Nonprofit organizations and businesses leasing space from First Baptist Church will be given more time to relocate if they need it, Palo Alto City Manager James Keene said Monday before a standing room only crowd at City Hall.
“I’ve asked our staff to be completely open to requests by tenants for more time to comply with our zoning ordinance and make it clear there would not be any eviction notices proceeding,” Keene said. “We need some time to work through these matters with the church.”
Keene said he just returned from out of town for more than two weeks and had asked city staff during his absence to reach out to Rev. Randle Mixon, church tenants and neighbors concerned about traffic and parking issues.
Keene will meet with Mixon Wednesday to discuss ways all parties can work collaboratively toward a solution.
One possibility involves the church applying for a conditional use permit to operate as a community center, which would legally allow it to rent to service providers, Keene said.
Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said by email Tuesday the city already granted extensions to some church tenants.
“In all cases, there are conditions attached which are intended to address complaints we’ve received about noise and traffic, etc.,” Gitelman said.
Like the Palo Alto Daily News Facebook page for neighborhood news and conversation from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Redwood City and beyond.
Supporters of the various tenants, especially of the all-girls music nonprofit iSing, turned out in force to voice their concerns Monday at the City Council’s first meeting following summer break.
The groups shared disappointment at the little notice they received that they would have to relocate, citing disruptions to their scheduled programs.
Many speakers also asked the city to consider changing its zoning designations to better match the function of churches in the community.
Pastor Mixon said the church wants to be a good neighbor. He said the church has been a good steward by leasing out space to groups needing reasonable rates to operate in Palo Alto. The church, in turn, relies on the rental income, which accounts for about a third of its budget, to maintain buildings and the grounds.
“We’re living with a very antiquated definition of what a church is,” Mixon told the council. “To restrict us to religious worship and religious education … does not recognize the reality of church life in this country in 2017.”
Joseph Haletky, a member of First Lutheran Church, agreed with Mixon.
Haletky’s church is home to singing groups, 12-step programs, drama clubs and after-school programs. Providing space for these community services is at the core of the church’s ministry, he said.
“We follow two great commandments: love your god, which we do on Sunday mornings, and love your neighbor, which we do the rest of the week.”
Palo Alto resident Cari Templeton advocated for a change in zoning and extending a moratorium to all faith-based sites in the city.
Templeton said her family participates in music and dance events housed at various faith-based sites in Palo Alto and the experiences “build community and enrich our families.”
“If we don’t allow these uses, what else should we do with our empty church space during the week?” Templeton said. “We must not allow our community’s character to be stifled by an outdated code.”
Templeton’s daughter, Holly, 9, stood at the podium alongside her friends to note that iSing is their favorite activity.
“There is no other choir like iSing in Silicon Valley and if iSing gets moved, we can’t participate anymore and we won’t be able to continue singing,” Holly said. “Please let us stay.”
The city sent letters in July to about a dozen church tenants stating they have to cease operation or vacate the church, which is located in a single-family residential zoning area that does not allow for such commercial uses.
The July letters from code enforcement officer James Stephens stated that the city’s R-1 residential zoning designation is “intended to create, preserve and enhance areas suitable for detached dwellings with a strong presence of nature and with open area affording maximum privacy.”
The letter indicated medical service providers with offices at First Baptist had until Sept. 30 to comply.
Other tenants were given less time. The iSing Girl Choir, Tuesday Night Tango, Bisheh Toddler Class, Chinese Global Artist Association, Resounding Achord, Moveable Feet, Peninsula Folk Dance Council, Stanford Folk Dance and Tango Argentina have 30 days from when they receive the city’s notice to comply.
Mixon said some organizations, including all the dance groups and the philharmonic, have relocated but he hopes to retain as many tenants as possible and to see the others return.
Hollis Radin, president of the Peninsula Folk Dance Council, said she already feels priced out of Palo Alto as a resident and community groups rely on churches for affordable space.
“I always think of churches as places that bustle with activity, and fellowship halls are meant for fellowship,” Radin said.
Chris Eberle, whose daughter Victoria participates in iSing, said high rent has forced some kids’ activities to move further and further away from Palo Alto, sometimes to the point where his family has had to stop attending.
“They can’t afford rents to compete with the likes of the Googles and the Palantirs and the Facebooks and now the Amazons,” Eberle said.