Editorial: Of church and state

As use of First Baptist Church has evolved, neighbors ask city for relief

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.

Related content:

Opinion: On stewardship and being a good neighbor

The Rev. Rick Mixon analyzes the role of First Baptist Church in the community.

First Baptist Church tenants, neighbors seek truce

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.


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


11 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 13, 2018 at 8:28 am

This article is just about one church, but it begs the question about other churches in Palo Alto. An in depth article should be comparing church activities and seeing how different churches are dealing with being good neighbors in their own neighborhoods. Is this church unique in Palo Alto for renting out their facilities? Is this church any better or worse neighbors than any other church? How do other churches deal with street parking or traffic problems that they create? Do some churches for example have church gatherings too early in the morning? How many churches are serving the community? How many churches are being used for non-church related gatherings.

A good article about churches and their role in the community would make a lot more sense than this one that replicates the same information that we have been reading for a period of time would be helpful.

11 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2018 at 8:44 am

Big old churches in most US cities are facing the problem of declining membership and increasing maintenance costs. It is very common for churches across the country to rent out space to community and arts groups.

7 people like this
Posted by Twix Bar
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 13, 2018 at 9:56 am

Most people in this neighborhood are working in good faith with the church and probably could have achieved peace without the intervention of the city. All of this is because of a handful of sour people who believe this neighborhood is their gated community.

34 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 13, 2018 at 10:21 am

Thanks to the Weekly for writing this article, but I think the article gets it wrong.

If this is a general problem with the definition of a "church Use" in Palo Alto why is this the only case of a clash between neighbors and a church?
Rather this seems to be the case of one single church going to far in using the facilities for uses outside the defined uses allowed in the zone in which they reside.

Regardless of the good intent of any non profit business such uses are not allowed in R-1 or many other residential zones in Palo Alto?

I doubt anyone wishes to restrict programs that the church itself sponsors and provides to the congretion, our broader community , rather the concern is that the church was using the tax exempt church building itself to operate just like a
commercial facility , renting out to for/non profit tenants as would any other commercial building in Palo Alto.

To make a distinction between for-profit and non-profit businesses is not the question; both can provide important services to the community, but such commercial are restricted from operating in certain non commercial zones.

5 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Meadow Park
on Apr 13, 2018 at 10:23 am

With only 8 on-site parking spaces, what was traffic/parking like when this church was used mainly for church services/activities? I'd assume the same issues existed -- heavy on-street parking, lots of drop-offs in front of the building, etc. Was this not a problem then? If it was, how was it handled? Is the issue that there's much more of this now since other parties renting space equals more activities throughout the day? The number one priority should be the safety of attendees, neighbors, and passers-by.

21 people like this
Posted by Rambling
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 13, 2018 at 11:28 am

from the article:
"Over the years, as the number of congregants has declined, the church has turned to outside organizations to generate revenue."
If this was a commercial enterprise, it would either go belly up, or switch business area.
If the church is choosing to switch business, then it should no longer be a church.
It should be a facility owner/operator that provides services to religious meetings and other org's.
OR, would that have "undesired tax implications??"

8 people like this
Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 13, 2018 at 11:35 am

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

The issue seems simple to me.

When an asset-rich non-profit organization goes into long-term economic decline, it must reinvent itself. A one option is to sell its assets and redeploy them in accordance with IRS regs. Such a property sits next to our city hall. Another is near the downtown library. Others must exist.

Or the Baptist Church can select and serve a large number of worthy non-profit (and for-profit organizations} wishing to serve the community. In this case stakeholders' wisdom seems to be morphing from the traditional concept of a religious organization to a community center. If so, then how will new services, hours, traffic, parking and sound impact nearby properties whether they be residential or commercial. Those questions are being answered.

Given the profound economic value of church property (assuming it is substantially debt free), then demand for "church" facilities will be driven as robustly as the city council allows.

In my opinion this issue reflects the lack of city and non-profit community service spaces for very demanding Palo Alto residents.

