First Baptist Church tenants, neighbors seek truce | News | Palo Alto Online |


First Baptist Church tenants, neighbors seek truce

Palo Alto considers whether to allow church to keep its tenants

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.


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55 people like this
Posted by There's a Better Solution
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 8, 2018 at 11:19 am

The article correctly points out there's a shortage of affordable community space in Palo Alto. But that's because our city planning staff continues to allow neighborhood commercial buildings in areas like California Avenue and on El Camino, which were supposed to house local services, including classes and non-profits, to be taken over by software companies. Software companies aren't even legal in those zones, but our city planning staff keeps letting them in.

Both the groups using space at the church and neighbors of the church are victims. Let's fix the real problem and not let the city planning staff pit Palo Altans against each other.

45 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 8, 2018 at 11:34 am

On the one hand CC is advocating that residents build granny flats to help with the housing shortage, to put in RPPs to stop traffic, and to put in housing in every vacant city lot. They want us to be able to walk and bike to activities in the neighborhoods. Then when a church takes up the slack providing community space (which we don't have) they make them go through hoops.

Something sounds very wrong here.

We can't keep building, building, building, without providing infrastructure, services, quality of life businesses, recreation, places to go and things to do. We are not living in an area where we just work and sleep and get all our needs delivered to our door and use Uber for our social needs. We need to be able to live in Palo Alto and living means having worthwhile activities at affordable rates within the confines of town without having to drive an hour in terrible traffic to do them.

We are at breaking point and this scenario shows exactly why.

9 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 8, 2018 at 11:51 am

On the face of it, some of the complaints seem a little strange. Like, complaining about singing at a church. I mean, did you buy a house in the middle of the night, and, not notice the church next door? ;-)

On the other hand, I am all too familiar with parking from a neighboring business overflowing everywhere. I have been to musical events at that church, and, parking is very limited. It has always seemed like a large church for the size of its parking. I imagine when it was constructed it was more of a neighborhhood church and most people walked.

If I were a neighbor, I would surely want parking to be under control. Still, I just have to question how music at a church could be an issue.

17 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 8, 2018 at 1:01 pm

Traffic and parking scofflaws are easily handled by increased enforcement. I'm glad the workers are also being proactive about warning the scofflaws. And why not try the air conditioners to see if that solves the noise problem.

I agree with the comments that meeting spaces like this really help to bring the community together. That is doubly true in this case since the music lessons cater to children. We really need this in the internet era.

Maybe the music schools can invite the neighbors to their recitals? Everyone enjoys music.

16 people like this
Posted by JCP
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 8, 2018 at 6:36 pm

JCP is a registered user.

It's great that the church and neighbors could meet. In our neighborhood, Castilleja has been violating its CUP for 17 years and wants to expand by 30%. The school has always gotten what it wants from City Hall because of their financial and political influence.

Castilleja refuses to meet with neighbors and instead hopes to push their non-conforming project through City Hall. It's outrageous and they keep lying about their impact.

16 people like this
Posted by Concerned Observer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 8, 2018 at 7:19 pm

Concerned Observer is a registered user.

@ anon...As a neighbor in very close proximity to the church for over three decades I can assure you that most of us don't mind at all the singing at the church. iSing is not a part of the congregation and at times brings in bus loads of young girls that sing for several hours,oftentimes with amplifiers utilized for accompanying musicians or recorded background music. It can be very loud and usually is.

Other groups utilize the facilities for dance events at until 11 PM and that doesn't include take down time and sometimes loud conversation by the dispersing dancers til midnight.

One major problem is that the church has no parking availability (5 spots) and the city's proposed roundabout at N. California and Bryant will take away more parking in front of the church. Do the math. The conditional use permit allows up to 500 visits to the church per day....yes, that's right...per day !! This is an untenable situation. Do the math.

@ parent....They claim parking can be enforced, but there are no parking enforcement officers that work past 5 PM. and most parents who park and remain in their cars,sometimes double parked,have ignored requests to move.

And as far as meeting places bringing the community together, many of these groups are from out of the area and not part of the Palo Alto community so there is no benefit to Palo Altans.

About 16 years ago,the church had a young woman as pastor. She was enthusiastic, energetic and started to grow the congregation. There was an aliveness that hadn't been present for years. I witnessed it. She brought young families into the church for activities and you could see the potential for a turn around.

Unfortunately, she was recruited by a church in the Midwest that offered her and her family housing and an affordable lifestyle. Regrettably,she left and the church had rotating pastors until Reverend Mixon came aboard. The church membership has not grown since she left and is on a decline. Had she stayed, I'm certain the congregation would be flourishing and the need to supplement income wouldn't be necessary. That hasn't occurred under the current leadership.

