JCCSF ready to debut $60 million facility

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At the site of San Francisco’s new Jewish Community Center, there are still men at work.

The whine of electric saws competes with the whack of hammers. Painters and carpenters dodge electrical flex dangling from the ceiling. Drywall dust hangs in the air, while outside a trickle of sump-pumped water runs down California Street.

It’s early December, just a few weeks before the JCCSF’s reopening, and the $60 million, 240,000-square-foot structure — twice as big as the former facility — doesn’t seem close to completion.

But Nate Levine isn’t worried. In fact, the JCC’s executive director (and one of the driving forces behind the project) exudes a Buddha-like calm as he walks among the scurrying hard-hats.

He promises the new center will be ready for its mid-January opening. And he promises even more.

“This,” he says, “will be the Jewish public square, the epicenter of San Francisco’s Jewish community.”

That’s the vision Levine and his colleagues have developed over several years of planning and fund-raising. But like the movies’ fictional field of dreams, the question remains: If you build it, will they come?

Levine confidently answers, “Yes. We’ve already seen an increase in membership. Interest is extraordinarily high.”

That’s gravy for a center that already had been serving a million visitors a year in the old facility. The new JCCSF is bigger and, says Levine, a whole lot better.

Programs include a preschool and myriad activities for kids, a fitness center and adult education classes for grownups. There’s also a huge concert hall, expanded services for seniors, and, if you just want to sit and do nothing, a gorgeous atrium/lobby for watching the world go by.

Hungry for lunch? Eat at Home at the JCC, a new on-site restaurant run by John Hurley, the guy behind Garibaldi’s.

Thirsty for knowledge? Head over to Dayenu, the on-site bookstore and gift shop to buy all manner of Judaica.

Miss the old JCC? Check out the many vintage lamps, tiles, fixtures and the Bernard Zakheim mural preserved from the previous facility and reinstalled.

According to Levine, the bulk of new programming — everything from Hebrew class to Pilates exercise class to a Debbie Friedman concert — will stem from the JCC’s Seven Centers of Excellence.

Some of these are actual rooms or halls, others are more conceptual mini-centers that sponsor programs. For example, the Kritzer/Ross emigre program produces a Russian-language newspaper and offers ESL classes for Russian-speakers. The Taube Center, meanwhile, will develop programs on Jewish learning and celebration.

The Koret Center for Health, Fitness & Sport features a state-of-the-art exercise facility, aquatics center and a basketball court. There are even affiliated rehab and wellness centers.

“We serve people in an organic fashion,” says JCC President Paul Resnick. “People come to educate their children, to make friends or play sports. But also to study Torah and Kaballah. It’s a place for seniors to have a meal, find camaraderie. It’s Jewish life on an ongoing basis and in a natural fashion.”

With the Osher Marin JCC a hop, skip and a bridge-toll away, and other regional JCCs luring local Jews with programming of their own, is San Francisco concerned about drawing a crowd?

“We have never discussed competition between our programs and other JCCs,” says Resnick. “We want to be a local institution. We’re not going to draw people from their centers, and they’re not going to draw people away from ours.”

Of course, JCC leadership is quick to point out that this entire project is about much more than just a building.

“This is a place where Jewish values are expressed,” explains Levine. “We’re deeply Jewish, yet navigating in a pluralistic society.”

Adds Resnick: “A sparkling new building doesn’t mean anything unless you have programs that serve the Jewish community and also reflect Jewish values. In the end, that’s what this is about.”

But it is about a building too. And a grand one at that, as is clear to anyone standing at California and Presidio.

“It’s designed like a set of buildings,” says architect Kevin Hart. “Because it’s set in a part of the city where most buildings are smaller, we liked the idea of expressing it as a collection of buildings. Not least because of a poetic connection in that the JCC itself is a collection of various people and uses.”

Wandering through the three-story complex, one is struck by its intricacy, at how deftly the builders created so many diverse spaces within.

The ochre-colored edifice, made in part of imported Jerusalem stone, is large, but appears even larger on the inside.

Upon walking through the entrance, visitors encounter the 50-foot-high atrium rung with balconies and bathed in sunlight.

“We made it the center,” says Hart of the atrium. “Wherever you walk, almost every path takes you through that skylit space.”

The parquet floors in Fisher Hall and the workout studios, the retractable balconies in the 450-seat concert venue Kanbar Hall (the crown jewel of the Eugene & Elinor Friend Center for the Arts), the second-floor Richard & Roselyne Swig Jewish study center and the top-floor Oval Room with a million-dollar view of the city all exemplify refinement and style.

And then there’s the 181-space, 95,000-square-foot parking lot. In a city with fewer places to park than an Amish quilting bee, this is just what the valet ordered.

For those involved in the project, building the new JCC was akin to yanking a brick phoenix out of a hefty pile of ashes.

“The JCC was in bad financial shape,” recalls Resnick of the bad old days. “The building had a number of problems, structural and otherwise, and we couldn’t run a viable JCC in it. We were like a problem child, but no one could bear to see San Francisco without a JCC.”

