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."