News

Keene: City to hold off on evictions of First Baptist groups

Pastors, others say allowing churches to rent space to various community groups should be allowed

Unhappy over the City of Palo Alto's planned eviction of a dozen nonprofit organizations and businesses that have been using First Baptist Church in Palo Alto as their home, members of the groups and their supporters turned out in force on Monday to plead with the City Council to change zoning rules to allow them to stay.

Among the groups was iSing Girl Choir, an all-girls choir education group, who serenaded the council and demonstrated its unity with a rendition of The Wailin' Jennys "One Voice."

Joining the chorus of advocates for keeping the groups at First Baptist, retired San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young told the council that his two daughters have been choir members for years.

"iSing teaches tremendous value and empowerment to young women through song," he said. "The impact has been dramatic.

"Demand for space for community-based programs is growing and will continue to grow," he added. "Our churches in Palo Alto have a vital role as a repository for these programs. There are very limited options. I hope the City will see the need to treat churches differently. iSing needs this home."

The conflict over tenants at First Baptist, located on North California Avenue, arose following complaints by church neighbors of traffic and parking problems created by the tenants. City code enforcement officers began looking into one of the church's largest tenants, New Mozart School of Music, in early 2016. After initially requesting that the music school apply for a conditional-use permit to remain at the church, city planning staff determined that its operation in a residential neighborhood would be illegal even with a permit. This summer, the school was ordered to move.

First Baptists' other tenants then began to receive their notices of violation this month after the church submitted a list to the city of groups housed there. Those include iSing Girl Choir, Tuesday Night Tango, Bisheh Toddler Class, Chinese Global Artist Association, Resounding Achord (a concert and musical event organization), Palo Alto Philharmonic, therapist Jill Cooper, Jennifer Merrill, Joellen Werne (both Merrill and Werne are characterized as "medical services"), Moveable Feet (a folk dancing program), Stanford Folk Dance and Tango Argentina.

While the issue was not on the council's agenda Monday, and thus no formal action could be taken, the groups received a modicum of good news: In his comments to the council, City Manager James Keene acknowledged the backlash against the enforcement action and said that he has directed staff to allow any tenant who requests more time to find a new location to be granted that time.

"There will not be any eviction notices proceeding," Keene said.

He also indicated that he's willing to discuss a long-term arrangement that doesn't involve eviction -- including turning the church into a community center.

"There are still some traffic neighborhood issues that need to be resolved. There's some discussion about exploring the possibility of applying for a CUP (conditional use permit) for legalization as a community center," said Keene, who added that he will be meeting with the church's pastor, Rick Mixon.

"We're going to work collaboratively to see how we move forward. There may be the need to have a larger discussion with the City Council," Keene said.

Among the more than 15 people who spoke about the First Baptist situation Monday was Mixon, who said that the church very much wants to be a good neighbor and would like to hear the complaints directly so that the church staff can address them.

He also asserted, however, that renting out the church facility -- which when he arrived 11 years ago was largely sitting empty during the week -- is part of his congregation's mission. It's in line with what churches throughout the country are doing, he said, arguing that city laws need to be updated.

"You're living with a very antiquated definition of what a church is," Mixon said. "It does not reflect the reality of 2017."

Leaders of other Palo Alto churches, some of whom likewise rent out their space to groups at relatively low rates, also asked the city to recognize that the lease of space is a way that faith groups offer something back to the community.

The Rev. Lindy Bunch of St. Mark's Episcopal Church said that, as a relative newcomer who has witnessed the difficulties that local youth encounter, she wonders if Palo Alto is a community that has room for art, music and other youth-serving organizations.

"Are we as a city devoted to making it easier for community groups to be a part of this place or are we making it harder?" she asked.

A member of First Congregational Church of Palo Alto called for a moratorium on the evictions and a broader approach to the conflict.

"This is a serious issue for all of our faith-based communities and needs to be resolved comprehensively," he said.

"I know I'm not alone in sensing there's currently a struggle for the soul of our nation," he said, adding that local faith communities are giving people a place to express and affirm their values. "These voices need to be supported not impaired. Current policy is a potentially serious problem for us all."

The council was unable to discuss the issue Monday given that it was not on the agenda, but Mayor Greg Scharff told the Weekly it appeared code enforcement has been "too overzealous with our regulations."

"I think that we've been overzealous. I mean, this church has been operating for 10 years, and what's changed?" he said.

Councilman Adrian Fine told the Weekly he is of two minds on the issue: "As a council member, I think that we have our regulations. As a resident, I think that we've essentially stopped a flourishing of community -- but we can't do selective enforcement."

