Palo Alto City Council pledges to find new JCC home

The Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center — pretty much resigned to getting kicked out of its current home — got what it was looking for this week.

The Palo Alto City Council pledged Tuesday night to find the JCC a new site and to put the search on the fast track.

Where the site will be is still up in the air, although the city will be putting much of its focus on dilapidated properties along El Camino Real, such as old motels.

The important thing, said Sandy Blovad, the JCC's executive director, is that city officials decided to make finding a site for the JCC a "very, very high priority and that they [will] get started on their effort immediately. This is definitely on the fast track."

He and other JCC supporters were terrified not so much about being pushed out of their current Arastradero Road home by a new middle school, but by fears they would be kicked out before a new JCC building could be finished.

"We were primarily interested in a collaborative timetable that would parallel the middle school's timetable," Blovad said. "We wanted those two timetables to be in tandem so there would be no resulting interruption of service."

Four hours of impassioned testimony at a public hearing Monday night convinced City Council members to not leave the JCC without a home even temporarily, Blovad said.

"It had a tremendous impact," Blovad said of the public hearing, at which about 500 people — most of them JCC supporters — packed the City Council chambers, with about another 100 denied entrance by the fire marshal.

"It was not only the Jewish community, but an overall community statement," Blovad said of the racially diverse crowd, estimated by one city official to be the largest crowd ever in the 280-seat council chambers.

Mayor Liz Kniss said the big turnout and the 70 or so speeches, many of them adamant, lets the council know that the issue is of great concern to many people.

"In the next couple of weeks, you will see a solution or two that really will resonate in this community," she promised.

The city staff is expected to report back to the council by mid-October with options for where the new JCC could be built.

Kniss said two sites under consideration are the Elks Club at 4249 El Camino Real and the Glass Slipper Inn at 3941 El Camino Real. Blovad said the target search area will be southwest Palo Alto, perhaps slightly north of the JCC's current location.

As things stand now, the JCC looks as if it's likely to lose its 18-year home at 655 Arastradero Road to the Palo Alto Unified School District.

School trustees on Tuesday decided to stick with their plan to seize the former home of Terman Junior High through eminent domain.

The school district used to own the property, but sold it to the city in the early 1980s because of declining enrollment. In 1982, the JCC moved in, and although a 25-year lease with the city expires in 2007, the JCC had already exercised an option for an automatic 25-year renewal.

The school district, now running out of classroom space, wants to open a new middle school there in 2003. All parties involved, however, feel that the sticky legal mess of eminent domain would best be avoided.

"One of our major objectives is to sit with the other parties involved in this dilemma and come up with a negotiated solution with an outside mediator present," Blovad said.

The school board hasn't yet started eminent domain procedures, however, and on Tuesday the board told Superintendent Don Phillips to get an appraisal of the Terman site and begin negotiating a takeover.

Meanwhile, city planners will be looking for one site, or adjacent sites, of at least four acres that Palo Alto can purchase for a new community center. Much of the land would then be leased to the JCC.

If the city can't readily find anything on the open market, it might pursue the land acquisition through eminent domain.

A city manager's report estimated the cost of the land in southwest Palo Alto at roughly $5 million per acre. The report said the JCC and other agencies that end up on the land would probably be asked to contribute to the cost of acquisition.

The JCC would be responsible for constructing its own building, which Blovad has estimated will cost upward of $40 million.

Once a site for the new JCC is secured, it will still take 30 to 42 months to take care of red tape, fund-raising and construction, Blovad said.

That means that even if a new site were to be purchased next week, a new JCC building probably couldn't get built until early 2003.

That could mean a delay for the school district, which has stated a desire to move into the Terman site in the summer of 2002. Negotiations could result in the adjustment of that timetable.

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.