Landmark status urged: Demolition questioned

Architect Arnold Lerner, a powerful preservationist voice, notes that the spacious rooms boast a consistent elegance, with exposed plaster beams, inlay tile work, hand-carved wood doors and Art Deco light fixtures.

"Anything they build now could never be of the same quality and character," said Lerner, who is former chair of the historic resources committee of the American Institute of Architects' San Francisco chapter.

He also charged that the JCC has rejected three viable plans by historic architectural specialists Page and Turnbull to preserve the building, upgrade it and even add a build-in a 120-space parking garage.

"I respect Page and Turnbull," he said. "They were confronted with a client that really doesn't want a solution."

Both Lerner and JCC of S.F. Executive Director Nate Levine agree that the building has character and elegance. Where they disagree is whether it can function as a modern-day community center.

Levine says at the advanced age of 66, the facility just can't take the pounding it gets on a daily basis, and would cost too much to renovate. More than 3,000 people move through the Moorish-style edifice each day: Children in day care, adults using sports equipment, seniors socializing over breakfast, emigres learning English.

And while the dispute continues, the board has already pulled in $45.5 million for an all-new facility.

"It is not really very comfortable or functional and has not been for many years now," Levine said. "There is a whole racquetball wing that we're using for storage just because of the leaking roof. There are also a lot of challenges in keeping this building safe and secure."

Generations of young people, elders, lovers and friends have sat on the wood bench under a mural by Bernard Zackheim called "The Wedding Ceremony," in a courtyard that also features cast iron railings, terra cotta tile, Spanish-style arched doors and a copper downspout.

While the details may be historic, the sum total is simply "antiquated," said major donor and one-time board member Peter Haas. "It can't meet our needs today."

But the San Francisco Architectural Heritage Foundation did its own study of the structure, and concluded that it is in good condition "with a high level of integrity overall."

The nonprofit organization presented its findings to the city's Planning Commission last year. The silence was deafening, Lerner said.

Two years ago, Lerner offered to meet with Levine and provide pro bono assessments of various options. He never got a response. (Levine said he was collecting numerous suggestions at the time and did not realize Levine expected an immediate reply.)

Lerner is quick to emphasize, however, that his dispute is entirely restricted to the edifice: "I love what the JCC does, and I think Nate Levine is very good for the JCC," he said.

Lerner's credentials are solid. His Lerner and Associates has designed renovations for Alcatraz, the Alameda County Courthouse, Haas-Lilienthal House in San Francisco and the JCC's own Havurah Youth Center, among other projects.

San Francisco's historic JCC, Lerner said, has a quality that can't be quantified: Its role in the memories of San Franciscans.

It could easily be preserved, although that would "cost a little bit more and they'd have a few less parking spaces," around 120 instead of 180, Lerner said.

But Howard Fine, JCC board president, disagrees. "The idea of propping up a whole building, especially one that was constructed in 1932 and is not in the best shape, while we build two levels of parking, is not just daunting but cost-prohibitive," he said.

And, more importantly, "it just can't meet our needs," Levine said. "We need a theater big enough to hold 500. We can't do that here. We need a pool for people with special needs, in addition to a 25-yard lap pool. We can't do that here. We need a rec center that attracts enough people to provide a financial base. We can't do that here."

Furthermore, Levine added, the JCC has spent tens of thousands — "six figures over the years" — on architectural drawings.

"It's been a decade of false starts," he said. "This time, it's happening."

But according to Lerner, "if there is the will, there is always a way."

In fact, each plan suggested by Page and Turnbull would expand the available square footage — one to more than 180,000 square feet. Each would include a new gym, a theater and cafe. Each would include retrofitting to meet earthquake standards.

And each would cost over and above the plans by Gensler and Associates approved by the JCC board March 1.

Given that the total could top $70 million, an additional $10 million to $16 million is not out of line, critics insist, especially since the board has already raised $45 million just from its members and 15 other individuals.

No one is ruling out a compromise about saving all or parts of the old structure.

Michael Crowe, head of the National Parks Services' National Registry, said he would favor an agreement that would help preserve much of the original building. And Levine has agreed to meet in the next couple of weeks with some architectural reservationists, including Lerner, to generate ideas for melding the two architectural ideas.

"I have to say he is making a very good faith effort, and I appreciate it," Lerner said.

But a political battle has been brewing ever since May, when the San Francisco Landmarks Board opted to consider granting historic status to the JCC. It compiles a list of eight properties each year for such consideration.

"That's when I stepped in," said S.F. Supervisor Barbara Kaufman.

Kaufman likened the dispute to one that erupted over a Mission District theater, the proposed site of a new community college center. Preservationists met with failure.

"My interest is in making sure the Landmarks Board does the same thing here," Kaufman said. "It just wouldn't work. The outside just doesn't match what will go on in the inside."

The Landmark Board is an advisory group whose members are appointed by Mayor Willie Brown, passing its recommendations to the Planning Commission, according to Neil Hart, chief of neighborhood planning.

Before being signed by the mayor, the Planning Commission's decisions must be approved by a subcommittee of the Board of Supervisors, and finally, the board as a whole. The JCC matter will be voted on at a public hearing "some time before July 1," Hart said.

Don Andreini of the San Francisco Architectural Heritage Foundation said his group's success in advocating for preservation ebbs and flows with the composition of the city's planning and landmarks boards.

"This is a very pro-development administration," he said.

Some press reports took Kaufman to task for strong-arming the Planning Commission in regard to the JCC.

But an architect involved in the discussions claims "the pressure came from a lot higher up — a member of the Planning Department told me she got a call from Willie. He doesn't want that building preserved."

Kaufman snorted with contempt at the claim.

"The mayor and I have never spoke about this once, and I meet with him once a week," she said. "They're getting desperate to resort to tactics like that."

Other critics said what distresses them most is that the public was not informed before the JCC board embarked on its current course.

And public outcry, Lerner said, has altered the course of many a demolition. It prevented the razing of architect Erich Mendelsohn's Maimonides Hospital, which later became the Pavilion of UCSF-Mount Zion Medical Center.

Officials there told Lerner the look of the facility would not resonate with the scientists, researchers and students whom they hoped to attract.

"I said, 'Are you kidding? This was Albert Einstein's architect!' And once the word got out, they were getting letters from all over the word."

But Levine bristled at the suggestion that he has not listened to the community. He said the JCC did a demographic study three years ago, received responses from members who have clamored for change, and continues to apprise them regularly of the plans.

"We are in the beginning stages of a city process which most certainly does include opportunities for public comment," he said.

Already, he has agreed to preserve many details, such as the Zackheim mural.

And he has agreed to meet with Lerner and take a select group of architects on a walk-through to solicit some alternative options.

"We're delighted to listen to good ideas," Levine said. "He cares about the JCC, and I respect that."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.