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About the video: iSing Silicon Valley, a girls music education program that launched at First Baptist Church, perform "One Voice" by The Wailin' Jennys at the Palo Alto City Council's meeting on Aug. 14, 2017. Video by Shawna Chen.

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Comments

67 people like this
Posted by The Right Way To Solve This
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 15, 2017 at 10:02 am

I listened carefully to all the speakers last night on this issue. Only a few said what they all should have, namely that they wanted to comply with the law -- and would seek a solution that did. That may be possible at the church if they control traffic, parking, and noise very carefully.

But the real problem is that therapists, singing groups, music instructors, and more should all be able to find reasonably-priced space that's not sandwiched inside residential neighborhoods. They can't find such space because the city has allowed tech companies and other non-community-serving businesses to take over - including moving into zones never intended for that. There would be plenty of options for all local needs if the city were to enforce its laws against those businesses -- but it won't!


27 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2017 at 11:26 am

If a church wants to rent out its facilities for money, then it can no longer claim a tax exemption. It has to pay property taxes, just like any organization that rents space for money. These are called businesses. And businesses don't have to just pay taxes, they have to subject themselves to all the business regulation government puts in place.

It's not fair when a church says I want the revenue, but none of the costs of regulation nor taxes.


25 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 15, 2017 at 11:35 am

They did the same thing that they do to the neighbors, take over, regardless of the rules, by overwhelming numbers.
I felt sorry for the council members who had to listen to an hour or more - not on the agenda - of people asking for a violation of other people's rights. [Portion removed.]


24 people like this
Posted by Church&State
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 15, 2017 at 11:38 am

Doesn't the renting of church facilities to non-religious organizations create problems for their tax-exempt status? Understand those parties currently paying rent may have few alternatives - and we can all commiserate about the lack of affordable spaces in the valley - but allowing them to continue in direct violation of the statutes sets a dangerous precedent. If they're in violation, the city should take prompt action to enforce the statute, including any fees or other legal remedies. The needs of these organization shouldn't come before the legal rights of tax-paying city residents.


25 people like this
Posted by Roxanne Reeves, PhD
a resident of University South
on Aug 15, 2017 at 12:15 pm

1. The City of Palo Alto Community Child Care operates a nursery on the same property. Could some of the traffic and noise be coming from there? (watch out for double standards...)
2. If the church was operating to capacity (as in 40-50 years ago), there would be noise and parking issues all day. Churches are noisy because people gathering for whatever reason, are noisy.
If people want to come into a church building to sing, whether they pay or not, they are choosing to not use a public building somewhere else. There is more to their choices than just money and there is more to the benefit to the church, than just money. Let churches and the people who use them, evolve.
3. Ending this use of these spaces now, might put an end to the existence of these institutions and we may regret that eventually. As it is right now, I believe we might be feeling the effect of these institutions not living up to their roles as purveyors of something positive in our culture/community...and we need to help them survive and thrive. Even the healthiest of them - say, First Presbyterian on Cowper - have groups using them...12 step groups, KARA...groups we would not like to see disappear. The city should do all they can to help care for these spaces and groups that are using them.
4. The organizational problem could also be solved, if groups actually became part of the program of the church - in most cases that would require only a few church "members" being part of the organization and the paid professional (eg. Imam, Priest, Pastor) signed off on it. This would not solve noise or parking issues, but those problems SHOULD exist if the church were actually thriving as a religious institution.


32 people like this
Posted by Sea Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 15, 2017 at 12:22 pm

The city government gets an F on handling this matter.

Yes; there are issues with parking.
Yes, there are issues with crowds.
No, to send out eviction notice without hearings.
Absolutely mismanaged.

Somebody should be fired or demoted. If it was a private company, the HR department would have a blemish on handling this on the employee files.

It is no way to run the city with eviction notice to the iSing group.

Please send some managers to additional needed training.
We are mighty Palo Alto.

Respectfully


27 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 15, 2017 at 12:50 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@Church&State -"Doesn't the renting of church facilities to non-religious organizations create problems for their tax-exempt status?"

Short answer: No. Churches renting out space isn't some weird unique event that only Palo Alto has to deal with. Churches pay taxes on business income without any issue or threat to their tax exempt status (see Form 990-T). Rental income can be taxable, but it depends, can affect property tax, but it depends. Either way, no affect on tax exempt

@Resident - "If a church wants to rent out its facilities for money, then it can no longer claim a tax exemption."

False, see above. Churches pay taxes on business income, but it need not affect their overall exemption.


