Feature story: It takes an 'urban' village | News | Palo Alto Online |


Feature story: It takes an 'urban' village

New Jewish center in south Palo Alto builds community by bringing people together

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Sunday's grand opening of the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, at the corner of Charleston and San Antonio roads in south Palo Alto, felt like a village fair.

With dancing and singing, a magic show and a Wii tournament, hordes wandered along the promenades checking out the new 135,000-square-foot facility.

And there was a lot to check out: a state-of-the-art fitness center with indoor and outdoor pools, a preschool with separate playgrounds suitable for toddlers through kindergartners, homes for seniors, rooms for nonprofit group meetings and a 350-seat theater.

The mood was decidedly different from when the old Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center got its marching orders to vacate the Terman Middle School site in 2001. The center had been in flux for years, starting in a storefront on El Camino Real, then to houses downtown and on Middlefield Road, then moving to the vacated Ortega Elementary School, and to Terman in 1983.

After Terman, it took up temporary residence at Cubberley Community Center. But longer-term plans were being considered, including building a new center on leased land at Page Mill Road and El Camino Real. That option would have retained the same vulnerability -- renting, not owning -- that forced the center to leave Terman.

And so an entirely different vision began to emerge -- that of an "urban village," a design concept characterized by mixed-use zoning, proximity to public transit, with an emphasis on public spaces and pedestrian-friendly routes.

Once the old Sun Microsystems site at 901 San Antonio Road came on the market, the vision literally grew to fit the 12-acre parcel, noted Carol Saal, who chaired the capital campaign for the $140 million project and is vice-president of the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life Supporting Foundation Board. The 8.5-acre Campus (pared down by selling 4 acres to Bridge Housing) includes the Jewish Community and the Moldaw Family Residences.

It was Saal who championed partnering with the Jewish Home of San Francisco, a nonprofit, skilled-nursing center, to provide senior housing on the Campus.

"The concept of an urban village came very early on in conversations with architects," she said, noting that because of Palo Alto's height limit of 50 feet, the campus needed to be laid out in multiple buildings.

"We looked at town squares in Jerusalem, piazzas in Italy, and came up with the notion of getting everything you need on that piece of land by master planning it all out with the feel of a village," she said.

"What I found very interesting and exciting was the mix of uses and users, to have preschool, after-school, teen programs, adult programs, health and wellness, recreation, cultural, retail, restaurants and housing all mixed together on one site," said Rob Steinberg, of Steinberg Architects, San Jose, which served as project architects.

And not just housing, but very-low-income housing, market-rate housing and continuum-of-care housing for the elderly, he added.

The urban-village concept grew from three big ideas, he said -- celebrating a rich mix of users, capturing the opportunity for indoor/outdoor activity and making a model of sustainability.

The Campus for Jewish Life has already garnered national awards, one for innovation for master planning of mixed-use neighborhoods from the National Association of Homebuilders and another for integrating senior housing into a mixed-use community from the American Institute of Architects and the National Association of Housing for the Elderly.

Steinberg is anticipating the Campus will achieve an environmental award as well -- silver Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, crediting the campus for conservation of water, re-use of materials, building orientation -- and even its disposal of construction debris.

The whole Campus is built on a pod, with parking on the first level (not underground, due to toxics in the earth) and everything from the fitness center to the preschool and senior residences built above.

Entering at 3921 Fabian Way and parking on the first level, visitors proceed up a broad walkway to enter the first large outdoor public space, the Jessica Lynn Saal Town Square, which features nine huge palm trees in concrete tubs on one end. To the right of the trees is the fitness center, to the left a wide-open space that will be used for concerts and events.

A donor wall flanks one side, with bands of colors representing the different gift levels, from a minimum of $10,000 to a top of $5 million or more. At the end of the square is the entrance to the preschool wing of buildings.