This issue is directly related to loss of Palo Alto's "retail and neighborhood serving" spaces. As supply shrinks, then market rents are driven above affordability of most non-profits.

If this church suddenly fell down during an earthquake, what type of community service facility would be built? Or would the land convert to residential use?

9 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 13, 2018 at 11:35 am

The flip side of the argument is that we are in dire need of community space for places to rent. The question of whether or not churches should take up the slack is a good one. If there was not a need for space then the church wouldn't have a load of enterprises begging to be considered as tenants.

The bigger problem as I see it is that we don't have community space in the downtown or commercials areas for these types of service businesses. Schools, churches, and the community centers are all getting requests for those facilities to be used in off peak times from music groups, arts groups, gymnastics groups, you name it. Even our parks are full of sports leagues and various other uses.

We are running short of space in Palo Alto and all the CC seems to want to do is get more workers in town and more housing in town and does absolutely nothing to give all these people space to play and congregate.

28 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 13, 2018 at 12:10 pm

The Baptist Church at 305 N California is being run as a commercial building. I googled 305 N California and found 44 different businesses and organizations currently or in the recent past operating out of the church on a weekly or multi weekly basis. And that is the tip of the iceberg. Here is a sampling of the groups:
Tuesday Night Tango
Dances with Latin Flair
Peninsula English Country Dance
TN Tango
Klezmer Dance Party
Joy Dance
Interlocked Square Dances
East European Folklife Center
Peninsula Macrobiotic Community
Meatless Monday Dinners
Resounding Achord Productions
ISing Summer School programs
Synapse School
Gourmet Vegetarian Dinners
Stanford International Folk Dances
Meatless Monday Dinners
Peng Piano Academy Festival
Dr John Smolowe
Dr Jill Cooper
De Joellen Werne
LIVE Silicon Valley Arts and Entertainment
Dance Maven
Four square Concerts
Do the Bay
Benefit Concert for Iran’s Quake Victims
Tangos for Piano

The Transportation Commission voted to allow groups like the ones listed above to have events lasting until 11 pm on weekends and 10 pm on weeknights. The majority of the Transportation Commission has a hidden agenda. They want to eliminate the R1 designations in residential neighborhoods. Their real goal is to allow multi family units to be built in residential neighborhoods. All Palo Alto homeowners should be concerned.

19 people like this
Posted by Stop Destroying Neighborhoods
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 13, 2018 at 3:42 pm

I agree with Anon and others above that the Weekly has missed the real story. This is not about churches. No one is requiring the church to get a new permit for church activities. Rather, the church is shrinking its operations and becoming instead the landlord for non-church uses. And it's doing this without adequate parking in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood.

The city also is making mistakes. First, private psychotherapists aren't permitted in "community centers" under any circumstances. They are instead medical offices and not legal at this site. Second, any community center activities in this residential location are required by law to have zero impact on neighbors. Let's hope the very vocal supporters of the church programs put their energy into respecting and abiding by the law rather than attacking the neighbors.

18 people like this
Posted by I Was There
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 13, 2018 at 4:11 pm

"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."

Actually, the commission made several critical changes to the staff recommendations. Increasing the number of attendees to an event from 50 to 120. Allowing for weekday hours to go till 10 PM from the recommended 9 PM and weekend hours to 11 PM from the recommended 10 PM. Recommended increasing the number of medical practitioners from 3 to 9, which violates R-1 code. Medical practices are not allowed in a residential neighborhood. Allowing for amplified music when the recommendation was to do away with amplification. There were more, but I think you get the point.

Why didn't you report these important details ? Did you actually have someone in attendance at this meeting ? Your readers need to know these details.

Commissioner Alcheck, in his bizarre and lengthy commentary, chastised planners for not having adequate data to support their recommendations. So what does he do? He flips and proposes a motion to increase the participation levels and hours of operation across the board, as I stated above, ignoring what the planners proposed. Something isn't right with this, especially since he voted against the Mozart Music School application to do business at the church.

