JCC of S.F. fortifies efforts to fight landmark status

Nate Levine was not daunted by the decision last week recommending that the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, of which he is executive director, be designated a city landmark.

"Their job is to landmark buildings," Levine said after the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board voted 5-2 in favor of the measure — which conflicts with the JCC's desire to construct a new building in its place.

"What's positive about this is that everyone agreed that the JCC needs to be expanded."

Supervisor Barbara Kaufman was more pointed in her remarks.

"I thought it was an affront to the Jewish community," she said a day after the Aug. 16 vote. "The organized Jewish community is solid in its support of this. We believe that what is offered at that building is far more significant than the building itself."

Added Kaufman, "I think the decision was made before we even said anything. I hope [at the next meeting] saner voices will prevail."

The issue will be considered by the San Francisco Planning Commission in the next month or so. The exact date has not yet been set.

Kaufman was one of more than 30 people from both sides of the debate who made highly emotional pleas before a standing-room-only crowd at the three-hour meeting at City Hall. An estimated 100 people attended.

At issue is the 68-year-old building on California Street at Presidio Avenue.

Both camps agree that the JCC — serving an average of 3,000 people a day, half of them Jewish — is woefully inadequate to continue operating in its current incarnation. JCC officials want to raze the building and construct a new one, and have already raised more than $54 million toward that effort.

Opponents would rather see the building preserved as much as possible.

First to speak was Adam Light, a planner with San Francisco's Department of City Planning. After a comprehensive study, Light recommended the board not designate the building a landmark, in deference to its owners' wishes.

He said "it's in their best interest to determine their own future. We would not wish to preserve the building against the wishes of the JCC."

The JCC has been operating at a deficit, and Levine testified that if forced to remain in its current building, the organization will not be able to attract enough new members to sustain itself and will have to close.

This is the JCC's fourth building in its 120-year history, and the organization has always moved or made improvements as needed to afford for growth, Levine said.

He emphasized that the JCC benefits many San Franciscans, not just Jews. While the JCC provides a means for unaffiliated Jews to have a link to their roots, its programs — including preschools, after-school enrichment, sports, summer camps and adult activities — all serve the non-Jewish community as well.

And last, he reasoned, neither sentimental attachment nor historical events should win out over the dire need to expand.

"Joseph Lieberman did not sleep there," he quipped.

Offering an opposing viewpoint was Arnie Lerner, a longtime JCC member and architect. Lerner has come up with an "adaptive reuse plan" that incorporates the old building into a new one. His plan would cost $19 million more than the JCC's $50.1 million plan.

On Lerner's side are a handful of JCC members, who are among "the preservationists." Along with some architecture historians, they claim that as the JCC was built by noted San Francisco architect Arthur Brown Jr., who designed Coit Tower, City Hall and Congregation Emanu-El, among other city landmarks, that the JCC should be a landmark, too.

In his sentimental testimony, Lerner spoke of his own childhood attending programs at the JCC. To get rid of it is like "being against Mom and apple pie," he said.

While most elderly residents of the nearby Menorah Park housing favor the JCC's plan to rebuild, one of the dissenters, Eleanor Fried, contended, "The JCC is to Jews of the city as the Statue of Liberty is to New York."

More than 50 people sported buttons declaring "Building the Future; JCCSF," and several held a JCC banner in the back of the room. The preservationists wore ribbons saying "Committee for Preserving the JCC."

Pleas came from all quarters: octogenarians, Russian immigrants, neighbors, JCC employees, architecture historians, Art Deco Society members, rabbis and parents.

Speaking in favor of a new building were Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco, and Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum, executive director of the Northern California Board of Rabbis. They said all the San Francisco Jewish communal organizations, as well as the board of the JCC, and the national JCC association, supported their stance.

Lev Weisbach, a JCC member and an architect at Gensler Associates, which has designed the proposed replacement with the Steinberg Group, said the reuse plan "would function even less well than the building functions today."

The new building would have underground parking and have better access for the disabled, be more earthquake-proof and easier to secure, Levine said.

These are all features that the neighborhood supports, added Ron Blatman, a JCC member and president of the Presidio Heights Association of Neighbors.

Speaking as a neighbor and a parent, Blatman said many young families are fleeing the city because of a lack of institutions like the JCC.

Furthermore, he said, "You'll see there's a conspicuous absence of neighbors protesting here, which is rare in San Francisco. All the neighbors support it because they all use it."

After nearly two hours of impassioned testimony from both sides, JCC employee Jeffrie Palmer provided some levity.

Wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, Palmer said he met his wife at the JCC, his children attend its programs, and he's worked at the JCC for 20 years, giving him a unique perspective.

"This isn't Brown's building, this is Murphy's building," he said, alluding to Murphy's Law. Describing the overcrowded working conditions, he remarked, "With all due respect to Arthur Brown, the current building is a pain in the ass."

Finally, the commissioners each had a chance to speak. Several themselves had used the JCC.

"I feel like the only person in the room who has not used the JCC at one time," said Commissioner Jeremy Kotas before casting his vote in favor of landmark status.

New building supporters are hopeful that the planning commission will defeat the advisory board recommendation.

In the meantime, Levine has collected more than 1,700 signatures supporting the rebuilding plan. "We've been receiving numerous phone calls of support and letters of endorsement from many Jewish and community organizations," he said.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."