Japanese make bid for defunct Bush Street Synagogue

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Just when it seemed the vacant synagogue on Bush and Laguna streets in Japantown had moved one step closer to becoming a Jewish space once again, the Japanese American community of San Francisco made a bid to occupy it.

Both groups — Jews and Japanese — believe the defunct Ohabi Shalome Synagogue would best serve their individual communities. Last Tuesday both presented their arguments to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency Commission, which owns the 11,500-square-foot synagogue, whose congregation disbanded in 1934.

The structure's most recent occupant was a go club. The difficult board game, developed in China centuries ago, maintains a strong following in Japan and Japanese American communities.

A decision as to which group will receive the historic building, for a $1 fee, isn't expected until late August. But Felix Warburg — architect, fund-raiser and planner of the proposed Bush Street Synagogue Cultural Center — is confident his 10-year effort has not been in vain.

"As far as historic preservation, I'm not sure what the Japanese community wants will work. We're researching that right now," Warburg said. But "we're confident we'll be selected."

The Japanese American Religious Federation wants to refurbish the synagogue's interior to create 23 housing units for seniors needing personal-care assistance. Thirty-nine additional units would be built in an adjoining building. The work will cost about $7 million.

Warburg's plan would keep the structure's interior intact, showing off its vaulted ceilings and gold escutcheons. The original pews would be used to seat the public during performing arts events. A permanent exhibit chronicling the history of the building and the Jews of San Francisco would be mounted in the lobby.

The adjacent structure would be turned into a 12-unit apartment building with underground parking.

Total cost of Warburg's project is estimated at $5.5 million, with the synagogue renovation alone slated at $3 million. To date, more than $1 million is secured through a partnership with Equity Community Builders.

In exchange for the building adjacent to the synagogue along with apartment blueprints, ECB will donate the value of the land, $600,000, plus $450,000 in tax credits, to the cultural center.

Preservationists, including San Francisco Heritage Foundation, are supporting Warburg's plan. But it has been hinted that the commission is leaning toward the Japanese plan.

Commissioner Manny Rosales told the San Francisco Examiner that the issue at hand is "how to keep people in that community who belong in that neighborhood."

Whomever is given permission to occupy the now-crumbling building will receive $650,000 — dollars left over from Federal Emergency Management Agency earthquake relief funds.

In the past Warburg has had difficulty securing Jewish funding for his plan. But he's not giving up. He will ask Jewish philanthropical organizations and performing arts foundations for assistance.

Warburg claims he can't actively solicit funds, however, until the building is secured.

"There's no way we can get [potential funders'] attention until we have the project for our own," Warburg said. "No one wanted to be the first to put in the money. But now, through this joint venture [with ECB], we have half.

"So I'm confident we'll be able to do this. The interest is there."