Terman dilemma divides community

Publication Date: Wednesday Sep 13, 2000

COMMUNITY: Terman dilemma divides community

Many don't want the JCC to be forced out

by Jennifer Kavanaugh

The proposal to put a new middle school at the Terman site on Arastradero Road and move the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center out brought hundreds of residents to City Hall on Monday night, many asking the City Council to keep the center in south Palo Alto.

Well over 200 people packed the council chambers, stuffing themselves into corners and sitting on the floor--until police and fire officials kept people out to enforce fire-safety codes. Donning "Save the JCC" buttons handed out by the center, many residents told the council the school district's plans to take back the old Terman school site leaves the JCC vulnerable.

"This is a no-brainer," said LaDoris Cordell, urging the council to find a new spot for the JCC. "The very notion that the JCC's existence is threatened is absurd."

Most of the speakers at Monday night's meeting, which marked the council's first official look at the issue, expressed overwhelming support for the center and acknowledged the need for a third middle school to relieve school overcrowding. Many, however, said the school shouldn't threaten the JCC, which they said provides southwest Palo Alto with athletic facilities and programs for children and seniors.

"This is not an either-or issue," said Rev. Jonathan Staples, describing the center's benefits. "This is a both-and."

But if people said the city should address both needs, they didn't agree on how it should accomplish both goals.

Palo Alto's school board, in search of a spot to place a new middle school, recently decided the Terman site--the JCC's current home--was the best place. The school district closed Terman Middle School and sold it to the city when school enrollment bottomed out 20 years ago. The city has leased the property to the JCC since the early 1980s.

The board said last month it would take the Terman site by eminent domain--the legal seizing of private land to serve a public need. Critics of the idea, most notably the JCC, said the plan was a "hostile act" and said it left the center out in the cold. School board members have said the act is a necessary step in getting a new school opened there by 2003.

This leaves the city to find the center a new home, something it's not legally required to do but has been urged to do so by the public. City Manager Frank Benest said the city has three general goals: help the district with placing the new middle school, maintain community services in southwest Palo Alto and preserve the JCC. But finding the JCC a new home in land-starved Palo Alto could cost the city tens of millions of dollars, Benest said.

At least one council member, Nancy Lytle, has said the city should seize land too--for the JCC. The council was scheduled to consider its options on Tuesday night, after the Weekly went to press.

Several of the JCC's 3,000 members spoke about how the center has benefited their lives and provides vital community services. Pete Slosberg, the president of the JCC's board, said the center wants the city to identify a new location and ensure that its services aren't disrupted in the process.

"We will defend our rights as vigorously as possible, and we expect the same of our landlord, the city," Slosberg said.

But other speakers said the city's first priority must be getting a third middle school. Several students spoke about crowded conditions at their schools. "Jordan Middle School is so crowded that we can't get our teachers to pay attention to us," said Allison Ferraiolo, a student there.

Some people urged the council to reject other options previously considered, such as having the district give the JCC a smaller piece of land in return for Terman. They said the district was shortsighted to sell land 20 years ago, and shouldn't give any more away. In recent months, one group, Save Our School and Community Assets, formed to urge the district not to give away more land, but to take Terman back and find other land for a community center in south Palo Alto.

"Our community is growing, and the need for community facilities has never been greater," said Jack Koch, the group's president.

Other residents who live near the JCC objected to moving the center, either because they didn't want to lose services or feared a school would bring more traffic problems to the property, which is near Gunn High School.

And others criticized the process up until this point, saying it divided people into pro-JCC and pro-school factions. Several people urged the city to hire a mediator to help resolve the issue.

"I'm frustrated that I'm forced to choose, for my kids, between having education and receiving social services," said Wynn Hauser, a south Palo Alto resident and former member of the city's Human Relations Commission. "It's a divisive atmosphere."

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