None of the neighbors that I know dislike the church. It's important to understand this fact,however the current usage of the facilities far exceed the capability to accommodate a comfortably livable environment for close by residents and the city administrators in charge of use permits and council need to consider the concerns of the neighbors, who pay taxes to live in this great place.

There may be a workable solution to this dilemma, but it will take a great effort on both sides and the church has not been very receptive to attempts by neighbors to communicate their frustration and concerns.

9 people like this
Posted by revdreileen
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Mar 8, 2018 at 7:58 pm

revdreileen is a registered user.

Please note that the church objects to being forced to apply to be a "community center". It is not the possible requirements of a conditional use permit that are objectionable, but the "community center" designation.

(I am not a member of the church, but a clergyperson serving another faith community in town. I am not speaking on their behalf, but to represent the concerns of other faith communities about this process.)

The church is a religious institution and the activities in the building are consistent with what religious institutions do. There is no need for the church to go through the expense and trouble of applying to be a "community center" in order to deal with the concerns of their neighbors through a conditional use permit. It is troubling for city staff to decide what qualifies, or doesn't, as a religious purpose for faith community spaces as this raises First Amendment issues.

It is certainly legitimate for neighbors to raise concerns about traffic and noise and for the city to explore conditional use permit issues about such matters with any faith community. But I believe that the expectation that a faith community has to call itself a "community center" because of these sorts of neighbor concerns is a deeply troubling precedent.

32 people like this
Posted by HMMM
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 8, 2018 at 8:50 pm

The activities at First Baptist Church to which the neighbor's object are not "faith based"-they are income based. For profit music lessons, which go until 11 at night, are not part of a church's mission. For the church, it's not about community, it's about income. They are acting as a for profit enterprise, a landlord. Yes, they rent to tenants whose activities are consistent with their worldview. And, with many of the neighbors' worldviews. The neighbors don't hate kids, girls, or people of faith, they hate noise (sometimes late at night), traffic, traffic accidents, congestion, and parking scofflaws. Let's be clear, the church has submitted an application (currently incomplete), to be able to accommodate classes, concerts, small and large groups from 9am to 10pm, Sunday until Thursday, 9am to 11pm Friday and Saturday. Take a look at the the church's cursory application (Web Link). These uses are not consistent with a residential neighborhood.

37 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 8, 2018 at 9:10 pm

Tuesday Night Tango, Dances with Latin Flair, Meatless Monday Dinners, TnTango, Dance Maven, Gourmet Vegetarian Dinners, Peninsula English Country Dance, Interlocked Square Dance and over 40 additional groups that meet or have met at the church weekly or multiple times per week don’t sound like church related activities to me. Furthermore, there is no church representative or security officer at the church in the evenings to monitor the activities. The church is essentially a commercial building in a residential neighborhood. In fact, the church has removed the pews in the chapel so it can more easily become a multipurpose room. The visitors to the church double park in the Bryant Street bike boulevard, park with their cars idling, block neighbors driveways, and are often defiant when asked to move.

20 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 8, 2018 at 9:46 pm

On a typical Sunday there aren’t even 30 people coming to worship at the Baptist Church. Heck, there aren’t even any pews in the chapel anymore. Portable chairs are put up on Sundays for the church service. Sunday is the quietest day of the week at the church site. It is not the responsibility of the City of Palo Alto to keep the church afloat. If the church can’t attract a congregation, maybe they should merge with another church or work harder to build up their congregation. The property taxes for the church are $7500 per year.

5 people like this
Posted by PA Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 8, 2018 at 10:25 pm

My money says this church will be up for sale sooner rather than later. The land will become quite an estate for someone.

15 people like this
Posted by a neighbor nearby
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 9, 2018 at 10:46 am

I would like to address this reply to "Anon" who wrote "I just have to question how music at a church could be an issue." I would ask that you consider a little more carefully the very broad category, "music." Did you have in mind amplified Tango music reverberating through your home until 11:00 pm? Or Heavy Metal rock bands? Or square dancing music, also amplified? Or the music of various folk and ethnic dance traditions (also amplified)? Or the "music" of chanted political slogans (amplified)? This is only a partial list of what we have been listening to on a nearly daily and nightly basis for the past six or seven years. It doesn't include the various private parties with DJs or the screaming of sixty little girls in unison--"music," I know, to many ears. Do you really "have to question" how any music at any volume, at any hour and at any frequency "could be an issue." If you do please consider that the neighborhood is not objecting to the music we've heard from the church for thirty and forty years. It's the qualitative and quantitative change over the past six or seven years that has engendered our protest. Unfortunately, it's only too obvious that your comments are being offered from "another neighborhood." I hope, for your sake, that your own neighborhood is, and will remain, peaceful.

