Despite opposition, Beth El expects to build synagogue

It wasn't long before battle lines were drawn at last week's hearing before the Berkeley City Council on Congregation Beth El's proposal to build a new synagogue.

On one side stood Beth El promoting community, children and social programs. On the other was the opposition, mostly ecology types, speaking for oak trees, creeks and steelhead trout.

But Harry Pollack — a past president of the congregation who has been involved in the building project from the beginning — says he's optimistic that the outcome will be positive and the synagogue will eventually have a new home.

"We're confident that when the synagogue is built that the fears that some of [the neighbors] harbor will prove to be unfounded," said Pollack. "And we will do our part to restore good feelings and repair any bad feelings that have been created during this process."

Besides, as Pollack points out, with the current synagogue only 2-1/2 blocks away, this has been Beth El's neighborhood for more than 50 years.

Barely a dent was made in the number of individuals who wanted to address the City Council last week. Council chambers were jammed with more than 500 wishing to be heard. Mayor Shirley Dean will resume the hearing on Tuesday, June 26.

Beth El bought the vacant 2.2 acre site at 1301 Oxford St. in 1997. Back then the planned building would have accommodated the 250 families. But the synagogue has since grown to 600 households.

Fourteen of the first 16 speakers at last Tuesday's hearing were children and teens addressing that issue.

They told how classes met in closets and tutoring took place in bathrooms because of the overcrowded conditions at the synagogue's current site at Arch and Vine streets. They talked about Camp Kee Tov, community service projects, Midrasha (the high school program) and the importance to their lives of being part of the Beth El community.

But neighbors have been objecting to the proposed use of the land because of size, parking, noise, traffic, safety and environmental issues, and the next 16 people spoke against construction.

No opponents said that they didn't want the synagogue as a neighbor. On the contrary, when asked by City Council members whether they objected to having Beth El in the neighborhood, there was a resounding, "Of course not."

Beth El, they said, is an asset to the community and does a lot of good works. They just want a smaller building, less of the property utilized. They want Codornices Creek, which runs through the property, exposed, or perhaps rerouted. They want more on-site parking places, possibly moved underground.

In a nutshell, they urged the City Council to send Beth El back to the drawing board to start over and redesign the project.

Although the forum has changed several times since 1996, when Beth El convened its first neighborhood meeting, the basic dispute remains the same — people vs. ecology.

Since then, there have been informal meeting and hearing before the Zoning Adjustment Board and the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In mid-March the ZAB approved Beth El's request for a use permit and the LPC denied its request for an alterations permit.

Now the matter is where all the parties knew it would end up — at the Berkeley City Council.

Pollack says he hopes that Council members will make a decision before they go on vacation at the end of July.

"We have dealt responsibly with every legitimate issue they've raised," said Pollack, referring to the opposition.

"Our project as approved by ZAB reflects a balance of the competing demands of various neighbors and other interest groups, while still allowing us to build a facility that meets our programmatic needs."

According to Pollack, the plan approved by the ZAB "deals very responsively in the Berkeley tradition of fish and creeks."

Part of the creek is above ground and part is culverted about 25 feet underground. The plans provide for the above-ground segment to be restored and the area around it replanted.

Part of the controversy arises over the underground portion.

Opponents claim that if the creek were day-lighted, or exposed, steelhead trout, which once inhabited its waters, would return.

But according to Pollack there are flaws with this argument. To date, no steelhead trout have been found in the vicinity and, in order for Codornices Creek to be a viable home, the entire creek would have to be day-lighted, which would mean tearing up streets and property throughout the city.

But the plans that were approved preserve the possibility of opening up the creek in the future. In fact the original plans were modified to move the driveway away from its proposed location over the culverted portion of the creek to make this possible.

Opponents are now asking the City Council to require Beth El to take the next step and actually day-light the creek. According to Pollack this was not their position before ZAB.

Parking has been another bone of contention. Located in a mixed-use neighborhood, residents are concerned that the 600-family congregation will adversely impact an already congested area and that the 35 on-site parking places will not do enough to alleviate it.

Traffic consultants and the ZAB disagree. Pollack said that part of the problem is that people don't understand the nature of what goes on at a synagogue. Many of the opponents refer to Beth El as a church.

"The primary focus of what we do is education of children," said Pollack. "The reality is that Monday through Thursday it's just kids, and kids don't drive."

Neighbors are also under the misimpression that all 600-member families attend every service.

As for the underground parking proposal, Pollack says that's totally impractical and would be an ecological disaster.

"A one-story underground garage, we estimate, would require more than 400 dump trucks full of dirt. The environmental impact of digging that kind of hole next to the creek would affect subsurface flows into the creek."

An underground garage would require ventilation, which would be both noisy and consume large amounts of energy. It would also mean the building design would have to be changed into one massive square or rectangular structure. According to Pollack the cost of underground parking is prohibitive — $1.4 million to $2 million for 35 spots.

Although pro-creek and anti-construction signs pepper lawns in the vicinity of the property, Pollack said there are many neighbors who support the project.