1 person likes this
Posted by john frisco
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 15, 2017 at 1:24 pm

if people work at home or run there besness from there home are you going to change there tax status to cmmershall . it would be only fare to treat every one the same.


21 people like this
Posted by Didier Braun
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 15, 2017 at 1:54 pm

A church zoned R-1 in a R-1 neighborhood renting facilities to non-profits I get. Good for the community. iSing is an awesome addition. Renting the majority of it's space to a large, for-profit business I don't get (New Mozart). I think it is easy to find the middle ground the neighborhood is looking for as long as no one gets greedy.
Separately, as someone who lives near the FBC, there really needs to be a building manager on duty in the evenings when most of the events occur. That way if parking problems occur or excessive noise goes on into the evening, it won't fall solely on the neighbors to try to remedy. This builds up a resentment that could easily be avoided.


11 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 15, 2017 at 2:12 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@Didier Braun - What's the real difference to you between iSing and New Mozart? They both teach kids music, they both accept money for it, they both pay their employees. Who cares whether one is a for profit and one isn't? Legal status has no impact on how those two schools minimally affect the neighborhood.


33 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2017 at 2:27 pm

Without church facilities being used I think we would see a lot less childcare, boys scouts, girls scouts, senior lunches, music programs for all ages, fitness classes, AA meetings, support meetings, etc. etc. Churches are part of the community and their space is useful for the community. Yes a lot of churches have weekday church programs particularly in the evenings, but a lot of useful things happen during the day also that are useful for people who do not go to the church. Churches have always looked on themselves as serving their community through action type activities as well as teaching activities.

If we prevent churches from using their facilities for carrying out community beneficial activities, we will be a lot poorer community for doing so.


16 people like this
Posted by Didier Braun
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 15, 2017 at 3:40 pm

@john_alderman - The for-profit business you and I are talking about happens to be a music school, which is easy to like. Let's take that off the table for a sec. If it were ok for a church (zoned residential) to rent to for-profit companies couldn't that entity really be anything -- tech company, home mortgage broker, clock repair, whatever. Wouldn't it then seem entirely out of character in an otherwise residential neighborhood?
A non-profit is devoted to furthering a social cause. There are several of these entities that use the FBS as their home base and there should be more.


4 people like this
Posted by Sheri Furman
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 15, 2017 at 5:12 pm

Sheri Furman is a registered user.

However this is solved, it should NOT be by a popularity contest. If we want to revise how churches use their property, it must be via the municipal code and be clearly spelled out as to what is allowable during what hours, parking, capacity, etc. And it must apply city-wide.


14 people like this
Posted by Shame on them
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 15, 2017 at 5:21 pm

Seems that sherri had no problem when a small, vocal minority from the neighborhood pushed for a total closure of all activities at the church.


6 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 15, 2017 at 5:59 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@Didier Braun - you said, " iSing is an awesome addition. Renting the majority of it's space to a large, for-profit business I don't get (New Mozart)."

What in your mind makes it good for the neighborhood to have iSing get space, but not New Mozart? iSing and New Mozart are providing the same service to the same customers. A tech company would be out of character, but explain why New Mozart is, but iSing isn't.


30 people like this
Posted by We NEED community space
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 15, 2017 at 6:22 pm

I have seen in Palo Alto over the past decade and a half very inconsistent voices about what we want our community to be. Many lament the "good old days" when Palo Alto was a "wonderful place to raise kids", but now that those kids seem to be grown and gone they don't want to hear anyone else's kids or cars or music.

I've also seen The City government act very strangely. It publicizes about "41 Developmental Assets" and in particular "Community Values Youth". But it only seems to recognize its OWN efforts in that direction. When some other entity in the city provides a valuable service to youth and the larger community, this is not recognized or protected.

My own now late teen-age children still mourn the demise of the bowling alley. A certainly for-profit entity that did AMAZING service for our youth that nothing since has been able to match. (For those who don't remember, the bowling alley gave free passes to ALL students in Palo Alto every summer.)

Subsequently, the city has added paid positions for Youth Services etc to the payroll. The government does not have to provide (and actually isn't that good at it) all the enrichment opportunities for youth and families. Many organizations (and even businesses) in the community will do that, BUT ONLY if they can find AFFORDABLE spaces to operate in. The churches being willing to offer these spaces strikes me as a huge benefit to our whole community.

I live just down the block from an active church and a busy YMCA, with cars frequently spilling out of the parking lot onto the residential street. I view their vibrant activities in my neighborhood as a bonus not a crime.