There are zoning laws in place that were put in place to protect citizens in residential neighborhoods. City legal staff should be very careful when reviewing this matter before city council rubber stamps the CUP and sets a precedent for church functionality that could change the fabric of our neighborhoods.

It's not about any of these organizations who use the church. It's about the legality of what has disrupted the serenity and safety of a residential neighborhood and a church that is functioning as a commercial property owner in addition to its mission as a church.

32 people like this
Posted by I was there 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 13, 2018 at 4:57 pm

Dear Editor,

You seem to have missed a lot of key facts in your reporting.

Michael Alcheck had a writeup/comment ready and did not participate in any form of questioning during the meeting yesterday. He simply sided with the church. He blasted everyone for making the church go through this. He said the congregation that he went to had all kinds of activities without revealing if the congregation that he was part of was in a densely populated residential neighborhood, or if they made loud noise till 11 P.M. in the night every night, or if his congregation was in a busy bike intersection/boulevard which a lot of kids used, or if there were parking issues, or how many parking spots his congregation had (First Baptist has only 8!). He simply omitted all the important facts and just revealed that they had yoga classes and other classes in their congregation.

He did not address any issues like noise and safety of kids riding bikes. He talked about children crossing train tracks and said that is already a safety issue. At the railway crossings we have lights and a guard. At traffic crossings we have guards. How can this be equated with a car suddenly crossing a bike lane to do a drop off or pick up? This area is heavily trafficked by Jordan and Paly kids. Its common sense that if a car crosses a biker's path suddenly it could cause accidents. The car will be fine but the biker or bikers will definitely be hurt. One cannot blame the kids for not seeing the signs, how about we all take the responsibility for keeping the streets safe for kids of our community?

Also he mentioned coming to site at least 10 times. 10 times when? In the last few months? When iSinger's are dropped off and picked up? When? Did he do a traffic study? Is he authorized to do a traffic study? Yes, I agree the noise level and the traffic issues have been contained due to the iSing director taking some actions, new mozart school moving out, all sorts of late folk music tenants asked to stop coming etc. There is thankfully no activity in the last few months that generates noise after 8 P.M. , so thats a blessing. The traffic issues hasn't stopped completely, people still occasionally make u turns in the middle of California avenue to drop off kids, but definitely it happens less often now. Has he seen this place in its full glory with all sorts of violations in the last 2 years? No. He hasn't been here to witness the loud rock music or the folk dancing at 10 P.M. disturbing all the neighbors. He hasn't seen kids on bicycles get into near accidents. He has permitted these activities again by allowing the church to remain open until 11 P.M. (on weekends) and 10 P.M.(weekdays). He has also increased the number of people who can be at the church at any time to 120 from 50. So he has given permission for more traffic. Everyone is not going to be iSing. Each tenant is going to be different. Also we have never seen a law enforcement officer come and issue tickets to these violators. Mr. Alcheck hasn't lived here. Just visiting 10 times does not do it. He does not get the gravity of the situation. Period.

He claimed in the beginning that he was a land use attorney and knows the laws very well, but did not address the municipal code violation. He permitted every activity by every type of organization in the church including doctor's setting up shops here. He also did not address the grandfathering of parking which clearly is not legal. Did he consult the city attorney on this one? What is the point of claiming that he is a land use attorney when he did not bother addressing the legal points brought forward by the citizens? Did he not listen to the speakers or being a land use attorney could he not have evaluated this from a legal angle?

BTW, he has also allowed the use of amplifiers as part of this. Are we in a residential zone or shoreline park?

Also he voted in 2017 that new mozart school violated the zoning code, while in this CUP he permitted zoning code violation by allowing doctor's offices and other institutions like new mozart to be tenants. Clearly something is wrong in this picture.
Web Link

I do not understand why everyone on the commission except Ms. Summa approved this. Ms. Summa was the only one who seemed to be looking at this objectively. Mr Riggs mentioned more than once about being hungry. He immediately seconded the resolution made by Mr. Alcheck and agreed to every amendment that Mr. Alcheck suggested without even thinking about it. He seemed to be in a hurry to leave. More professional behavior is expected from our planning council.

