Beth El gets councils approval, but its still not over

Although the Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to approve a site plan for the construction of a new synagogue by Congregation Beth El at 1301 Oxford St., the curtain hasn't yet come down on the controversy.

The approved plan modifies earlier site plans by relocating the on-site parking and the driveway and reducing the size of the social hall by 700 square feet.

That leaves the northern portion of the property undeveloped, preserving the option of restoring the underground portion of Codornices Creek, which has been a major interest of the Live Oak Codornices Creek Neighborhood Association.

It also provides for a larger separation between the synagogue and the residences on the Spruce Street side of the building.

All parties agreed to continue talking to get these issues resolved, expressing the hope that when the council returns in September after its summer recess that there will be a final agreement. The only action left for the City Council at that point will be to hold hearings on the issuance of a new use permit.

Anne Jennings, an attorney for LOCCNA, added that although at this point the neighborhood association is not giving up its right to sue, she "firmly believes that the remaining issues can be worked out."

In fact, all parties reassured the nine-member City Council they were confident that the remaining issues could be resolved without having to resort to the council's intervention.

Although the parties acknowledged that the remaining issues were not insignificant, the mood was celebratory. There was laughter; there were hugs and pats on the back.

"I'm astonished that we're here with something we can all endorse," said Phil Price, a member of LOCCNA's negotiating team. "We have an agreement on many important parts. There are a few substantive issues left."

The agreement, which was announced at 11:45 p.m. Tuesday, was the product of hundreds of hours of mediation among the parties.

"Nothing to it," Harry Pollack told the council, drawing laughter and applause from the packed chambers, which held about 100 attendees. Pollack is a past president of the congregation and a member of the synagogue's mediation team.

Even as the City Council dealt with other issues on its agenda on Tuesday night, the parties continued to negotiate. At 8:45 when the council was ready to call the matter, the parties said they needed another hour. At 10:50 they returned, saying they needed another 15 minutes. Finally at 11:45, they were ready with their much-anticipated report.

The controversy arose more than four years ago when Beth El purchased a 2.2 acre site, one of the only remaining undeveloped plots of land in Berkeley, on which to build a new synagogue.

On one side of the controversy was the 600 member-family congregation, which had long outgrown its previous site at the corner of Arch and Vine streets. On the other were neighbors who wanted to preserve the land as a natural resource, in part so that a portion of Codornices Creek — which long ago became a culvert and is about 25 feet underground — could be "daylighted."

Over the years there have been informal meetings as well as hundreds of hours of public hearing before Berkeley's Zoning Adjustment Board, Landmarks Preservation Commission and finally the City Council. It was a controversy that pitted neighbor against neighbor, with emotions running high on both sides.

Finally on May 21 this year, the City Council appointed Peter Bluhon to mediate the matter. Since then he estimates that there have been 350 hours of talks — a process that culminated in 16-hour days and has been "nonstop" since last Friday — in anticipation of Tuesday night's meeting.

Referring to the newly approved plan, Pollack said, "This does not affect programs, religious school or services." He said there would still be a driveway for drop-off and pick-up.

All parties involved, including City Council members, credited Bluhon and the good will of the parties with bringing about the result.

At its previous meeting on July 19, called solely for the purpose of dealing with the Beth El controversy, several members of the City Council expressed hope that the matter could be resolved through mediation, sparing the council the need to vote on it.

The major issues yet to be worked out are Beth El's cooperation in restoring Codornices Creek and an agreement protecting Beth El from future challenges on the project, Bluhon said.

As part of Tuesday night's agreement, Beth El said it would work with representatives of the city and LOCCNA to come up with a parking management plan that provides satellite parking for those occasions when the 33 on-site parking spots are inadequate for the volume of cars.

"I'm overjoyed," said Councilwoman Dona Spring, who was recovering from shoulder surgery and participated via telecommunication from her hospital bed in San Francisco. "What a wonderful community we live in."

Mayor Shirley Dean gave the honor of making the motion to approve the agreement to Councilwoman Polly Armstrong, because the synagogue is in her district.

"If you'll allow a lapsed Episcopalian to play 'Fiddler on the Roof,' it's a miracle," said Armstrong, waving her arms in the air.

Other council members echoed her comments.

"I am so pleased," said Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek. "This is what you call 'community.'"

"It's truly a miracle," said Councilwoman Miriam Hawley, attributing the result to the skilled mediator.

The final voice on the council was that of Dean.

She talked about how her husband, who grew up in Berkeley, used to play in Codornices Creek and praised the agreement.

"This attests to the good will of people on all sides," Dean said. "It was a reservoir they had to dig all the way down for to find enough good will to overcome this controversy."

Just before the roll call vote was taken, she added, "Only in Berkeley."