16 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 9, 2018 at 12:28 pm

This thread and comments has been informative for those of us not in that neighborhood - thank you for the posts.

11 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 9, 2018 at 7:54 pm

The majority of people coming to these classes live outside Palo Alto!
My daughter thought about joining the "iSing" group when it got started.
These girls were from outside the city.
The dancing group is run by a Palo Altan, however the dancers live in Menlo Park and Mountain View.
It is kind of misleading to call this a "Community Center".
These folks are driving into and out of our neighborhood until late at night.
The psychologists should consider renting office space across CA Ave where the other hoard of psychologists have offices, or check out Menlo Park.
Our neighborhood is zoned for homes, not businesses.
And the problem with the new bike lanes is ridiculous! Basically this part of CA Ave can only safely fit ONE car at a time.
Making a left turn onto Alma is impossible to do most of the day.

7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 9, 2018 at 7:57 pm

One more thing
I really feel sorry for the neighbors nearby - the ongoing noise and traffic would make me want to move immediately. The classes at night are loud, and end late at night. The car lights, talking, and noise would drive anyone mad.

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 10, 2018 at 7:22 am

The church parking lot can only hold 5 cars. I thought a Community Center should have a large parking lot. A roundabout is scheduled to be built in front of the church at the corner of N California and Bryant in the coming months. The roundabout will take away all the parking in the front and on the side of the church, hence pushing even more cars into the neighborhood.
(There must be several people that call themself Resident on this thread. This is my first comment and I call myself Resident.)
There was an accident last week in front of the church. A car exiting the church driveway hit a car traveling north on Bryant. The accident was severe enough to deploy the airbags in one of the cars.

2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 10, 2018 at 7:44 am

Posted by a neighbor nearby, a resident of Old Palo Alto

>> I would like to address this reply to "Anon" who wrote "I just have to question how music at a church could be an issue."

Thank you, and others, who explained the situation. That information was not at all clear in the original article. A couple of notes below.

>> I would ask that you consider a little more carefully the very broad category, "music." Did you have in mind amplified Tango music reverberating through your home until 11:00 pm? Or Heavy Metal rock bands?

Thank you, and others, for clarifying. That was not clear.

>> Or square dancing music, also amplified? Or the music of various folk and ethnic dance traditions (also amplified)?

Pretty traditional at some churches, actually, but, apparently done obtrusively in this situation.

10 people like this
Posted by Sally
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 10, 2018 at 9:36 am

This entire article is very sad to read. I grew up in this church, was baptized, sang in the choir on Wednesdays, hay rides on a Saturday night, Without it, I would not have had the childhood memories I have. At that time, 1957, the church was filled, even the balcony, every Sunday morning. By the time I reached my twenties the older members had passed away and I was driving from San Jose to attend church. Attendence was low and the neighbors were complaining about the church bells. Needless to say, they bought their homes when the bells were ringing on Sunday but managed to have the bells silenced on Sunday mornings.
I admire the neighbor who has offered to pay for the AC in the church, a person looking for a solution is to be admired. To the person who commented on the number of people in the church on Sundays, the bible says where two or more gather, there I will be also. So member numbers attending on Sundays do not impact your traffic!
We also happen to live by Cubberley now and we have listened to wedding music, reunions, 1 and traffic noise. I am thankful to be back in this city, watching others who can't afford to live here have the opportunity to have access to an affordable venue. Please find the solution that benefits the neighbors and the church.

6 people like this
Posted by Betty Crocker
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 11, 2018 at 1:19 am

We live not far from the church. When we have had stressful times we have gone into the church during the day and prayed. It has been a quiet Welcome place of solace that we are grateful to have so close. Although our kids did not participate in the iSING program Quite a few of our children’s friends do. We can count At least 12 local Palo Alto girls who have been going through the excellent program. I hope iSING can continue to be at the church. There have been times when I have walked past the church and experienced the music emanating from the iSING choir sounding so angelic I paused and just listened. However I have also nearly been hit by harried drivers trying to pick up their kids and witnessed ridiculously obnoxious behaviour. It would be good if programs encouraged alternative ways for locals to come like biking, walking, skate boarding and instituted a drop off-pick up line like the ementary schools do for those who have to drive. And maybe the air con, closed doors and windows and quieter amps should be considered. Hope the dancing classes remain too. Not all of us want to have to drive to other towns and cities to do activities. Being able to walk everywhere is one reason this city is a great place to live!

