For more than a decade, the New Mozart School of Music has helped Palo Alto's aspiring pianists unleash their inner Wolfgang Amadeuses.
Now, the school is facing the music: The city's code-enforcement officials determined last month that the school's very existence violates the city's zoning code, and it must shut down one of its locations.
New Mozart, which specializes in private lessons and focuses on children, has been leasing classrooms at the First Baptist Church in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood since 2005. It wasn't until early 2016, however, that the city's planning staff made a determination that the school is not considered a "permitted use" and sent New Mozart a notice of violation.
Initially, the city and the school, located at 305 N. California Ave., tried to resolve the issue by having New Mozart apply for a conditional-use permit. In January, attorney Charles S. Bronitsky submitted on behalf of the school a letter requesting such a permit so that the school can continue to operate in the R-1 (single-family residential) zone.
The school -- which offers lessons in piano, violin, viola, guitar, flute, saxophone and singing -- provides a "significant benefit to the community as it offers after-school music education to young students, most of whom live in Palo Alto," Bronitsky wrote. He also argued that the school does so "in a way that is not disruptive of the residential nature of the neighborhood" and that it actually enhances the neighborhood by providing the service.
Not everyone feels this way. Last Wednesday, several residents who live near the church attended a city Planning and Transportation Commission hearing on New Mozart to offer their thoughts on how the school affects the neighborhood. Sarah Burgess, who lives around the corner from First Baptist, told the commission that having a school operating in the church is causing traffic and parking problems.
"It's easy to say, 'It's just a few students,' but for most of the students who come, their parents drop them off and wait during lessons, sitting in the car and reading," Burgess said.
Margie Kane, who also lives near the church, said that between 4 and 6 p.m., there are cars parked all along California Avenue. The conditions, she said, are "an accident waiting to happen."
"They park on the corner and block visibility for drivers," Kane said.
In April, city staff notified New Mozart that its application for a permit was denied. The decision, according to the letter, was based on staff's determination that New Mozart is not providing sufficient parking and hasn't provided evidence to support its assertion that the church's parking stalls are actually available for the school's use.
In addition, staff had determined earlier this year that the music school is considered a "personal service" rather than a "private education facility," which means that it is not eligible to set up shop in a residential neighborhood even with a conditional-use permit. The zoning code allows private academic schools, community centers, outdoor recreation services and day care centers in single-family zones, some of which require a conditional-use permit.
Christine Shin, the founder and director of New Mozart, said she was surprised by the city's decision to penalize the school, which she said has always tried to be a good neighbor. They keep the school's windows closed during hot days to limit noise, for example, out of courtesy to neighbors.
Both Shin and Bronitsky said they have no desire to fight the city on the issue. They have, however, requested that the city grant them six months to transition to a new location.
Shin said the city's decision to deny her a permit caused her to do some "soul-searching" about the school's future.
"I seriously had to think about closing down," Shin said, citing the school's small profit margins.
Ultimately, she found a possible location at a brand new building fairly close to the present site. The rent, she said, would be roughly four times what the school has been paying at First Baptist Church. To pay for the buildout, she had to put up her house as collateral, Shin said.
She also noted that as tenants in a new building, the school would have to draw up tenant-improvement plans, get the needed city building permits and complete construction, she said. All told, the process could take six months.
"Hopefully, the city will be reasonable in its expectations of us moving out," Shin said. "I'm willing to move. I want to move. I don't want to be in a neighborhood where neighbors would be this way, even if it causes such an amount of liability."
The Planning and Transportation Commission sympathized with Shin, even as it unanimously affirmed staff's findings that the school violates the zoning code. Both Commissioner Eric Rosenblum, whose child attended New Mozart, and Chair Michael Alcheck said the school should be given a reasonable length of time to move.
Rosenblum asked staff to allow for an "amicable transition period, whereby the kids don't have disruption in lessons and the tenant can move on to a new facility in a smooth way." Alcheck said he would encourage the City Council "to do everything possible to help this business succeed in this city, and if not in this city, in any city with close proximity to this place."
At the end of its discussion, the commission unanimously voted to include an amendment requesting that City Manager James Keene and the city's code enforcement officers be "lenient" with time to facilitate a "smooth transition."
The commission's request seems to have had a desired effect. On Wednesday night, Bronitsky was informed that the school can have some additional time to move to a new location, Shin told the Weekly.
The extension came with some conditions, including a provision that the school ensure that cars don't idle outside the church, Shin said.
Shin said Thursday morning that in conversations with the planning department, city officials verbally agreed to give New Mozart four months, with a possible extension if necessary.
"It's turning out to be a much happier situation and I'm really happy that they are being reasonable and will give us more time," Shin said. "At this point, that's the best I was hoping for."
The council will also have a say in the matter on Tuesday, when it is scheduled to affirm staff's denial of the music school's conditional-use permit. The item appears on the council's "consent calendar," which means it would be voted on as part of a long list of items without any discussion unless three council members agree to pull the item off consent.
If the council opts to pull the item, it would have to schedule a separate hearing on it at a future date, said Project Planner Claire Hodgkins.
Meanwhile, the city is looking at other uses in First Baptist that potentially run afoul of the zoning code. Last Thursday, after repeated requests from the city, the church finally submitted a list of all of its tenants.
According to the list, which was obtained by the Weekly, tenants include (among others) the iSing Girl Choir (with an average class size of 20 students); regular dance groups (including folk dancing and Argentinian tango); a Persian culture art and reading class; the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center (which will close its office at the church at the end of this month); the Peninsula Macrobiotic Community (which suspended its weekly dinners at the church last month); a psychiatrist and two psychologists who counsel teenagers.
City planning staff acknowledged in the April letter that the city had not determined whether it's actually New Mozart that is causing the "insufficient queuing space" and "excessive noise" at the site (of the school's nine music rooms, eight are used for one-on-one lessons and only one is used for group lessons). But the letter also noted that this use, "in conjunction with other non-permitted uses, is resulting in noise, traffic and parking concerns that may be impacting the safety, general welfare and convenience of adjacent residents."
In addressing the commission last week, Pastor Rick Mixon of First Baptist Church, attributed the controversy over the music school to "an outdated code that doesn't recognize the reality of church life in this area, at this point in time."
"We're a small congregation with a very large public building that we're responsible for keeping up," Mixon said. "We don't have the resources to do that without renting our space or sharing our space."