School board in Palo Alto might force JCC to move

After nearly 17 years in the same Palo Alto location, the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center might be getting squeezed out of its longtime home.

The Palo Alto Unified School District is making a play for the city-owned site because it desperately wants to open a new middle school in 2003.

Recent searches to put the proposed school in other locations led mostly to dead ends as far as district officials were concerned.

So the centrally located JCC facility, originally built in the early 1950s to house Terman Junior High School, seems to be what the district has settled on.

But nobody seems ready to throw the JCC into the street on the seat of its pants.

A plan gaining strength in this Silicon Valley city of 59,000 — an estimated 20 percent of them Jewish– would allow the JCC to lease land and build a new facility on Churchill Avenue, the site of the Palo Alto school board offices.

Sandy Blovad, the JCC executive director, said the center had already begun an $11 million capital campaign to make improvements at its aging current site.

To build an entirely new facility about two miles away, near the corner of Churchill Avenue and El Camino Real, would take $40 million, he estimates.

While getting pushed out of its current space is no easy pill to swallow, Blovad said, the idea of a brand new JCC is an appealing elixir.

"For a lot of people, the thought of moving into a Jewish community center that is new and state-of-the-art would be a legacy for future generations," Blovad said. "That thought is very enticing."

Does Blovad subscribe to that school of thought?

"Of course. But by the same token, I'm a realist. My bottom line is that regardless of location, the JCC must continue and it must thrive."

How that will happen is an unfolding mystery at this point.

Blovad and others stressed that the plan now being bandied about is merely in the discussion stages.

"That is a plan, but so much more needs to happen before we get to the point where we can say this is the plan," said Palo Alto Councilmember Gary Fazzino.

"All that exists today is intent — and it's just from one end," Blovad said. "It's the intent from the school district that they want to reacquire the Terman site."

Because of declining enrollment, the Palo Alto school district sold the facility that housed Terman Junior High to the city of Palo Alto in 1981. The JCC then leased the property from the city through 2006.

The lease offers no security blanket, however. The school district can yank the site out from underneath the JCC, claiming eminent domain.

Under that law, the school district can seize the property for public use if it proves to a superior court judge that its needs outweigh those of the owner, in this case the city. If that occurs, the JCC's lease would be terminated.

Although most discussions right now include provisional talk of land for a future JCC site, nothing guarantees such a deal from the city and/or school district.

Technically, the JCC, which has called Palo Alto home for 35 years, could be kicked out and forced to look for a new site on its own.

That scenario has some people worried, especially since available land in Palo Alto is almost impossible to find.

"The city can declare eminent domain any time it wants, and it's pretty hard for the community not to be sympathetic to schoolchildren," said Bonnie Tenenbaum, a former Schultz JCC president.

Tenenbaum fears that non-Jewish residents, municipal officials and school board members don't fully understand the value of the JCC.

To that end, the JCChas hired a P.R. firm to shine a light on the center's worth. Blovad said about 1,000 people use the JCC every day; the membership list of 3,500 includes 35 to 40 percent non-Jews, most of whom use the center's health and fitness facilities.

"We just want to make sure that the JCC message is portrayed accurately and effectively," Blovad said of the decision to hire the P.R. firm.

As far as Palo Alto school board President Cathy Kroymann is concerned, that message is already being heard.

"There's a lot of sensitivity around the fact that there are services provided [by the JCC] that are very valued," Kroymann said.

"But it's a very complex issue," she added. "You're dealing with one nonprofit, the JCC; two public entities, the school district and the city; and one private entity, Stanford."

Stanford figures into the equation because it had offered two pieces of land to the district for the new middle school.

But mainly because of the sites' somewhat remote location and cost factors, the district "has not found them wholly desirable," according to Larry Horton, Stanford's director of government relations. "They're not in the best location in the district."

The district's focus is now on the JCC's current home. Kroymann said it would cost about $18 million to renovate it, as opposed to $30 million to $35 million to build a new school.

"It's our No. 1 choice, primarily because of its proximity to where the students are," said Kroymann. But Kroymann said other site possibilities might emerge. Blovad said perhaps another Stanford site could be proposed to the school district.

If the school district decides to stop eyeballing the Terman site in favor of another location, the JCC will be able to relax and settle in, perhaps for many more years.

If the school district decides to move forward on Terman, then a sort of triple shift will occur — if all the parties can work out a deal.

"Nobody wants it to get ugly," Blovad said. "We're looking for a solution where everyone can be a winner…a win-win-win solution."

The plan floating right now has Palo Alto handing the Terman site to the school district; the school district building new headquarters on part of the Palo Alto High School campus with money provided by Stanford; and the district leasing the land at its current Churchill Avenue location to the JCC.

In turn, the JCC would raze the current district building and construct its own facility on the approximate 4.1-acre site.

Blovad stated he is generally pleased with the centrally located Churchill Avenue spot, citing heavy traffic as its only major drawback.

From planning to completion, would take about four years, Blovad said. He said his "No. 1 concern" is not having any interruption of JCC service.

That could be a problem because the school district has said it wants to open a new middle school in 2003. The JCC might not be able to complete a new facility by then.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation is working closely with the JCC to make sure its needs — as well as those of the JCC's new neighbors, the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School — aren't brushed aside.

"So far, the school district and the city seem to understand those needs, but we're not out of the woods yet," said Stacie Hershman, JCF's assistant executive director.

Hershman did express some excitement over the possibility of another new JCC being built. The Marin JCC is still relatively new, having opened in 1991 at a cost of $12 million; construction is slated to start in July on a new $22-million Peninsula JCC in Foster City; and last week, the JCC of San Francisco announced plans for a $50 million center.

"We would have four very modern, state-of-the-art Jewish community centers in our area," Hershman said, "and that's something we could be very proud of."

No formal timetable has been established to address the situation, although all parties involved have formed special committees to deal with the complex web.

"It's a challenging situation because the JCC is a wonderful, stellar community center," Fazzino said. "I want this to work for all of the parties. I want the JCC to be preserved in Palo Alto but I also recognize the need for the district to re-open schools…It benefits all of us to work collaboratively."

Even if everyone works together nicely, Blovad doesn't expect a resolution any time soon.

"This story is going to keep going and going and going," he said.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.