The square merges into the Saal Family Midrahov (a pedestrians promenade), which passes by meeting rooms, adult and teen lounges and an entrance to the Moldaw Family Residences, eventually ending at a wide stairway that leads down to Charleston Road. From that street visitors can enter the Stanford Health Library and Resource Center and the Albert & Janet Schultz Cultural Arts Hall.

"You live, go to school, age in place, don't have to drive from one place to another -- that's becoming the model of urban design, how cities are built today," Steinberg said, contrasting the mixed-use model with typically city zones that segregate offices, houses or retail.

"Mixing together makes for more vibrant, exciting environments. ... It encourage(s) people who were coming for one activity, to have opportunity to interact, connect with people doing something different."

Alan Sataloff, CEO of the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, contrasts the urban-village concept with a typical Jewish community center (JCC).

"You could have a JCC where you walk in, see the lobby, see everything, and leave the building," he said.

"Here, it's not all in one building. We disconnected the pieces -- one area early childhood, cultural, fitness -- in between outdoor amphitheater, like walking into a little village. Compound that with seniors living above. ... People visit and people live here," he said.

Steinberg envisions the outdoor spaces being used as much as the interior ones.

"We tried to organize a campus where buildings became the backdrop in defined outdoor rooms, a series of them, each with different proportion (and) landscape character. The largest is the Town Square where one could have big events, concerts, a restaurant," he said.

In addition, there are narrower, more intimate spaces, such as the midrahov.

Each of the outdoor spaces "has a different personality," he said, and fosters different interactions between users.

Ultimately, when the Bridge Housing component is completed, walkways will connect to the street, to market-rate housing, to soccer fields.

Sataloff anticipates that over the next three years, membership in the Jewish Community Center will double to more than 12,000. (JCC members pay monthly dues of $50-209; community members, who may use all facilities except the fitness center, pay $100-200/year.)

Another 200 people will work at the Campus, and thousands of others will attend preschool, drop by for nonprofit meetings or live in the senior housing.

That means the "urban village" will soon take on a life of its own, with people arriving as early as 5 a.m. to work out, children being dropped off for day care at 8 a.m., bridge club members or movie goers showing up at noon, music rehearsals and afterschool youth programs taking place in the late afternoon, and audience members arriving for performances in the evening.

And those who come for one activity just might stay for another, Sataloff said.

"This is about connecting people physically. That's the goal of this village concept."

Among the seniors soon to live in the Moldaw Family Residences are Eph and Sally Cannon, who parlayed the appreciation on the Palo Alto home they purchased in 1956 to buy into the continuing-care facility.

Both former teachers -- Eph taught elementary school in East Palo Alto and Sally taught hearing-impaired children in Palo Alto -- they were drawn to the urban village, intergenerational concept. They're considering volunteering at the preschool, which their new home will overlook.

"We signed up a long time ago. Some people are hesitant now because of the cost -- the monthly fee is a little high -- but we pay that anyway, one way or another," he said, pointing to the cost of laundry, utilities, housekeeping and meals that will be included. "It might be a little more, but so what? What we made on our house was more than we anticipated when we bought the house," he said.

"We've gone through different stages with our children growing up, gotten older, and we look forward to a different stage and challenges," he said.

Members of the broader community in Palo Alto and beyond may also use the Campus for family events. One family already celebrated a bris (ritual circumcision) in October, and the facility will be available for bar mitzvahs, parties, events.

"One family is renting the aquatic area, then dinner at the cultural arts hall," Sataloff added.

Sunday's open house was meant for the whole Palo Alto community to get a peek inside and sample the possibilities. It was not only outreach; it was a chance to counter some criticism leveled at the Campus, specifically the look of the San Antonio/Charleston roads corner.

"People say it looks forbidding from the outside," Saal said. But she argued that either the open space would face the outside, "where it serves nobody," or it could be inside, where people could use the space for activities.

Steinberg contrasts the new campus with the earlier commercial site: "If you think about San Antonio Road, it's a freeway exit. It was almost 12 acres of a parking lot.

