Beth El gets critical use permit, but 2nd permit denied

It was an eventful week for Congregation Beth El and its campaign to get the necessary permits from the city of Berkeley to build a new synagogue.

Although the results were mixed — the Landmarks Preservation Commission denied an alterations permit and the Zoning Adjustments Board granted a use permit — on balance those congregants who have been involved say they are extremely pleased with the results. They also believe they are well on the way to actually beginning construction.

Harry Pollack, the congregation's immediate past president, characterized the conflict as technical only, although it must still be resolved by the City Council.

Since the property had already been declared a historical landmark by the city, an alterations permit is required before changes can be made. The use permit enables the synagogue to build on the property according to city-approved plans.

"ZAB [Zoning Adjustments Board] gave us the use permit. That's the important one," Pollack said. "ZAB dealt with the same issues that the LPC [Landmarks Preservation Commission] did and seemed to reject the concerns that [the LPC] found. In light of how much we're doing to improve and recognize the history of the land, we're quite confident that what we're doing will be appreciated by the council and approved."

On March 8, the ZAB met to rule on the synagogue's request for a use permit. At times the hearing, attended by about 125 congregants and neighbors, had an "only in Berkeley" atmosphere. For most of the hearing, two neighbors who oppose the project sat in the front row and held up small placards with the word "sprawl" and a line through it. Rabbi Ferenc Raj, Cantor Brian Reich and several of the congregants, who came directly from the synagogue's Purim shpiel, were in costume.

But ZAB members took it all in stride and at about 12:25 a.m., on a motion by board member Laurie Capitelli, the board granted a use permit to Congregation Beth El by a vote of 5-3 with one abstention.

Appeals on either permit must be filed with the City Council within two weeks. According to Vivian Kahn, acting deputy director of the city's Planning and Development Department, the earliest the matter could be heard by the City Council is mid-April, and it may not get on the calendar for several weeks after that. The council then has 30 days after the hearing to make a decision.

For the past five years there have been meetings and hearings about this project. According to Pollack, the Environmental Impact Report, which is about 1,500 pages, is extraordinarily detailed for a project of this size, and the plans have been modified many times to accommodate suggestions or concerns expressed by various sectors.

On March 5, four members of the LPC sued the city of Berkeley, claiming that they had been wrongfully denied the right to vote on the project. The four are board members or paid staff of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, which submitted a letter to the LPC opposing the project. Berkeley City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque said this created a conflict of interest requiring the four to recuse themselves. On March 7, the Court of Appeals ruled against the four commissioners.

This is an issue that has come up in Berkeley in other cases, and although the suit was filed in the context of Beth El's project, the outcome will have no effect on Beth El.

The LPC is a nine-member board and a majority of five is required for any action. Before the March 5 hearing, the four commissioners with the conflict of interest resigned temporarily, allowing replacements to be appointed. By a vote of 5-2 with 2 abstentions, the LPC denied Beth El's request for an alterations permit. According to Pollack, some of the temporary appointees who did vote had not listened to the tapes of previous hearings and were not familiar with the written material in the case.

Pollack said Beth El's architects have worked with the city's Design Review Board and the staff of the city's Planning Department, modifying the plans to incorporate the many suggestions.

"We've really tried to listen and make changes that respect the wishes of the community and still meet our congregational needs," said Pollack.

One of the most recent changes moved the parking lot so that the driveway leading into it does not go over the culverted section of the underground creek. The creek has been an issue of contention, with neighbors wanting it to be day-lighted, or exposed; the synagogue said that to do so would render the property essentially unusable. Moving the driveway is significant because it preserved the possibility of day-lighting the creek sometime in the future.

The most vocal opponent to the proposal was board member David Blake, who was pushing for an underground parking lot, an idea that was considered and rejected at an earlier stage. According to Pollack, a 30-space underground garage would cost between $1.2 million and $1.4 million and would also increase the design costs by several hundred thousand dollars.

"There are a number of reasons why underground parking is a bad idea," Pollack said. "It's bad environmentally, [makes for a] bad design and it's expensive. An underground garage makes a huge gash in the ground right next to the creek. It's very disrespectful to the site and requires approximately 400 truckloads of dirt to be hauled offsite. The plan now is cut and fill. We will not be taking any dirt away."

The current design follows the contour of the ground. But Pollack said that an underground garage would dictate the shape of the building, making it either rectangular or square.