5 people like this
Posted by I was also there
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 13, 2018 at 6:48 pm

For those of you who weren't there, the commission OVERWHELMINGLY voted 5-1 to approve the amended CUP. There wasn't a lot of back and forth or hand-wringing. It wasn't a close vote at all. All but one saw this through the lens of the city overstepping its bounds and mishandling a situation. Alcheck was right when he said, "what 3rd party analysis has been done to determine and confirm the neighbor's complaints?" None. This entire event could and should have been handled better by the city from the beginning. Bring the parties together and mediate the problems.

From what I heard, the church is clearly working to be a better neighbor and has already set in motion many plans to fix the noise and other problems. It WAS a bad situation two years ago but that has been addressed and it is no longer the case. The church has worked with its neighbors to be better. Have the neighbors given even an inch? Apparently not, since the only thing they will tolerate there is nothing at all.

12 people like this
Posted by Iconoclast
a resident of University South
on Apr 13, 2018 at 7:00 pm

What we have here is a failure of marketing. Consider that members of golf & country clubs eagerly pay exorbitant dues levies for temporary secular pleasures. Churches should charge believers dues for admission to eternal paradise sufficient to at least cover their earthly expenses.

26 people like this
Posted by I was there 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 13, 2018 at 7:53 pm

@I was also there, can you please list the measures that you are HEARD about the church working to fix the problems with the neighbors?

Can you tell me when did the church start installing AC units? Now. After all the problems have been advertised. Even if all the doors are closed, the sound vibrations can be heard in the night. Did you know bagpipes are played in the night? Did you know that the dancing group uses amplifiers? Did you know a rock band plays in the night? All this until 11 P.M.? who will enforce that these tenants will leave after their lessons? No one will. People sometimes hang around after the parties and leave by 12. Has the church committed to enforce this? Never.

When did the church inform the neighbors about its intention to have all these tenants? Never.

Did the church do anything about the traffic issues? Never. It was something spearheaded by a tenant - Ising. Will another tenant also do it? Will the church enforce it with them? No it was not talked about in the CUP.

Did the church call for a meeting with the neighbors? Never.

Did the church send flyers/emails about how it would enforce issues surrounding safety (traffic issues/parking issues)? Never.

Did the church send any feelers/emails to the neighbors of how it was planning to mitigate the noise complaints? Never.

Never. Never. Never. So where did you hear about this?

The problems with noise and to a certain degrees with traffic have lessened now because of ising, and because of all the other tenants moving out. Do you believe the traffic safety is not an issue for the kids who bike on this bike boulevard? Have you seen accidents happening? I saw one near miss even today. So I don't know how people get the impression that the few neighbors are trying to stop the church from operating? Isn't it the duty of the community to protect the safety of the kids in the community? We observe it everyday, so we are taking a stand.

Have the neighbors reached out to the church. YES. ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS What has the church done? Nothing to start a dialogue with us, until this CUP.

Just because something passed with a overwhelming majority does not make it RIGHT. It is very easy to pass judgement when you don't experience it.

Like this comment
Posted by Reader
a resident of another community
on Apr 13, 2018 at 7:59 pm

Iconoclast (resident of University South) is correct.

This is a marketing issue. Forget the old time and the old terms like tithes.

Churches should be charging Personal Seat Licenses (PSLs) like major sports teams do.

At the start of every season, the Faithful should be renewing their PSLs to have a guaranteed spot in the Kingdom of Heaven. Bronze, Silver, and Gold Packages. Club Level. Platinum Membership Privileges. Leadership Circle.

5 people like this
Posted by @I was there 2
a resident of another community
on Apr 13, 2018 at 9:13 pm

Oh my lord.

"Isn't it the duty of the community to protect the safety of the kids in the community?"

