Neighbors speak out on church’s request for permit to be a community center

Joellen Werne, a psychiatrist who practices out of an office at First Baptist Church, speaks at a community meeting on March 7. Post photo.

Daily Post Staff Writer
A neighborhood meeting about the noise and traffic problems caused by community groups that rent space at a Palo Alto church turned into an emotional airing of grievances last night (March 7).

The city held the two-hour meeting at Jordan Middle School to solicit neighbors’ feedback on the First Baptist Church’s application for a conditional use permit to operate as a community center.

Church tenants and their supporters pleaded their case for making room for community-serving organizations in a notoriously expensive city.

Meanwhile, fed-up neighbors demanded an end to the noise, traffic and parking situation that they said had gotten increasingly chaotic over the last few years. Most conditional use permit applications are approved with conditions set by the city, Assistant Planning Director Jonathan Lait said. Few permits are flat-out denied.

One example of a condition could be that the church has to install air conditioning so that groups don’t open the windows. Opening the windows would increase the noise coming from the church, such as children singing.

The church, located at 305 N. California Ave. in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, has lost tenants since neighbors’ complaints spurred city enforcement last summer.

The Palo Alto Philharmonic and several folk and tango dance groups have left, but all have expressed interest in returning once the church obtains the proper permit.

The New Mozart School of Music moved out in January and set up shop in a much more expensive space in the College Terrace neighborhood, at 2100 El Camino Real.

The church could lose $60,000 to $70,000 in revenue this year from tenants having to pack up, the Rev. Rick Mixon told the Post.

First Baptist charges a base rate of $2.19 per square foot per month, a dirt-cheap rate that allows nonprofit programs and community groups to afford the space. It also accounts for about $110,000 to $120,000, or one-third of the church’s annual revenue.

The iSing Silicon Valley girls choir, which retired San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young threw his support behind at a City Council meeting in August, is still operating at the church. Young’s two daughters sing with the choir, which serves girls age 5 to 18.

A ‘save haven’

Joellen Werne, an adult psychiatrist who has counseled mostly insurance clients out of First Baptist Church since 2012, said the queer- and immigrant-friendly church’s environment made her clients feel welcome.

“For many of those with whom I work — who struggle with depression, anxiety, alienation — the First Baptist environment feels like a safe haven, and some take advantage of its welcoming openness to meditate in the sanctuary or sit quietly in the courtyard,” Werne said.

Sarah Burgess, who has lived within three blocks of the church for 30 years, said there had been a “drastic change” in use of the church in the last five to seven years, leading to dangerous traffic conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.

“I’ve seen three near-misses with bicyclists,” Burgess said.

Tim Kane, who lives three houses away from the church on South Court, pointed out that Palo Alto already has three community centers with much more parking than First Baptist’s five spaces.

Lloyd Martin, who has lived next door to the church on North California Avenue for 35 years, compared the noise to having a radio in the house that can’t be turned off.

But the Rev. Paul Bains of Saint Samuel Church in East Palo Alto lent his support to First Baptist, urging neighbors to look past their personal inconveniences in the interest of “anything that can bring community.”

With new development in Bains’ Palo Alto neighborhood, he said he’s come to accept the fact that he sometimes has to park around the block when he gets home at 10 p.m.
“Everyone deserves a place to live,” Bains said. “What’s a few extra steps? It helps me exercise anyway.”


  1. “the queer- and immigrant-friendly church’s environment made her clients feel welcome.” Sounds like the only thing missing from this “church” is Jesus Christ. If this was a conservative Catholic (God-forbid Latin Mass) church, there would be no discussion. The place would have been vandalized or burned down by the “progressive” and “tolerant” leftists of Palo Alto.

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