The next big step: Synagogue needs city approval for cheaper retrofit

Congregation Sherith Israel’s 100-year-old building survived the Big One in 1906 and the Not Quite as Big One in 1989. Now the question is, can it survive San Francisco’s building codes?

As detailed in a Feb. 25 j. cover story, San Francisco codes necessitated the 155-year-old congregation’s unreinforced masonry building undergo a slow, cumbersome retrofitting with a price tag approaching $20 million. Or else shut its doors.

In the last six months, however, synagogue officials believe they may have devised a way to finesse the dire situation with a cheaper, less labor-intensive retrofitting that might even allow services to continue during construction.

But with a meeting slated for December, will the city allow the synagogue to work around the building codes?

The congregation’s board recently voted to move ahead with a retrofitting plan that sidesteps San Francisco’s Unreinforced Masonry Building (UMB) Codes in favor of the state’s more malleable Historic Building Code. The difference? Perhaps millions of dollars and immeasurable amounts of relief.

The city’s UMB codes are uniform, calling for identical procedures for every affected city structure — at last count, 29 San Francisco houses of worship and more than 2,000 buildings overall. The state procedures, however, allow alternative retrofitting techniques based on the unique architectural attributes of individual structures.

Under the UMB codes, Sherith Israel had only one real option: reinforce from the sides by stripping the interior or exterior walls. Not only would such an invasive procedure force congregants to meet elsewhere, it would incur massive costs to make the stripped surface look as good as new — or as congregation President David Newman quipped, “as good as old.”

On the other hand, the state code allows “center coring,” the process of drilling long rebar poles from the top of the walls down and then pouring concrete in to solidify them, which would be a far less invasive and costly maneuver.

Newman is reluctant at this time to estimate a price for the procedure, stating only it would cost “several million dollars” less than the previous plan. He additionally noted that the $20 million figure was the “Cadillac” of retrofits, and the new procedure conceivably could cost less than half of that.

Of course, all of this will be academic if the city doesn’t allow Sherith Israel to attempt the procedure. The synagogue is currently commissioning full plans for its December presentation, likely before a S.F. architectural panel.

Incidentally, Rosh Hashanah services will be in the main sanctuary this year, but, as the city doesn’t permit UMB structures to host more than 299 occupants for more than four hours in a day, Yom Kippur will be observed in nearby Cavalry Presbyterian Church.

Contrary to popular opinion, Sherith Israel is not a landmark building. Generations of board presidents have avoided this “honor,” because undertaking even minor alterations to such a structure can be a painstaking mess. But the building does have “historic” status. It is designated as such because it was included on two surveys of notable city buildings done in the 1970s, one of which was officially adopted by the Board of Supervisors at the time.

And while the state codes are more permissive than the city codes on how a structure can be retrofitted, Sherith Israel officials insisted they are not putting economics and expediency ahead of their congregants’ safety.

“It’s not that center-coring is some kind of radical thing that is a lesser standard,” said Craig Etlin, the chair of Sherith Israel’s retrofitting committee and the congregation’s vice president.

Added Newman, “The design plan we are intending to pursue will provide the same level of safety, or perhaps greater, than the city code. It’s not a matter of less stringent or lower quality retrofitting. It’s a different design plan that takes into account that we have a building that survived the ’06 and ’89 quakes with no damage.”

While the city has mandated a deadline of Feb. 15 of next year for UMB structures to retrofit or vacate, if Sherith Israel was in the process of retrofitting at that point, the city would allow it to continue to operate in the building. Continuing normal functions within the main building during construction would be a possibility if the center-coring plan is approved.

If the plan is denied, however, the synagogue would be forced to fall back on its previous plan, which would keep them out of the main structure for a minimum of 15 to 18 months.

Etlin noted that the city has been “helpful,” and Newman added that the Board of Supervisors’ ongoing reluctance to allow the Catholic Church to demolish St. Brigid’s presents a clear message that “the city wants to preserve historic worship spaces.”

Rabbi Larry Raphael noted that, in the last six months, there has been a flurry of interest in Sherith Israel, leading to hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations — which allowed the synagogue to commission its current plan.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.