Commentary: Beth El Has Exceeded Its Agreements By DANIEL MAGID

Tuesday August 16, 2005

The Live Oak Codornices Neighborhood Association (LOCCNA) has heated up its war against the members of Congregation Beth El, using misleading signs and Daily Planet letters to spread misinformation. The underlying myth that this group continually promulgates is that Congregation Beth El is moving into a new neighborhood.  

The fact is, Beth El has been a Live Oak neighbor for 60 years—longer than most if not all of the members of LOCCNA. The synagogue’s current building is closer to its new building than are the homes of many LOCCNA members. Beth El is moving a grand total of 2.5 blocks. 

The next bit of fiction, repeated once again in a Daily Planet letter by John Parman on Tuesday, is that Congregation Beth El somehow used its influence to “gain concessions that are not readily available to others.” In fact, just the opposite is true.  

Our neighborhood is zoned for a mixture of residences and community institutions. Beth El’s building conforms in every way to the zoning regulations and is being built without requiring a single variance. The synagogue also covers a significantly smaller percentage of its lot than any of our neighbors’ buildings, leaving far more green space. 

We voluntarily initiated and paid for an environmental impact report (we were not required to do so by the city), and we implemented and paid for environmental mitigations. Because we were building on our property exactly what the zoning called for, because we were in conformance with all city requirements, because our new site would actually serve to reduce our parking and traffic impact on the surrounding neighbors, because we passed the environmental impact process, our building permit should have sailed through the city approval process.  

But because LOCCNA exercised its considerable political clout, we had to endure an acrimonious three-year approval process at the end of which, we made even more concessions. I’d like Mr. Parman to show me any other Berkeley community organization that has been saddled with anything like the requirements and restrictions that have been placed on Beth El. 

We are also falsely accused of not living up to our commitment to restore the creek. The truth is that as part of our building project, the members of Beth El have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars stabilizing the banks of the creek, as we agreed. This investment was necessary due to the years of neglect by the previous owner—an owner who I’d guess would have been happy to have LOCCNA perform the work had LOCCNA’s members been willing to step up to financing the task.  

It was not until Beth El moved in that any substantial progress was made on the creek. Once construction is finished, Beth El will continue planting the creek beds because a beautiful, healthy creek has always been part of our plans. I doubt LOCCNA can identify a single property owner on Codornices Creek who has spent more private money on creek restoration than the members of Beth El. 

Beth El has gone to extreme lengths to satisfy conflicting neighborhood demands. For example, when one neighbor demanded that we remove some trees whose roots were damaging his foundation and threatened to sue, while another neighbor demanded we keep the trees as a screen, while other neighbors insisted we not remove any trees, Beth El absorbed the tens of thousands of dollars it cost to replace the trees with new ones that everyone finally accepted. 

On the Berryman Path side of our property, our neighbors want us to spend tens of thousands of dollars to build a fence that will allow people walking on the path to see the Codornices Creek. How many private landowners on Codornices Creek have been required to provide public viewing of their property? 

The latest red herring is the parking issue. LOCCNA claims that Beth El is not keeping its agreements to mitigate the parking impact it will have. Our current site—in the same neighborhood—has parking for three cars on-site and 12 parking spaces on its street frontage. 

At the new site, the members of Beth El have put in 31 parking spaces, and there are 23 parking spaces on the street frontage, for a total of 54. We have added 39 more parking spaces—more than enough for the vast majority of our events. And, very importantly, we have constructed a drive-though to greatly cut down on parking needs.  

The undeniable reality is that the increased parking spaces and driveway at the new building will considerably decrease our impact on parking and traffic in our neighborhood. This is why it is so important for LOCCNA to pretend we have not been in the neighborhood for 60 years. 

We have also arranged for alternate parking sites and have agreed to insert draconian parking messages in our event invitations. We have agreed to spend hours before, during and after our events counting empty parking spaces in the neighborhood to attempt to measure our parking impact and ensure that we do not use more than 50 percent of the spaces left unused by our neighbors and others. This means that our members might be forced to park blocks away while parking spaces near our site remain vacant throughout the event. I am sure that neighbors on the residential streets adjacent to the restaurants and stores of Solano Avenue or Walnut Square or next to some of our local event halls, schools or other community institutions would love to have concessions like that, yet they are only applied to Beth El. Unfortunately, none of this is enough for LOCCNA because they interpret our agreement to “minimize” our parking impact as an agreement to “eliminate” our parking impact. 

Meanwhile, Congregation Netivot Shalom just left its long-time residence at the Jewish Community Center on Walnut and Rose—1.5 blocks from our new site. Netivot Shalom typically drew 150 to 200 people to its services every Saturday. Beth El draws 30-40. Even on a Bar Mitzvah Saturday, we rarely approach the numbers at Netivot Shalom. So, if LOCCNA was really concerned about parking, they should be happy. Between our new spaces, the driveway and Netivot’s exodus, parking in the neighborhood will be much better, not worse.  

Sadly, none of our efforts appear to have any impact on LOCCNA. Despite the peace signs on their bumper stickers and banners, it seems LOCCNA is determined to continue its war against Beth El. 


Daniel Magid is member of Congregation Beth El’s board of directors.