Peninsula JCC to lease Foster City land for mega-campus

In a unusual arrangement with Foster City, the Peninsula Jewish Community Center will erect a mega-campus on city-owned land that will benefit not only area Jews but all city residents.

The plan will provide discounted fitness memberships to Foster City residents, while enabling the JCC to dramatically expand its services.

"We hope it will become the campus for Jewish life on the Peninsula," said Seth Gersch, the JCC board president. "I think it will become a focal point for the Jewish community."

Though the vast majority of JCCs own their land, officials from the Peninsula center, a local Jewish day school and the city believe they will all benefit from the uncommon deal.

Under the plan, the JCC will lease 12 acres of undeveloped land in Foster City's civic center area at below-market rates.

And the Jewish Day School of the North Peninsula, now renting space in San Mateo, will gain its first permanent site within the JCC.

"I don't think this has ever been done before," said Judy Edelson, the JCC executive director.

After two years of discussions and public hearings, Foster City's city council unanimously approved the deal in late April. Final negotiations on the lease have been going on ever since. The lease is expected to be signed this month.

An architectural firm, Fisher-Friedman Associates, began work on the project over the summer.

Construction will cost an estimated $20 million, and fund-raising is already under way. The earliest possible opening date for the new building will be 2001.

The JCC, which serves San Mateo County, has been on four acres in suburban Belmont since 1963.

The problem with the building isn't age, Edelson said. It's space.

At 19,000 square feet with no room to expand, she said, the center cannot offer adult education, arts programs or teen activities. The building has a fitness center and pool but no auditorium or gymnasium. Some offices are set up in a portable.

About 200 preschoolers use the site during the school year. In the summer, 250 children arrive daily for camp. Because the camp takes up so much space, Edelson said, programs for the elderly must be moved off-site for the summer.

Edelson estimates that the current membership of 1,070 households could quadruple at the new site.

With outreach to Foster City's 30,000 residents, the new site will potentially draw large numbers of non-Jews, too. However, Gersch said he isn't concerned about the center losing its Jewish flavor. Most activities, other than the fitness programs, will continue to focus primarily on Jewish culture.

"We are focused on using the center to promote Judaism," he said.

While the JCC has been hankering for extra space, the 12-year-old day school has been struggling to find a new site. Currently renting an unused public school in San Mateo, the school has an already-extended lease that expires in June 1999.

The unaffiliated day school, which now has about 90 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, offers both secular and Judaic studies. School officials expect enrollment will grow at a permanent site and hope they can eventually add a middle school.

"This will move the school into a wonderful new chapter," principal Mervyn Danker said.

The school plans to move into portables on the new site until construction is finished.

Under the proposed deal, the JCC will pay $120,000 annually in rent. It also will offer another $130,000 per year in membership and program discounts to Foster City residents on a first-come, first-served basis. Those discounts, for example, include 10 percent off membership rates for 1,000 Foster City residents.

The rent and discounts increase 2 percent annually. Under a complicated formula, the discounts can grow every three to five years if the membership rates rise by more than 2 percent each year.

"They're frankly not getting a tremendous amount of rent," Gersch said.

From the city's perspective, however, the deal is a bargain too.

Foster City had set aside the land for a future high school, but voters never approved the plan. So the property has sat empty, and the city has sought other uses for it.

In addition, the city's fitness facilities are limited. Its recreation center, which sits across from the new JCC site, includes meeting and banquet rooms. But the city has no public pool or gymnasium.

Rick Marks, Foster City's community development director, said city officials weren't sure they could ever afford to build and maintain a city gym over the long run.

"The lease is perhaps below market value, but we have certain program discounts and access to some of their facilities," he said. "In the end, the impetus for the city and all the parties is that they will have access to facilities they wouldn't have otherwise."

Adjacent to the JCC site are another 15 acres that will be leased for an Episcopalian high school.

The length of the JCC's lease is set at 55 years, the maximum length of time that public property can be leased without voter approval in California.

"People feel comfortable with that in terms of the life of a building," Edelson said.

The new JCC site will be only about five miles from the current one.

But because it will sit near the junction of highways 101 and 92, Edelson and others believe it will attract many more members, including Jews directly across the San Mateo Bridge in the Hayward and San Leandro areas.

"This is an extraordinary moment in time for the north Peninsula community," Edelson said. "We hope to attract as many Jewish institutions as possible, so it can be a real center of Jewish life.

The Peninsula JCC hopes to mimic the success of the Marin JCC in San Rafael, where a day school and synagogue are clustered on the same property. It also wants to attract branches of groups such as the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Jewish Family and Children's Services, Jewish Vocational Service or the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization.

Although the new JCC will expand to 85,000 or even 100,000 square feet, Edelson said the programming won't simply be an amplification of current offerings.

"It will be a new institution," Edelson said. Right now, a committee is working on ideas for the new center.

The project's $20 million price tag isn't set in stone. It could range anywhere from $18 million to $24 million, depending on the architect's final plans. JCC officials acknowledge that raising that amount of money is a huge undertaking.

But the project already has $6.5 million. About $3 million of that is the equity in the current JCC, which will be sold. The other $3.5 million is cash the JCC has set aside from ongoing fund-raising.

The day school board has pledged to raise $300,000.

In addition, capital campaign co-chairs Ron Wornick and Allan Byer have pledged to raise $5 million through major donors. The two Hillsborough residents have drummed up $3.5 million in pledges and donations already, including their own contributions.

Meanwhile, the JCC is asking the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, its Jewish Community Endowment Fund and other large foundations for another $5 million.

Finally, fund-raisers will turn to the general Jewish community for the remaining $5 million. That campaign could start as early as the fall.

If any additional money is needed or if fund-raising falls short, Wornick said, the JCC can take out a mortgage.

Though $20 million is a large sum to raise, Wornick said he isn't at all worried.

"In fact, this is a wonderful window of opportunity. The Jewish community has coalesced around the need to revitalize Jewish cultural life in the Bay Area. Secondly, these are very good economic times for most people," said Wornick, who has three grandchildren in the day school.

"Our cause is right on target. The economy is good. And there is money out there."