Berkeley neighbors balk at Beth Els plan for new 2.2-acre site

When Congregation Beth El in Berkeley previewed architectural drawings of its new synagogue for about 70 future neighbors last week, it learned a harsh lesson — every silver lining has its cloud.

In this case, the silver lining is a proposed new synagogue to be built on a bucolic 2.2-acre site only 2-1/2 blocks from Beth El's current home on Vine Street.

The plans provide for more classrooms and a chapel as well as a larger library, social hall and sanctuary that will accommodate the Reform congregation's 600 families.

But inside that silver lining is a storm cloud — the objections and anger from the site's neighbors.

The purpose of the Feb. 22 meeting was to define the scope of the Environmental Impact Report that will be presented to the city when Beth El applies for building and use permits.

Although this preliminary meeting is not required by the city, the synagogue voluntarily scheduled it to give its future neighbors an opportunity to raise concerns and comment on the plans.

Several members of the city' s Planning and Development Department also attended.

"I am really concerned about the tone of opposition," cautioned the first speaker, Judith Lubman, who for more than 20 years has lived across the street from Beth El's current location.

Having the temple as a neighbor has not been without some irritation, Lubman said. But she pointed out that she chose to live there in order to be in a mixed-use neighborhood. "Remember," she said, "the congregation is a member of our community."

Beth El has been at its present site at 2301 Vine St. for 50 years. According to Marian Magid, a member of Beth El's building committee, more than 70 percent of the members live in Berkeley.

The congregation participates in many civic projects in Berkeley. Among other things, its members have prepared meals for the homeless, volunteered at Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS) and fixed up an Alzheimer's center.

Although a few of the speakers talked about the importance of religious diversity and described Beth El as an asset to the community, most of neighbors were angry and hostile.

Their No. 1 complaint: parking and traffic problems that the new synagogue will cause.

The new site, which was purchased from the Chinese Alliance Church in 1997, is located approximately one block north of Rose Street at 1301 Oxford St., and is bordered on the other side by Spruce Street. It is a largely residential neighborhood.

Several years ago the Chinese Alliance Church was granted a permit to expand its building, but never executed the project.

The synagogue's plans call for 35 on-site parking spots, but the overwhelming sentiment at the meeting was that this would be insufficient and that the overflow would burden the neighborhood.

According to Magid, a study commissioned by Beth El showed that the on-site parking spaces and a drive-through lane (for pick-ups and drop-offs) would make the traffic and parking impact minimal.

One speaker questioned the times of day that study was conducted and suggested it be redone at different times.

Doug Bartholomew attacked the objectivity of any report that was paid for by Beth El, adding that "the person who pays the piper generally calls the tune."

Eric Norris of Pacific Municipal Consultants, the firm that is preparing the EIR, assured Bartholomew that any report would be examined independently by the city's own consultant.

Another speaker suggested that the EIR look at the combined impact of the new synagogue as well as the use of its current building.

In order to finance the project, Beth El will have to sell its present site. Presumably, that buyer will want it for some public use.

"Why don't you look at splitting activities between the two sites," speaker Jon Stewart said. He also suggested that Beth El consider either building an underground garage or finding an off-site parking lot and using a shuttle to the temple.

Magid said an underground garage was considered by the building committee but rejected for practical, financial and environmental reasons.

Several people said that cars driving into and out of the new location would aggravate an already hazardous traffic situation on Spruce and Oxford streets. They said that speeding cars, blind corners and heavy traffic make this area the scene of many accidents.

One woman said she used to keep a blanket and first aid supplies next to her front door so she could respond to accidents.

Citing "community values," Alan Gould called on Beth El to restore a creek that runs through the property to its former, pristine state.

"In Berkeley, we really value our creeks," Gould said. "It has an impact on community values to cover it over."

Codornices Creek flows under several streets in Berkeley, and about 200 feet of it on the Beth El property was made into a culvert many years ago.

It lies about 27 feet below ground level, and the plan is for a driveway to be built over that section. Opening up that portion of the creek would be expensive and interfere with access to the site, Magid said.

According to Magid, approximately 100 feet of creek is exposed. Beth El's plans call for that part to be restored and planted with native plants.

Viki Tamaradze said the site was inappropriate for a synagogue and suggested that Beth El look at the old Emporium-Capwell building in El Cerrito Plaza because the temple's "activities really belong in a commercial neighborhood."

She drew applause when she proposed that a special election be held, allowing people only within a four-block area of the site to determine how they want the property used.

Jon Nackerud said, "It's unfair that schools and religious institutions should be exempted" from various taxes and other laws. He referred to members of the congregation as "nomads."

"I have never been consulted on how [the new synagogue] will affect my quality of life," Thomas Ciolfi said. "The use is not just a church. It's a camp, does meals for the homeless and is a school."

Further complicating matters, the site was once the location of the Napoleon Bonaparte Byrne mansion and has landmark status.

Although the mansion burned down in the 1980s, Steve Solomon, a senior planner in Berkeley's planning and development department, said he wasn't sure what impact that will have on the current proposed use.

The issue has been turned over to the Landmarks Preservation Board for review.

According to Norris, the EIR consultant, neighbors' comments will be taken into consideration as he finishes the EIR. He expects to file with the city in May.

Following that, there will be a 45-day period for public comment and then, in early August, a revamped EIR will be filed. The matter will then go before the permit and use board for a decision.

"Zoning issues are very sensitive," said Solomon.

Ultimately, the city's goal is to approve a plan that combines the neighbors' concerns and the synagogue's needs. In order to do that, the city can limit the size of a structure, or dictate in what manner and at what times it can be used.

Even in the face of neighborhood objections, Magid remains optimistic. "We're confident we can work with the city to obtain the use permit."