This city will become a less happy, less interesting place to live if we squeeze out music groups and dance groups and child care and senior services. Then we will expect the city government to step in to provide those services that private enterprise used to.
And the next time we give our youth a survey and ask if they think their community values them, we'll be very saddened by the answer.

For full disclosure, I have not used the services as First Baptist but they still sound valuable to the community. I have used similar groups housed at Cubberly that say they have no idea where they could possibly go if usage at Cubberly changes.

( P.S. Thanks, Roxanne, I appreciated your comments.)


23 people like this
Posted by church_worker
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 15, 2017 at 6:30 pm

This issue is far larger than First Baptist and iSing. It strikes at the heart of almost every faith community and scores of community groups (AA, senior groups, Scouts, many arts groups, etc.). The zoning ordinance as it is selectively enforced is a sword of Damocles hanging over the cultural and religious life of Palo Alto. I have been stunned that no one in city government seemed to have even the slightest understanding of potential ramifications for the entire city. Truly head-shaking....


11 people like this
Posted by S_mom
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 15, 2017 at 8:39 pm

I'm torn about this -- iSing and the music school are great, but the parking and driving during drop off and pickup were insane. Cars regularly stopped in the middle of the street to drop kids off and pick them up, with other cars passing them by going into the opposing traffic lane, bikes going by, other people trying to cross in the middle of the street with their kids to get to where they parked -- I don't live nearby, so it doesn't impact me, but if I did I'd be pretty annoyed. The church needs more parking if it wants to host that many people at once. I'm not sure what the solution should be.


3 people like this
Posted by Jan
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 16, 2017 at 9:02 am

New Mozart and iSing offer the identical services of music ed. My kids enjoyed singing and piano at New Mozart and only singing at iSing. The City needs to work the churches, tenants, and residents to come-up with a reasonable and non-discriminatory plan. Many Palo Alto churches house music, arts, mental health, education, and youth services that hugely benefit our kids and seniors.


18 people like this
Posted by Bing Heckman
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 16, 2017 at 9:56 am

Dear Mayor and Council Members,

As has been clearly expressed, we have an urgent situation with respect to the uses at the 1st Baptist Church, and that needs to be addressed in a process that has the time and insight required. A moratorium is needed before planned actions are taken against the tenants of first Baptist. This is a serious issue for all of our Faith Communities. It needs to be resolved comprehensively.

Art, education, therapy and other such services are part of the mission of our Faith Communities. Please know that.

As you know, Palo Alto needs affordable services of these types.

Having strong Faith Communities in Palo Alto is important to our community and beyond our community. Our Faith Communities need to be valued and supported.

I know I am not alone in sensing there is currently a struggle for the soul of our nation.

Frankly, the Faith Communities with the loudest voices do not represent most of us here.

The Faith Communities here locally do! These voices need to be supported, not impaired. Current policy is potentially a serious problem for all.

Issues can be complex. They are often not easy.

However, Palo Alto is the epicenter of innovation. We are a unique city. If any city can and should be a model for others, it is ours.

What we need to provide isn't liberal or conservative policy, it is sensible policy- well-crafted and responsible.

Bringing humanity to a bureaucracy is often not easy. I am confident we can do that. I thank you for your service.

Finally, I would like to note my appreciation of our friends at 1st Baptist for bearing the brunt of this current concern. It is great to see the supportive response of other Faith Communities. Hopefully this is a seed being planted to recognize our common interests and concerns and to find ways to collaborate not just locally, but also well beyond, seeing/witnessing how we are all connected in so many essential ways.


Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 16, 2017 at 10:31 am

Funny how all these places that are so anxious to complain
about religion and to see churches pay taxes are more or less
the same people who want right-wing organizations dedicated to
right-wing political causes and candidates to NOT have to pay
taxes. Inconsistency, illogic and hypocrisy are the major
characteristics of the far right. They come off big on rule
of law, but only when the law benefits them or they agree with
it.


5 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2017 at 10:45 am

Marie is a registered user.

Those supporting churches renting out space should realize that the issue is not churches renting out space. The issue is anyone renting space without sufficient parking for the people renting the space. The real problem here was the City of Palo Alto taking out half the parking near the church 24/7 to solve a problem that occurs twice a day M-F. Another win for those who think that by making it more difficult to park, more people will bike or walk. Clearly, that didn't happen.

I would welcome an ordinance encouraging churches and other nonprofits with underutilized parking getting conditional use permits for renting space to organizations not related to the church. I would encourage the city to offer the permits free of charge for nonprofit entities as a way of supporting community organizations. Such a permit would consider whether the rental is consistent with available parking. Most churches have large, mostly underutilized parking lots. It would only be an issue for churches with little or no parking. New Mozart should look for a church with a parking lot to meet their needs. If Palo Alto had an ordinance that provided for such a conditional use, I suspect there would be other churches who would be interested in renting to them.

