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Synagogue Demolished, But Where’s the Permit?

Tuesday May 18, 2004

The 83-year-old building housing the oldest traditional synagogue in the East Bay and the largest Orthodox congregation in Northern California is no more—and two city commissioner think that just might not be. . .appropriate. 

Demolition had been halted by city officials last week after they learned that the tear-down had begun without the necessary city permits, city Director of Planning and Development Dan Marks told the Landmarks Preservation Commission last week. Marks told the commission his staff had issued a stop-work order, halting the demolition until the congregation obtained the necessary permit. 

When work stopped, the walls and roof were still intact, though the walls had been stripped of stucco and the ceiling had been reduced to segments of broken lath. 

While the Zoning Adjustments Board gave their approval Thursday night to the latest modifications to the congregation’s plans for the structure, ZAB Commissioner Carrie Sprague said they hadn’t authorized the complete demolition of the existing building. 

“Their plans called for retention of the brick structure on the site, and the city zoning code requires that they obtain a demolition permit issued by the board before they can remove more than half of the roof and exterior walls,” Sprague said. “None of us read anything about demolition in anything we approved Thursday night.” 

Commissioner Andy Katz agreed. “We didn’t issue a demolition permit Thursday night. The permit we issued Thursday was only to modify the existing use permit.” 

Katz also wondered why the project hadn’t been sent for vetting by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, since the structure was over 40 years old. 

Asked Monday about the question of permits, Michael A. Feiner, the contractor in charge of the project, said, “I believe we have all the permits we were required to get.” 

A spokesperson for the congregation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, cited the Thursday ZAB action as the reason demolition had been recommenced. 

All that was left of the 1921 wood frame structure Monday afternoon were the remnants of a single wall, propped up by two-by-fours on the west side of the 1630 Bancroft Way lot. 

The original building had never been landmarked by the city, easing the demolition process. 

The replacement will be a far less ambitious project than had been originally planned. 

In October, 2001, architects Tomas Frank and David Finn unveiled plans for a far grander structure, a recreation of a fabled 17th Century wooden synagogue in Prezdborz, Poland, burned by Hitler’s troops when they massacred the community’s Jewish inhabitants in 1942. 

When fund-raising efforts fell far short of the required $3.5 million needed to build the replica, the congregation scaled back their plans and opted for a more modest design. 

Until the new building is completed, Rabbi S. Yair Silverman and his 180 members of Congregation Beth Israel are meeting in Berkeley’s Finnish Hall, 1819 Tenth Street. 

There’s no doubt that the old stucco-coated wooden structure suffered from severe dry rot, and during a reporter’s visit to the site a weekend, a strong fungal scent was obvious. 

All that remained Monday of the brick portion of the structure was a pile of bricks.