Tenants and neighbors of the First Baptist Church in Palo Alto came together on Wednesday night to exchange grievances, explain their positions and make inroads toward a resolution.
The meeting, which brought about 50 people to the Jordan Middle School auditorium, focused on a conditional use permit that the church is applying for under protest. The City Council is set to rule on the permit in May.
At stake in the debate is the church's ability to rent out its space to nonprofits, psychotherapists, choir groups and other tenants. In recent years, these activities have attracted increased scrutiny from nearby residents, who on Wednesday related their horror stories about traffic collisions, parking congestion and -- above all -- noise.
Neighbors were particularly concerned about groups like iSing, a girls choir that has about 250 participating children. Another tenant, the New Mozart School of Music, was asked to leave last year and has since relocated to College Terrace Centre on El Camino Real.
During an emotional and largely collegial meeting, neighbors reiterated that they have nothing against the church itself, which has stood at 305 N. California Ave. for 70 years. Their concern has more to do with the increasing level of activity in the last few years.
"When there are singing and dancing activities --- they are nice, but the windows and doors are always open. The sound completely reverberates down the street," said Jerry Specter, who lives near the church.
Lloyd Martin, who lives next door to the church, said the organizations that use the facility are all valid and valuable. Yet he also compared their impact to having a loud radio that you can't control installed in your house.
"The problem is not iSing or a community activity or a folk-dancing group," Martin said. "The problem is the radio. It's that there is a radio in your house -- all the time, day."
Brian Lewis was one of several neighbors to talk about traffic and parking problems, especially during performances. The traffic near the church is a "real mess," with people doing U-turns and double-parking. This is particularly troubling because the church is located near the confluence of two bike boulevards -- California Avenue and Bryant Street.
"This has historically been an issue and, if more people are at the church, it's only going to get worse," Lewis said.
Others defended -- and even welcomed -- the church's activities, the disruptions notwithstanding. The city, they argued, has a shortage of meeting spaces, especially affordable ones. Activities that provide community services and combat social isolation should be encouraged not banned, they said.
Dana St. George said she likes having a church close enough to her house so that she can walk or bicycle to events there.
"These churches are like little islands of sanity in what has become a really nutty situation in Palo Alto, a place where no one can afford to live unless you're getting a high-tech salary or something."
The Rev. Rick Mixon, pastor at First Baptist, told the crowd that the church carefully vets its tenants to make sure they are consistent with its mission. The church once had a congregation of 600 to 700 people, he said. But when he arrived 12 years ago, the building was severely underused, he said.
"As a pastor of a church who believes that we have a stewardship responsibility for the legacy we've been given, we've made an effort to bring appropriate uses into the building -- because it's part of our mission, it's part of what it means for us to be a church."
He said the church is not proposing any new uses but is merely doing what it has always done. It is only moving ahead with the conditional-use permit because the city mandated that it do so, he said.
Meanwhile, as the application is moving ahead, both the church's tenants and its neighbors are considering their own mitigation strategies to address the concerns. Jennah Delp-Somers, director at iSing, said neighborhood concerns had prompted the choir group to look for another location, with no luck. To respond to concerns about parking and traffic, iSing had put its own staff outside during rehearsals to monitor traffic and parking.
Parents had received dozens of reminders about parking and staff is doing its best to make sure impact on neighbors is minimal.
"Not one of us can probably say that we've never committed a traffic offense," she said. "But we are doing our best as a community to uphold a really high standard for making the neighborhood and the roadways safe."
One promising short-term solution was proposed by Wayne Osborne, a tech worker, former divinity student and a neighbor of First Baptist. The neighbors' real issue, he said, isn't really about the church but about parking and noise -- issues that can be mitigated.
"We should allow the church to be the church and we should cooperate as neighbors and put the AC (air-conditioning) in," Osborne said. "I'll pay for the AC in the church."
The church, for its part, should be allowed to determine and pursue its mission, even if the mission changes over time.
"We shouldn't be allowed to judge what the mission is about," Osborne said.