representative Alan Gould and Beth El member Harry Pollack each addressed the council.  

Gould said LOCCNA was still concerned about issues related to parking, hours of operation, lighting and some details about the creek.  

“We have worked hard on this agreement,” Gould said. “But it is not the end yet.” 

Pollack said part of the negotiations included the establishment of joint committees that have developed a good working relationship.  

“We will continue to work together and that’s one of the most important parts of this agreement.” 

After the council approved the permit, Mayor Shirley Dean called Bluhon’s success in facilitating a compromise “miraculous” and called on him to stand in the council chambers for a round of applause.