Immediate neighbors of the First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, located at the corner of N. California Avenue and Bryant Street, are understandably frustrated and wary about the parking, traffic and noise impacts from the non-religious activities taking place on the property.
Over the years, as the number of congregants has declined, the church has turned to outside organizations to generate revenue. These have included for-profit entities, such as the New Mozart School, private psychotherapists, and nonprofits such as the iSing music education program for girls and dance groups.
As these non-church programs have grown, the church's lack of parking (there are only eight off-street spaces) has led to parking and traffic problems in front of the church on two busy streets, including the heavily used Bryant Street bike boulevard. Drop-offs and pick-ups of children create periods of congestion and hazards to bicyclists. (If a church the size of First Baptist was being built today, it would be required to provide 71 off-street parking spaces.)
The problems reached a boiling point last year, when persistent complaints from neighbors led to a code-enforcement action against the church by the city of Palo Alto. The result was that one of the larger programs operating out of the church, the New Mozart School, moved to a new location on El Camino, and the church was directed to submit an application for a conditional-use permit in order to continue the other non-church related programs.
The church has now done that, and the issue will be heard by the City Council next month.
On Wednesday, the Planning and Transportation Commission recommended 5-1 that the conditional-use permit be approved. But it also raised concerns over the rather convoluted approach of defining the First Baptist Church use as a "community center" and tailoring a use permit around the unique conditions at this one site rather than developing a broader policy that redefines "church" in the city's Municipal Code to include the kinds of activities that have become common at churches.
This is a classic case of how local regulations have failed to keep pace with changing community needs and conditions, and as conflict arises between neighbors and a long-time institution in a residential neighborhood, the solutions aren't clean, straightforward or logical.
On the one hand, this church, and many others that have not yet attracted scrutiny from their neighbors, are trying to cope with financial challenges and the evolving needs and desires of their congregations. On the other hand, immediate neighbors feel they are being unfairly affected by these church-supported activities that aren't directly related to church services or religious education.
The situation at the First Baptist Church is particularly problematic because of its extremely limited off-street parking and its location on a busy corner. And to make matters even more complex, the intersection of Bryant and California Avenue is currently slated by the city to have a roundabout installed and the four-way stop signs eliminated. (This plan, however, is thankfully likely to be dropped or deferred due to the controversy surrounding the Ross Road roundabouts.)
Because the city code defines churches narrowly, as simply "a use providing facilities for regular organized religious worship and religious education incidental thereto," any church that is currently renting out space or hosting a variety of secular events is technically violating the law and should be required, as was the First Baptist Church, to apply for a conditional-use permit as a "community center," which allows for a broad range of uses.
The First Baptist Church situation has therefore caught the attention of other Palo Alto churches and raises concern that they are just one neighbor's complaint away from a conflict.
After a long discussion, the planning commission ended up endorsing the city staff's recommendation, with a few changes, that a conditional-use permit be granted to First Baptist Church. If approved by the council, the conditions attempt to alleviate the impacts on neighbors by restricting hours of operation and the maximum number of people who can be on the church property for an event and impose requirements for a traffic-management plan and parking and traffic monitors during peak periods. Increasing fines may be assessed for violations, but the city planning director will also have the authority to modify the use permit if the neighborhood is not being adequately protected.
We support this approach as a stop gap measure to resolve the First Baptist Church problem and believe it appropriately balances the interests of neighbors with those of the church community. But we agree with the planning commission that a longer term and better approach is for the city to look at amending its definition of "church" to allow for secular uses under carefully developed policies that protect legitimate neighbor interests.
The Rev. Rick Mixon analyzes the role of First Baptist Church in the community.
On March 7, Tenants and neighbors of the First Baptist Church in Palo Alto came together for a meeting on a conditional use permit that the church is applying for under protest.