"We put our most public building on that corner as a statement to anchor the site. We made a two-story glass lobby open to the street (on Charleston), so people could look in and see the activities," he said.

Design criticisms aside, Jewish Community Center is actively seeking to partner with other organizations. Saal cited the Stanford Health Library and Resource Center and open rehearsals of Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra at the cultural arts hall as examples.

The City of Palo Alto will have gym time for some of their adult and youth sports leagues, mainly on Friday night and Saturday, and Kehillah Jewish High School on nearby Fabian Way will be using the gym for its PE classes and team sports during the week, according to Randi Brenowitz, community outreach director.

Future partnerships could include an after-school music program, or even a collaboration with TheatreWorks, she said.

"Collaborations are extremely important to us," noted Sally Oken, director of arts and culture, citing arrangements with Stanford University's Program in Jewish Studies, the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival and the Israeli consulate.

"What we're looking to do, our vision, (is) we want to bring traditional and innovative programs in music, dance, literature and visual arts. We want people of all ages to come here and look at this as a venue where they'll find quality cultural events," she said.

Saal said that fundraising is continuing, with hopes of raising an additional $10 million to "finish" the campus. Missing still are a playing field, which would be located in what is now a parking lot, and a building planned for after-school childcare, which would be on the backside of the donor wall along one side of Town Square.

"We hope someone comes along and sees how successful it is and be inspired," she added.

In addition, donations make up for the expected $2 million annual shortfall, after factoring in the Jewish Community Center's user fees from the fitness center, preschool and camps.

"That has to be raised from annual donations. That's a lot. That's why my work is not done," she said.

Related material:

What's inside the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life?

What makes the Campus 'Jewish'?

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Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Oct 23, 2009 at 9:32 am

I like the center and the programs offered but given the cost of the building, I fear that the prices are going to be unaffordable for people like me. Too bad.

Like this comment
Posted by uh
a resident of Woodside
on Oct 23, 2009 at 10:53 am

"And so an entirely different vision began to emerge -- that of an "urban village," a design concept characterized by mixed-use zoning, proximity to public transit, with an emphasis on public spaces and pedestrian-friendly routes."

What are they talking about? What public transit is this near? A bus stop that is in "proximity" to any building on a major city street?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2009 at 11:17 am

It looks more like an urban prison to me rather than a village. I would hate to be a senior living there, dumped by my family behind those walls.

Like this comment
Posted by thoughts
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 23, 2009 at 5:47 pm

This facility is a disaster - who was on the city council when it was approved?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2009 at 7:16 pm

I drove past the entrance today and there is a permanent sign to the Center for Jewish Life. That sounds pretty inclusive to me, I feel sure I would not be welcome inside a Center for Jewish Life.

Like this comment
Posted by It's inclusive
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 23, 2009 at 9:01 pm

Resident-- if that is how you fell then do not go in. We have covered this ground before. If you feel uncomfortable around Jews, no one is forcing you to go there.You should read the article . The place is open to everyone. I guess you feel fine at the YMCA?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2009 at 10:59 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by rhody
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 24, 2009 at 10:49 am

Yes the outside of the building is monolithic but I think they did a good job with the paint design using interesting geometrical angles with the different tones of color. If you think this is a prison, drive by the new Keys School on El Camino Road and El Camino Way (opposite Los Robles). It's those kids I feel sorry for.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2009 at 6:43 pm

Now I am going to say something really positive,

I love the idea of the teen center that is coming here. I think we need it here and that all our teens, middle and high school, need a place to hang out after school. The Y is one place, but not really a hangout after school type place. The Drop in Mitchell Park is closed because of the work going to happen some time in the future, whenever, at Mitchell Park Library.

I hope this is well advertised and that the teens are able to get there from all corners of Palo Alto to avail of this.

Well done, good work.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 26, 2009 at 9:44 am

I can't believe all the complaints on here - this is a huge improvement over what was on the site before. The building works for the site, and might resemble our local Eichlers - nicer from the inside than the outside.

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