Think of the children!

You guys are nearing Atherton levels of insufferability. Go sell your overpriced home and find a quiet community that isn't a major job center right next to a university or by any major airports and go live your dream of peace and quiet, instead of harassing a church and much needed community center to keep it down.

6 people like this
Posted by I was also there
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 13, 2018 at 11:33 pm

@I was there 2, I LIVE TWO HOUSES DOWN FROM THE CHURCH!! So I know exactly what's going on there and I'm pretty sure I know exactly who YOU are. I believe I've spoken with you many times and I know your want nothing there. That is unreasonable and impractical. Your hyperbolic rhetoric solves nothing. The church has heard you. The city has heard you. It's time to make peace and move forward.

6 people like this
Posted by jonnyss
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 14, 2018 at 8:56 am

The relevant legal and ethical distinction is not between religious and secular. Religious institutions are allowed reasonable ancillary uses under federal standards. Prohibiting all ancillary uses has been denied by courts as it violates the religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. Up to now, Palo Alto has not defined ancillary uses. I believe the Commissioners therefore suggested that the City would be wise to define allowed ancillary uses before restricting a church. Typical ancillary uses across the country (and across the world) include mental health, music instruction, and feeding the poor - but not, for example, chip manufacture.

10 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 14, 2018 at 10:23 am

Someone recommended I read this editorial and the comments. Wow. Best to brace ourselves for more of this as I think sharing limited space is one issue that attaches to densification.

This is a perfect example of whack-a-mole policy. Is it even possible to address an issue in Palo Alto without creating additional issues in the process? Is anyone in charge of keeping an eye on the big picture and steering us in a functional direction? In a normal city I would look to the City Manager, Mayor, and City Council for this sort of stewardship. Here, I am afraid things have gotten too political to expect that. As a result, we have gnarly problems all over town.

I hope we see some new, smart, a-political candidates for the upcoming CC and School Board elections. If we do not, I think it likely we will see more moles. Kinda reminds me of the Badlands . . .

14 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 14, 2018 at 10:41 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Hear, hear, Annette.

"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.)"

Parking became even more limited when the city added bike lanes on both sides of the street without regard to the consequences. Too bad it's taken 909 people signing the petition Web Link to get our city's attention although they're still only focusing on the roundabouts, not all the costly and dangerous posts, Bott's dots and other road furniture.

8 people like this
Posted by Intersting
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 15, 2018 at 12:03 am

I think it’s interesting that the article makes no mention of Alcheck. The entire ethos of the weekly’s position is that the city address the idea of what it means to be a church, which is what Alcheck was going on and on about. And Doria Summa said doing so was completely outside of the scope? Why didn’t the article mention that? I don’t understand why Alcheck can talk about things outside the scope of review. And why isn't the weekly addressing that? [Portion removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on May 21, 2018 at 8:48 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

Anyone complaining about any church has to deal with the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT on Separation of Church and State issues; even Code Enforcement issues violate the Separation of Church and State FEDERAL RULES. You do not like them: MOVE. That also applies to the City of Palo Alto; YOU HAVE NO JURISDICTION over any issues in the way ANY church is run; one of the richest churches is the Catholic Church, yet it cannot be taxed on it's wealth.
Palo Alto is already a " problem city " for the Federal Government. Why add another Federal problem? Want more OCR problems? The separation of Church and State violations keeps the national eye on Palo Alto and not in a good way.

Disclosure: I am a card carrying pastor of the Church of the Subgenius. My Clench is performed when I feel the need for one. 8P......

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

From Tokyo to Cupertino: Afuri Ramen's first California location debuts tonight
By Elena Kadvany | 2 comments | 3,213 views

Disposing of Disposables
By Sherry Listgarten | 15 comments | 1,581 views

Couples Counseling, Al Pacino Style
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,339 views

Anonymous Sources: Facebook and YouTube suppressing important questions and discussion
By Douglas Moran | 1 comment | 162 views