8 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 11, 2018 at 9:50 am

Am I the only one who is shocked that the neighboring residents got the church to stop ringing its bells! I have no idea how early they were ringing on Sunday morning but campanology, bell ringing, is a wonderful art and the sounds are uplifting. Presumably they were ringing long before the complaining neighbors moved in.

It saddens me that people move in beside a facility and then complain to such an extent that the facility has to stop its practices.

I am not talking about all the activities, BTW, just the church bells.


2 people like this
Posted by Nearby resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2018 at 2:22 pm

Resident likes to hear the bells. Possibly Resident has forgotten that not everyone is a Christian and the loud bells are intrusive and not pleasant. I don't like being forced to listen to someone else's religious tradition.

When people move near a church they do not expect big traffic, loud noise, intrusive activities. They expect a respectful polite neighbor.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 11, 2018 at 10:53 pm

South of Midtown Nearby Resident.

I am sorry you don't like the sound of bells. I think you are wrong though when you associate bell ringing, campanology, with Christianity just because most bells happen to be in churches. Campanology is an art based on music and mathematics. Here is a video that explains it better than myself. Web Link I personally think it sounds very uplifting and melodious and has very little to do with religion.

6 people like this
Posted by Well done. Let's do more of this.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 12, 2018 at 12:46 pm

Well done. Let's do more of this. is a registered user.

I like that the neighbors and church folks got together for a face-to-face conversation to work together on their shared problems. Rather than kvetching ABOUT each other on social media and stirring up discontent, they reached out and are working WITH each other trying to define the problems and identify possible solutions that might work best for the many people who are affected. Good for them! This is how democracy works.

4 people like this
Posted by Peace Love Charity
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2018 at 4:50 pm

I am just a community member. Thank you for your generosity, Wayne Osborne!

I would love to see some community minded Palo Altans help create a community center, pool, and maker space at Fry's. So that kids and families on the South side of town have equal, walkable access now that the north is all but inaccessible from development. Give development transfer rights if necessary, but that is such a great location for community space, easily accessed from the bike path running almost all the way from Los Altos to Stanford, and close to transit. If the community space could be made available cheap to community, arts, educational, exercise, youth activity and other groups, it would fill a huge gap and probably save lives and sanity.

I'm guessing there might even be a case if soneone were willing to file it or start an initiative, because the Palo Alto code was supposed to give us open space for that development, and there was a community pool (I'm told) by the Winter Lodge that was filled in because new neighbors complained of the noise.

Coming from living in several states, my comment is that churches are very often community meeting spaces and welcoming of community activities. This is totally consistent with church missions historically, not just that one. Very often community activities rent space so much cheaper that it enables the activity. If the pews made the existing activities of the church difficult, I see no reason to denigrate their adapting. Our own church uses its space that way. Many activities are regional, in part because it simply isn't possible to provide every activity within each City walls (and space is a premium everywhere), so having activities in Palo Alto that brings others from outside creates opportunities for Palo Alto's children that would not otherwise be available.

1 person likes this
Posted by Peace Love Charity
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2018 at 4:54 pm

To be clear, I think the Fry's site should be made a community space that opens up opportunities for more community groups and activities. And I wish we had some enterprising residents to wage a suit or start an initiative gor it.

I did not mean to suggest that in relation to the church. I don't go there but have benefited from the Monday dinners in the past.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 14, 2018 at 4:43 pm

Some factual information to assist the conversation:

Based on the iSing carpool list, the proportion of Palo Alto residents in the iSing population is around 65%. The rest come predominantly from Stanford, Los Altos, and Atherton; there are outliers from Sunnyvale, Redwood City, San Jose, possibly because a parent works in Palo Alto. The proportion of girls from outside Palo Alto increases slightly in the oldest (smallest) group, perhaps because of the unusual quality of the senior choir, but still exceeds 50%.

(This is my daughter's third year in iSing; she bikes there.)

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 14, 2018 at 5:12 pm

Apologies: a correction on my previous post:

The proportion of **iSing** girls from outside Palo Alto increases slightly in the oldest (smallest) group, perhaps because of the unusual quality of the senior choir, but **the proportion from Palo Alto** still **well**l exceeds 50%.

I live across the street from a large church which has frequent community events.

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