Construction on a 32,000-square-foot synagogue has begun on Oxford Street behind Codornices Park, but not without some still unanswered questions about the project’s financing. The size and location of Congregation Beth El’s future home has pitted a very vocal neighborhood group against the congregation since the building was first proposed on the historical site two years ago.
Chief among the concerns of some neighbors is whether the congregation will be able to raise the estimated $8.5 million needed to complete construction when they haven’t sold their original temple at Spruce and Arch. The asking price for the building is $4.5 million.
Plans for the three-acre parcel that formerly housed the Chinese Christian Alliance’s modest church call for a synagogue, chapel, administration offices and a nursery school. When finished the building will be comparable in size to the nearby Safeway at Shattuck and Rose. Right now work crews are busy drilling holes on the land for the building’s geo-thermal system.
Beth El president Harry Pollack, who is also a city planning commissioner, denied the congregation is having any trouble either selling their original temple or raising funds to build the new one, but declined to discuss any details. “You don’t talk about potential buyers while you’re in negotiations or while you’re busy marketing it,” said Pollack. “I’m not going to talk about the marketing for the newspaper.”
Pollack also refused to comment on whether Congregation Beth El member dues had been increased substantially to help pay for the new temple.
According to a recent report in the Northern California Jewish Bulletin, the cost of the new temple has risen to $11 million. In March 2002 the congregation’s newsletter, The Builder, indicated that contributions for the project were not at the level expected. According to the newsletter, the drive to raise $3.2 million from congregants was $1.3 million short, and only about half of the full dues paying members had pledged the asked-for $5,000. The November 2002 issue of the newsletter states that the board is addressing the issue of membership retention and reported it had fallen from 630 to 447.
While questions persist about the financing of the new temple, David Dempster, a member of the Live Oak Codornices Creek Neighborhood Association (LOCCNA) said Beth El is living up to its end of the settlement agreement, which the organization signed with the temple a year and a half ago, allowing the project to go through.
A key to this agreement is that Congregation Beth El agreed to daylight the remaining portion of Codornices Creek—one of the most open creeks in the east bay—on the site if money can be found to pay for it (estimate of the cost is $500,000 ). Original plans for the temple called for its parking lot to be built on the north end of the site, covering up the creek that runs next to Berryman path, a public walkway. LOCCNA protested the plan, and the parking lot and driveway were moved south of the stream. Terms of the agreement state that Congregation Beth El cannot develop the northern portion of the property.
Currently, about 300 feet of the creek on the property that had always been open (about a third of the creek on site) is being restored. Restoration includes the planting of native plants such as willows and dogwoods and the addition of a series of step pools. It is hoped that the step pools will make it easier for steelhead trout, a form of salmon, to climb up stream to a potential spawning habitat with cooler water and more vegetation just east of the site. The fish have been spotted recently downstream to the west toward the Bay. Before many creeks leading from the Berkeley hills to the Bay were culverted (put underground in cement passageways) in the late 1940s, steelhead trout were commonly seen swimming upstream in them.
Juliet Lamont, an environmental consultant who lives one block east of the construction site, was initially upset when crews cleared 20 mature trees on the once heavily wooded site during the initial groundbreaking a year and a half ago. But she concedes that Beth El had a right to take them out, as Berkeley does not have a tree protection ordinance.
Another issue LOCCNA is concerned about, Dempster said, is overflow parking onto Oxford Street, when there is an event that attracts 150 or more people at the temple. Congregation Beth El has yet to submit a parking plan for such events. Any such plan would have to include a combination of valet and satellite parking—access to a parking lot nearby with a shuttle to and from the lot. Prior to opening the building a parking plan must be submitted.
Despite the signing of the agreement, there is still lingering resentment from some neighbors over the use of the space for such a large building. “I feel that from the very beginning the city dropped the ball in not buying that as a park. It was an ideal place and had lots of beautiful greenery and now it’s gone,” said Ruth Jennings, 87, who’s lived just north of the site since 1965. “I think what they’re trying to do on this property is much too big for the property. The traffic is going to be enormous and all the activities at night are going to completely change the neighborhood.”
Still, despite the fact that her next-door neighbor moved out because of the new building, Jennings is staying put.
“I’m not going to be run out of my home,” she said.