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March 31, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 31, 2004

A place for everyone A place for everyone (March 31, 2004)

'Campus for Jewish Life' plans state-of-the-art community center

by Don Kazak

Rocket scientists who once toiled in the southeast corner of Palo Alto would never recognize the location five years from now when a different vision materializes -- the Campus for Jewish Life.

Instead of scientists designing space satellites at Ford Areospace in the tall, ungainly white building (later sold to Sun Microsystems), the 12-acre property at San Antonio and Charleston roads will become a place where people from children to senior citizens attend classes and cultural programs at the new Palo Alto Jewish Community Center (JCC).

According to present plans, a 125,000-square-foot Jewish Community Center building will adjoin a 165-unit senior housing complex, providing both assisted and independent living units. Together, those will form the new Campus for Jewish Life.

In addition, a separate but visually integrated 230-unit housing complex of affordable condominiums for young families and low-rent apartments for independent seniors will be built by BRIDGE housing of San Francisco (see sidebar). Both will have a common entrance off Fabian Way, will utilize the same underground parking garage and will be connected by pedestrian walkways.

The Campus for Jewish Life, a sprawling community center that will include a housing component, expects that as many as half the people who use the facilities will not be Jewish, based on recent experiences at new JCCs in San Francisco and Foster City.

The campus will feature a theater for evening performances, a pedestrian promenade that will lead to a town square with an outdoor café and performance area for chamber music concerts. A soccer field will double as a picnic area.

Teens and young adults will have their own outdoor gathering spot, separate from the playgrounds serving the children in the early education programs. A lap pool for fitness workouts will be separate from a children's play pool.

Seniors will use the fitness programs alongside younger adults, not far from the staccato pounding of basketballs.

An entire Palo Alto neighborhood will grow from the existing parking lot and site of the former Ford Aerospace/Sun building -- transforming a high-tech corner into one suited for children, adults and seniors.

Other features include:

* A library and teleconferencing center connected to other JCCs around the country, Mintz said, including the 92nd Street center in New York City, famous for its internationally known guest speakers, such as former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev. The teleconferencing center means people in Palo Alto can "attend" lectures in New York via a direct TV link.

* There will be a special kitchen room for cooking classes, which are now held in people's homes, and for an expansive, well-equipped art studio.

The new JCC also hopes to serve a new group of clients -- teens and young adults (although existing Friday movie nights draw about 40 teens).

"It's one of the things missing here," Mendelson said. "They really need their own space -- loud and dark and safe."

"'Where are your teens going on weekend nights?' is every parents' nightmare," Mintz said. "The demand is definitely there and we are confident it will be successful, but you have to make them part of the process."

But first the sponsors of the campus need to get down to earth and raise $100 million for the ambitious campus, as well as win city approvals. And it must endure years in cramped, interim facilities.

The Palo Alto JCC was hit hard when in 2002 it was forced out of its home of 18 years -- the Terman Community Center -- so Terman could be reopened as a middle school. The bulk of JCC programs temporarily moved to the Cubberley Community Center or the adjacent former Greendell Elementary School buildings.

In the process the JCC lost its popular, 2,000-member fitness program.

JCC membership dropped to about 500, and its annual budget plummeted from $6 million to $3 million. The JCC had to retrench a popular after-school program because it could no longer afford to bus the kids to its site. Instead, it has opened after-school programs at Addison and Walter Hays elementary schools.

The JCC went from 68,000 square feet of space for programs at Terman to just 9,000 at Cubberley/Greendell.

The interim facilities lack essential spaces: "We miss having a large building where we can connect," said Peggy Mendelson, interim CEO of the JCC. "You miss that intergenerational contact between seniors and kids."

The JCC portion of the new campus will more than remedy that shortage. It will be 125,000-150,000 square feet, roughly the approximate size of the new JCC facilities in San Francisco (150,000 square feet) and Foster City (110,000 square feet). JCC officials expect the same kind of enthusiastic response those centers generated when they opened last year. They expect to have 5,000 to 6,000 members, Mendelson said.

"We went from a full-breadth program to a scaled-down program to something the community has never seen before (at the planned new campus)," said Marcia Mintz, chief operating officer of the JCC. While the JCC thrived at Terman, it still had to fit its programs into the former school buildings and facilities there.

The new JCC "is a blank slate," Mintz said. "We don't have to jam things into set rooms."