He was right. Thanks to the capital campaign co-chaired by Gale Mondry and Bernard Osher, red ink ultimately turned black, with more than $80 million raised to eliminate old debt, establish an endowment and build the new facility.

But not so long ago, an annual operating loss approaching $1 million had pushed the JCC to the brink of bankruptcy.

With that as backdrop, longtime board member Mondry remembers the dream of a new facility began with a simple look around. “There was a real desire for a vibrant JCC,” she says. “It had traditionally been a home for preschoolers and seniors, but many in the community wanted exciting programs for teens, adults and active seniors.”

All involved agree there were many heroes in this saga. Among them, Robert Galoub, Steve Leavitt, Toby Rubin and the late Larry Myers, all former presidents of the JCC or its predecessor organizations. With those and other early visionaries on the case, the first order of business was digging the JCCSF out of debt.

Having purchased expensive adjacent properties long before, JCC planners had the extra land on which to expand. But they had also saddled themselves with backbreaking mortgages.

“We couldn’t build the new center without the adjacent property,” says Resnick, “but if we kept the property we knew we would get killed by the debt service.”

Indeed, this posed a dilemma of Hamlet-like proportions: to sell the properties for quick cash and ready relief, or not to sell, hold on for dear life and scramble to stay afloat financially.

Wisely, the board opted for the latter.

Then, in 1998, several key donors — Richard Goldman, Gerson and Barbara Bakar, Bernard and Barbro Osher, and Claude and Louise Rosenberg — each gave large gifts totaling more than $22 million.

The money not only helped the JCC retire its debt, it also got the ball rolling on actually building the new facility.

“Another significant partner was the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco,” says Levine, which “extended a bridge loan to consolidate our debt and give us the working capital to begin serious planning. Later, [it] came up with a capital gift of $3 million.”

Two other major gifts came through as well, one from the Koret Foundation ($6.2 million) and another from Peter and Mimi Haas ($5 million).

Two years ago, Resnick spearheaded a tax-exempt bond issue, raising millions more. Even board members were asked to put up or shut up.

The piggy bank was filling up.

But there was another snag. A small group tried to have the old building designated as a city landmark, and this caused a number of hearings at San Francisco City Hall, where the preservationists faced off with Jewish community members, who turned up en masse to support the new JCC. The Board of Supervisors ultimately voted in favor of the new building.

As funding progressed, so did the vision of what the new JCC should be. Certain programming staples, such as the fitness center and preschool, were no-brainers. But the JCC team, led by project planning committee chair Sandy Gallanter, chose to think big, as the new facility proves.

Next, architect Hart of the prestigious design firm Gensler came on board, along with the Steinberg Group, with a mandate to transform ideas into reality.

“A building is a collection of functional provisions,” says the award-winning designer of the MosconeWest Convention Center. “The right size classroom, the right arrangement for the kitchen, a health club. But there’s also a huge spiritual and emotional component to a building.”

In August 2001 the wrecking ball knocked down the old JCC to make way for the new. But this created another problem: Because the new building would be on the same site as the old, where exactly would the JCC go during three years of construction?

The answer came in the form of temporary housing on nearby Wedemeyer Street. “It was a strategic decision,” says Levine. “We had the option of going out of business for three years, but we felt it was important to keep our presence alive.”

Now, it’s bye-bye Wedemeyer, as the scaffolding has come down and the finishing touches on the new JCC are nearly done. Time for a debutante’s ball.

That comes via a series of events, starting with a dedication ribbon-cutting ceremony in mid-January, when the JCC will officially reopen. Next month, Jewish community leaders will be welcomed and given a tour.

But the main event takes place March 28 with a community grand-opening festival and fair. Organizers hope to draw up to 10,000 visitors to the daylong event, which will include guided tours of the facility, wine tasting, drop-in dance classes, kids’ activities and a performance by the New Pickle Circus.

So, let’s see: 10,000 people, 181 parking spots — how’s that going to work?

“We’re encouraging people to use public transportation,” says Levine. “But there will be parking available across the street at the UCSF lot, plus the event is spread out over 12 hours.”

He quickly adds: “We had 3,000 people every day at the old JCC with no parking. We’re used to this and prepared.”

So, with a fairy-tale ending in sight, JCC leadership is breathing a collective sigh of relief … almost. Even with all their due diligence, leaders still have to keep their fingers crossed.

“It’s not complicated,” says Resnick. “You make money on a few things [in a JCC] and you lose money on everything else. But those other things are why you exist.”

Gale Mondry, who first started bringing her toddlers to the JCC nearly 20 years ago, has her own personal take on the project and its meaning. “This is a gathering point, a place to come together, to explore aspects of Judaism and to reach out to the wider community. It will succeed beyond our dreams.”

The JCCSF, 3200 California St., is open for phone and fax registration. Information: (415) 346-6040 or www.jccsf.org. Fax: (415) 292-1280.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.