I'm very supportive of churches renting space as long as there is enough parking to accommodate the renters and that the renters not be a commercial enterprise. Yes there is a difference between a for-profit music school and a non-profit music society. Although I think Palo Alto could craft an ordinance that had an exception for for-profit-enterprises providing services to youth or seniors, that otherwise cannot afford market rate rentals in the area. However, they would have to pay for a permit. They should be approved on an exception basis or before you know it you will have startups with a coding school on the side, renting in churches.


5 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 16, 2017 at 10:50 am

Marie ... OK, let's accept this hypothesis ...

> > the issue is not churches renting out space. The issue is anyone renting space without sufficient parking for the people renting the space.

If that is true, why is it the way the City seems to do business and managing of the whole rest of the City, but only this one church has to get criticized and pay the price for it?


7 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2017 at 11:10 am

Marie is a registered user.

@Crescentpark Anonymous

As stated above, the problem became critical when the city removed the parking that the church relied on. Without knowing about the church's needs, the city was unable to take them into consideration when reducing parking 24/7 for a M-F problem. I don't blame the church. I blame the city.

However, one issue is that even churches should not be renting space for unrelated uses with no oversight by the city. Even today, I'm pretty sure there is some coordination with the city and neighbors when there are church occasions that require more parking than normal - Easter and Christmas come to mind. Everyone helps out, realizing that this is a rare and anticipated issue. This is how we work as a community.

If the city has no knowledge of the other uses, they cannot include them when planning for the neighborhood. They can only - once again- respond to complaints. So much animosity could be prevented if people would only think ahead.

The easiest solution is to grant conditional use permits for the non-conforming uses, at no cost to nonprofits, and then restore the parking on N. CA avenue, with no parking allowed during school commute hours. But I think this is too easy and cheap to be considered. The conditional use permit might specify that the enterprises requiring lots of parking not operate during school commute hours.


2 people like this
Posted by S_mom
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 16, 2017 at 12:41 pm

Marie -- I completely agree with you -- pretty sure neighbors only complained about the zoning violation because the drop-off/pick-up situation at the church became so crowded and dangerous.

It's different even than what happens during a church service -- for a church service people find somewhere to park in the neighborhood and walk to the church, because everyone in the car is going to the church. For kid pickup and dropoff, people think it's fine to stop in the middle of the street or race across the street regardless of crosswalks -- anyone who has been involved in school pickup and dropoff will understand how dangerous and rushed it all becomes, and this is on N. Cal. which already has the large bike lane with many middle school and Caltrain bikers and barely enough space for two car lanes.

So, I think the issue is sort of about church's rights and the need for community centers, but this church in particular is being targeted for technical violations because the parking situation became a dangerous nuisance. I don't know what the solution should be, it would be great if these groups could find a workable space with more parking, but I'm not sure how difficult that would be.


6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 16, 2017 at 1:06 pm

It seems that really the problem is parking, drop off and pick up and not the fact that the church is renting out space.

As a parent who has previously had to carpool/drop off multiple kids at various locations for after school activities, I know that the drop off and pick up has to be done efficiently to work for the family. However, saying that, I know that it is also much more likely than it was when my kids were at that age that kids are being dropped off by car by their own parent or a babysitter, rather than biking or walking to their activities on their own.

Once again it comes down to the fact that kids are over scheduled with multiple activities that involve being driven rather than a leisurely walk or bike ride. However, I don't think we are going to change this fact of life. What could be done I think would be to insist that the children are signed in and out by a parent/guardian who has to park legally and sign the child in and out. This would involve parking perhaps a block away rather than sitting in the car with the engine idling and also less likely that a child might run across a street alone to a car which is double parked on the opposite side.

Perhaps a sign in/ sign out policy might be a simple solution for all child related activities at this church and perhaps others too.


5 people like this
Posted by Sheri Furman
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2017 at 3:00 pm

Sheri Furman is a registered user.

@Shame on them. Nope, same position then as now. Zoning and code enforcement shouldn't be a popularity contest. New Mozart good; car repair bad. Zoning rules exist for a reason and must be applied even-handedly. We went through this with PC zoning. If you think the rules on churches supporting additional uses (perhaps by revising Conditional Use Permit rules) should be changed (which at this time I neither support nor oppose), make your argument to Council and the Planning Commission. All I'm saying is that decisions should be made on facts, not emotion.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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