Additionally, the center expects to attract a diverse membership base to its exercise program. About 40 percent of the exercise program members were non-Jewish at the old JCC -- a percentage that could increase, Mendelson said. Annual membership fees range from $300 for a family to $75 for a senior.

The fitness program is the JCC's biggest missing piece at Cubberley. JCC leaders are talking with the city about putting up a 20,000-square-foot temporary building on the Sun parking lot as an interim fitness center.

Such structures are common on the East Coast to protect soccer fields during winter, Alex Joffe, JCC board president said. The Space Camp at Moffett Field a few years ago was held in such a tent and Foster City used a tent structure as a temporary fire station.

"It's not expensive and can be raised in 90 days," Joffe said.

JCCs in Foster City and San Francisco also suffered in like temporary facilities for years before their state-of-the-art community centers were built. But the end result has been well worth it, they said.

In San Francisco, the Jewish Community Center limped along, losing members and cutting programs. It shut down its popular exercise program and went from a few thousand members to near to none, living in borrowed quarters while a plush new center was built in Laurel Heights.

When the doors opened in mid-January, membership soared to 9,500.

"We opened with many more members than we ever imagined," Executive Director Nate Levine said.

The center now has 4,000 visitors a day using its various programs -- only about 40 percent of whom are Jewish. The fitness programs draw a wide range of people, while early childhood education programs tend to be more heavily Jewish.

The new Peninsula JCC in Foster City is having the same experience. After struggling, losing members and cutting programs, it built a new center -- set to open in mid-May. The Peninsula JCC had less than 900 members at its former Belmont site. It already has 3,000 members, with its doors not yet open.

"The response has been absolutely phenomenal," said Executive Director Judy Edelson of the Peninsula JCC.

Palo Alto JCC leaders expect -- and hope -- that surge will happen in Palo Alto.

A "pre-screening" of the complex project -- one of the largest single developments ever in Palo Alto -- has been tentatively scheduled for June before the Palo Alto City Council. It will be the start of a long process.

Developing an environmental impact report (EIR) for the campus and the BRIDGE housing will take six to 12 months, according to city staff estimates. There will be public hearings before the city's Architectural Review Board and the Planning and Transportation Commission, along with subsequent City Council hearings.

The best-case scenario calls for city approvals by late 2005 and for construction to begin by late 2006. Completion is targeted for mid-2008 to early 2009. The JCC's current lease of Cubberley/Greendell expires in 2010.

Backers of the Campus for Jewish Life are counting on the community center being perceived as an attractive addition to the community.

"I think it will be good for our neighborhood," said Jean Wilcox, who lives near the site. "I don't think anyone is objecting to having such wonderful facilities on our doorstep. Our neighborhood is welcoming it."

"There is probably no set of uses more welcomed than a recreation center for childhood education and frail seniors," said Palo Alto-based developer Jim Baer, a consultant to the project. "These are such desirable uses that the opportunity here is to have a real elegant, model application."

The Campus for Jewish Life and the BRIDGE housing complex will file separate applications to the city, Baer said.

City officials already are thinking about the project.

Councilwoman Dena Mossar said she will look at four things: compatibility with the surrounding neighborhood, a limited reliance on automobiles, affordable housing, and the scope of JCC services.

"Don't just look at what it is, but also what was and what could go there," Councilman Vic Ojakian said. Without a Campus for Jewish Life/BRIDGE proposal, another high-tech firm could have swooped in and taken over the former Sun offices, he noted.

Baer said the parallel projects will be measured against a potential 265,000 square feet of office space, and the traffic implications of that. "Combined with BRIDGE, we have a net (auto) trip reduction, with different peaks. While traffic will be part of everyone's concerns, we are a trip reducer."

Hebert accentuates the positive, not just the trip reduction. "What we are doing at our end of the (Charleston) corridor will increase the residential character of the corridor," she said. It's a likely selling point for neighbors and south Palo Alto residents along the Charleston/Arastradero corridor, which is under study for traffic and development impacts.

Winning support from neighbors is one thing, but winning over donors is another. Carol Saal, who heads the foundation formed to raise funds for the campus, is optimistic on both counts.

In addition to having an appeal to the general population, the center will have an especial attraction for Jewish people: "A JCC is an entry point for many in the Jewish community, whether they are religious or not," she said.

Besides, "we have nowhere else to go," Saal said. "At the end of the day, it's the right thing to do for the Jewish community."

Don Kazak is the Weekly's senior staff writer. He can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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