Berkeley council scrambles for July ruling on Beth El

Before it adjourns for summer recess on July 24, the Berkeley City Council hopes to make a decision on Congregation Beth El's plan to build a new synagogue.

But first, council members have to finish a hearing on the issuance of a use permit as determined by the Zoning Adjustment Board.

Then it has to open another hearing on the issuance of an alterations permit because the site selected by Beth El has been designated a historical landmark by the City of Berkeley.

In order to speed the matter along before adjourning until Sept. 10, the council has scheduled two sessions that will be devoted entirely to the synagogue.

The first will start at 5:30 p.m. Monday, July 16, at the North Berkeley Senior Center on Hearst Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The second will start at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 19 at a location to be announced.

The council may not have the last word on the case. If either side — Beth El or its future neighbors — disagrees with the outcome enough to invest large sums of money to try to change it, the decision of the City Council can be appealed in court.

"Our hopes are with you," Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean said at Tuesday's council meeting when she asked mediator Peter Bluhon to report on the status of the negotiations between Beth El and its future neighbors about the proposed construction.

Without giving away any details (all those involved in the mediation have taken a vow of silence), Bluhon said he hopes to have some agreement when he gives his final report to the council in a couple of weeks. Whether that agreement will resolve all or just some of the issues, Bluhon wouldn't say.

Meanwhile, the City Council is moving ahead so that it can make a decision if necessary.

Beth El's proposal to build a new synagogue at 1301 Oxford St., has become its own "NeverEnding Story."

It's been four years in the making. There have been hundreds of hours of hearings, and reams of papers have been filed. But people are still lining up to have their say.

Supporters focus on Beth El's need to build on the 2.2-acre site because its member families have grown from 250 to 600. Neighbors have raised worries about parking, noise, traffic, safety and environmental issues.

At Tuesday night's meeting another 40 or 50 supporters and opponents were given three minutes each to speak their minds. One speaker used his time to rail against Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians.

And even now there are still surprises.

Anne Jennings, the attorney for the Live Oak and Codornices Creek Neighborhood Association said that the culverted portion of the creek wasn't where Beth El's plans said it was. Therefore, the proposed driveway would go over the culvert and interfere with the eventual day-lighting, or exposure, of the creek.

LOCCNA also presented new schematics to the council, claiming they would satisfy both sides. The drawings, prepared by Wolfe Mason Associates, a firm of landscape architects and environmental scientists, were paid for by members of LOCCNA and drafted hurriedly over the past few days.

In response to questions from Councilwoman Miriam Hawley, Sarah Tamblyn, a senior associate with Wolfe and Mason, said that her plans reduced the overall size of the building by approximately 25 percent — or 8,000 square feet — by completely eliminating the chapel.

Her drawings also provided for underground parking but she was unable to estimate what it would cost or what effect it would have on the site's hydrology.

The proposal for underground parking is an idea that the new synagogue's opponents have repeatedly suggested. Beth El considered the idea, but rejected it for reasons of design, environment and cost.

Harry Pollack, a past president of the congregation, said the direct cost of an underground garage accommodating 35 cars would be about $1.3 million, bringing the total bill to about $2 million, thus increasing the overall cost of the project by about 25 percent.

"I am sympathetic to the neighbors," said Councilwoman Polly Armstrong. "But it's disconcerting at this stage of the game to have a whole new proposal."

Hawley, who also was visibly frustrated with this plan, suggested that someone do an analysis of how much all these delays were costing the synagogue.

"There's a conspiracy to move this as slowly as possible so there's no way we can make our deadline," said Councilwoman Betty Olds. Councilwoman Dona Spring began to object but was cut off by Mayor Dean who, throughout the evening had tried to keep the meeting on track.

"She withdraws the comment," Dean said of Olds.

"No I don't," responded Olds, bringing laughter from the audience.

On behalf of the synagogue, Pollack agreed to take a serious look at the new plans but added that, after four years of hard work, there were not many ideas that had not already been considered.

He also said Tamblyn's design eliminating the chapel would interfere with the synagogue's program.

The plans approved by the zoning board were the fifth set of formal revised plans and incorporated 20 changes to accommodate neighborhood requests, Pollack said.

He told the council that the synagogue's initial plans were modest, using only 24 percent of the property when the zoning ordinance would permit construction on 40 percent.

"We did not come in with our wish list," said Pollack. "We came in with our needs list."