Hundreds pack Berkeley chamber for Beth El bid

With throngs of speakers waiting in the wings, the Berkeley City Council will continue its hearing on Congregation Beth El's proposed new synagogue on Tuesday, June 26.

Meanwhile, the contentious issue took center stage at Tuesday night's City Council meeting. It was the only show in town as the nine-member City Council devoted its entire 4-1/2-hour meeting to hearing out speakers on both sides of the issue.

Even though approximately 50 individuals had their say, all putting in their three minutes worth, barely a dent was made in the stack of speaker cards, according to Mayor Shirley Dean.

Steelhead trout, Codornices Creek and parking issues dominated the hearing. But even as the City Council took testimony on the main stage, mediation continued in the wings — as the council had directed at its April 24 meeting. By agreement of the parties, the mediation proceedings are confidential, but those involved are hopeful that some agreements can be worked out. If so, those recommendations will be presented to the City Council. Ultimately, it will be up to the council to adopt them.

At its peak, Tuesday night's crowd reached numbers in excess of 500. Council chambers were filled beyond capacity, with people standing in the back and sitting in the aisles. The proceeding was transmitted into the hallway outside and the downstairs lobby, both of which were packed. At the front door of City Hall, firefighters and police officers were turning people away.

When preliminaries were taken care of, council members were asked to stand at the chamber's windows. Below, on the front lawn, 75 to 100 children wearing Camp Kee Tov T-shirts sang "This Little Light of Mine." The summer camp is hosted by Beth El and open to members of the community at large, in addition to congregants.

But any good vibrations generated by the kids were short-lived as Alan Kay who, on behalf of various neighborhood and environmental organizations, appealed the Zoning Adjustment Board's certification of the Environmental Impact Report. He accused ZAB of disregarding the law and listening instead to "power and money and influence" in reaching its decision.

Harry Pollack, Beth El's past president, and architect John Ruble spoke on behalf of the synagogue, outlining its plans and telling what had been done to accommodate the neighbors.

This long-playing drama began in 1997 when Beth El purchased the vacant 2.2 acre site at 1301 Oxford St., located approximately 2-1/2 blocks from its current home of more than 50 years. Originally built to accommodate 250 families, the synagogue now has a membership of 600 households and is bursting at the seams.

Controversy over the project erupted almost immediately, with neighbors objecting to the proposed use of the land because of size, parking, noise, traffic, safety and the potential damage to natural resources including oak trees, Codornices Creek and steelhead trout. To complicate matters further, the site was once the home of Berkeley's first freed African-Americans and has been declared a landmark by the city.

Over the past four years, Beth El's plans have been modified substantially to address these concerns.

Before the final curtain came down at 11:30 p.m., the mayor assured all who had not yet spoken that they would get their turn when the matter resumes at 7 p.m. June 26.