Neighbors air concerns over creek at Beth Els new site

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As Congregation Beth El gets ready to build a bigger synagogue on a nearby lot, its Berkeley neighbors are questioning the wisdom of the project.

Last week, the synagogue invited area residents to express their opinions. With about 70 people showing up for the 2-1/2-hour meeting, temple members got an earful of opinions — and lots of questions.

At issue was the future of Codornices Creek, which flows through a buried culvert and along an open stream bed on the 2-acre site. The tract, once home to one of Berkeley's earliest farms, is about two blocks from the current synagogue.

During the meeting at Beth El, neighbors listened to a consultant's report on the creek and weighed in with their views.

Phil Price, who lives upstream, wanted to know if salmon would ever run through his backyard if the creek remained underground. (The answer from stream consultant Ann Reilly was "no.")

Another neighbor likened the plans for the new temple to placing a "Safeway store on top of a creek."

Synagogue president Harry Pollack said Beth El is trying to be a good neighbor as it prepares to build its new home, which would replace a 50-year-old facility that's become too small.

The current plans call for stabilizing the banks and improving the 100-foot-long open section of creek, but keeping the larger 200-foot section buried; it now sits in a pipe 27 feet underground. Codornices, which meanders from the Berkeley hills to the bay, was described by consultant Reilly as one of the East Bay's healthier creeks. Steelhead trout have been seen along some of its stretches, she said.

The meeting was the latest of about 10 community gatherings called by Beth El since before the congregation bought the $1.265 million lot on Oxford Street.

"It's important to establish communications and that's part of what we're doing," Pollack said.

The congregation purchased the land two years ago, recognizing the rarity of finding such a large lot in Berkeley. Formerly owned by a Christian church, the property is dotted with trees and is three times bigger than Beth El's current site.

Beth El officials say their 600 families long ago outgrew space built for a congregation less than half its current size. "We're just too cramped and too small," Pollack said.

But judging from comments at the meeting, some think Beth El is growing too much. The lot — like Beth El's current site — is in a residential neighborhood, though both sit a few blocks east of Berkeley's bustling Gourmet Ghetto.

"That's going to be a big building," nearby resident Juliet Lamont said after the meeting. "They're building over as much of the buildable area as they can."

Lamont said she'd like Beth El to keep its present location for classrooms and build a less obtrusive sanctuary on the new site.

Beth El's Pollack said splitting facilities into two sites would undermine the synagogue's sense of community. "There is a spirit created when you have all the congregational activities in one place," he maintained. Besides, he said, the $8 million to $9 million project will need proceeds from the sale of Beth El's current site.

Architect Buzz Yudell said the plans for a sanctuary and classrooms would cover about one-fourth of the lot, but his estimates did not include a planned driveway and parking for 35 cars.

Yudell said designers are trying to be "as careful as we can in the way we fit this building into the neighborhood."

Plans call for preserving the oak and other native trees on the property, he said. In addition, the congregation would "really celebrate the creek" by holding small prayer groups and other observances along its banks, he said.

Another neighbor who attended the meeting said later that she was worried about adding extra traffic to already busy streets near her home. "There are going to be accidents," warned Jenny Wenk.

Last week's meeting didn't delve into traffic issues. Temple officials said they'll hold a meeting in mid-April to discuss that matter. They hope to have a final design ready by May.