Palo Alto coalition closes deal on 12-acre Jewish campus

A partnership of Jewish organizations completed a long and complicated real estate deal late last week, obtaining Sun Microsystems' former 12-acre campus to serve as the future home of a Palo Alto JCC and a number of other Jewish organizations.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation green-lighted a bid of nearly $40 million in September for the site, which is now owned by the Campus for Jewish Life, a nonprofit organization and supporting foundation of the JCF's Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

Carol Saal, president of the CJL and Palo Alto's Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center, has been leading a fund-raising drive since last fall that has amassed more than $23 million from 40 donors.

Saal estimates that the "master planning" of the campus may take another year to 18 months, and will be followed by another fund-raising campaign. A 250,000-square-foot building currently on the site will be razed, and construction on the future Jewish campus may begin within three to four years.

"It really gives me chills to think about the opportunities a new center opens for individuals and families to really build community in a significant way," said Karen Stern, the JCC's executive director.

"This is a moment in time. It'll be fun to look back on this in 30 years and remember the kind of incredible people we had with the foresight to snap up this opportunity."

The site, located at 901 San Antonio Road, is about an acre larger than the Marin Jewish community campus in San Rafael, which houses a JCC, Congregation Rodef Sholom, a Brandeis Hillel Day School campus and Jewish agency offices.

While the deal was originally scheduled to be closed in January, ongoing environmental investigations and cleanups delayed the final sign-over until June 21.

Saal described the level of contaminants in the groundwater beneath the five-story building and 1,100-spot parking lot as typical for a Silicon Valley commercial property. Since the former office site will be used to house the elderly in a Palo Alto branch of the Jewish Home and will also host preschool classes, stricter environmental standards were required.

In addition to the JCC and Jewish Home, another key tenant of the site will be BUILD, an affiliate of Bridge Housing Corp., the state's largest nonprofit housing developer. BUILD plans to erect 230 two- and-three-bedroom affordable-housing units on a section of the 12-acre site, providing a built-in clientele for the JCC's services.

In August, the JCC will move from the Arastradero Road site it has called home since the early 1980s to make way for a middle school. The JCC site was reclaimed for use by the Palo Alto Unified School District. Meanwhile, the JCC will relocate many of its services to the Cubberley/Greendell site, owned by the school district and partially leased by the city. The JCC will be permitted to utilize the site for up to eight years during construction of a permanent home.

In the months and years leading up to construction, Saal hopes to raise money by leasing out its gargantuan parking lot for either parking or such activities as car shows or festival.

Stern hopes to hold next year's Russian Festival on the new site.

"The fun thing is to think about what we can do on the Sun site on a daily basis," she said. "I want to do a big community Sukkot. I hope that's feasible. I want the community to start feeling like, 'My gosh, this is our place.' And it is!"

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.